Reaching Out

In 1986, when the city of Phoenix entered into an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to re-dedicate a 1,365-acre tract of federal land as a city park, housing developments were only starting to seep across Bell Road, farther and farther into north Phoenix.

"We were thinking of a district area park for that area," says Jim Burke, deputy director of the Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department.

But essentially, Reach 11, named for the section of the Central Arizona Project canal that it borders, was in the middle of nowhere, a flat and not particularly pretty open space -- at that time surrounded by plenty more open space -- that took quite a bit of imagination to see as a city park.

In July, after months of public input -- and years of close watch by environmentalists and horsemen -- the Parks Department released a preliminary proposed master plan for Reach 11. And though the Parks Department has a reputation for authoritarian decisions, the proposed mix of soccer and softball fields, equestrian trails and natural habitat seems to have come pretty close to appeasing nearly everyone -- except golfers.

The Central Arizona Project canal came into existence out of the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968, one more plan to make the desert bloom. When it was actually built during the 1970s, to soothe concerns from the City of Scottsdale regarding run-off from the McDowell Mountains and to keep that water from flowing into the canal itself, the Bureau of Reclamation built an earthen dike along the north side of the canal. Reach 11 is that stretch, one-quarter to one-half-mile wide and seven miles long, that runs from Cave Creek Road to Scottsdale Road.

The land behind the dike was considered a water-retention basin and therefore not zoned for building. In 1986, when federal and city officials agreed on the park idea, they decided the city would maintain the park but the land would remain the property of the U.S. government.

And though the land has not yet been developed, beyond an equestrian facility at Tatum Boulevard and a scattering of trails and picnic tables, it has a fierce following. In the early 1990s, for example, when the Bureau of Reclamation made repairs to the berm, fearful neighbors called the media to voice their concerns that the reach's environment might be harmed.

Indeed, Reach 11's beauty falls on a different aesthetic than the Valley's other preserve areas. It's flat, for one thing, and so it doesn't attract the hikers and mountain bikers that the mountain preserves do. But its mesquite bosks attract species that in turn attract birders, and there's as good a chance of seeing javelina and coyote as anywhere within the city boundaries.

But it is hardly pristine. It has been grazed. And the berm -- as intended -- has so altered the area's water flow that it pools in rather un-Arizonalike manners. Last week, after weeks of monsoon rains, there were milelong lagoons of waist-deep water, buzzing with dragonflies and smelling of swamp.

Those waters have helped invasive species of grass flourish in the reach and filled washes with tamarisk trees, which, despite their wonderful fragrance, aren't supposed to be there.

The waters have also sprouted the mesquite bosks, a rare and desirable Southwestern habitat. Unfortunately, they may not last. As the regions to the north of the reach are filled with resorts and homes and high schools and hospitals, the various developments will be installing new flood-control measures that will lessen the flow of waters into the reach and threaten the water-dependent species there. The cottonwoods already are dying out.

The animal species are threatened, too.

"There's a concern from a lot of folks in the public about maintaining habitat and maintaining wildlife populations," says Michael Doyle, an environmental planner with Dames & Moore, one of the consulting firms designing the master plan. "But what we're seeing, if we look 10, 15 years into the future, with our future build-out, residential and commercial uses north of the reach, some of these populations are doomed to begin with."

Sumitomo Sitix and the Mayo Hospital have already been built just north of the reach; the gigantic new Pinnacle High School is under construction, and so is a water-treatment plant. The intersection of the Squaw Peak Parkway and Loop 101 falls smack dab in the reach. The areas north are zoned for resorts and shopping malls and houses.

If the finished plan retains the existing washes, at least those will provide passageways for larger animals to bypass humans on their way to and from the open spaces of the McDowell Mountains.

"As long as it's connected, the animals will stay," says Chris Gehlker of the Sierra Club.

In the end, given the fact that this is not an untarnished environment screaming for preservation, and given the fact that the city is in dire need of soccer fields and other recreation facilities, Reach 11 is crying out to be developed.

The development process, started earlier this year, brought out a number of self-interest groups. There is already a large equestrian center just west of Tatum, and the horsemen were concerned that golf courses and soccer fields would lessen their riding experience.

Early sketches included one or two golf courses.

"During the course of the meetings, we heard from a lot of folks who are particularly against golf," says Doyle, "whether they felt that it was exclusionary or because it was water intensive."

The Parks Department listened.

"When we looked at the demand for the area and looked at the distribution of golf in the area, we came to the conclusion that we didn't need golf out there," says Burke.

The thought will not die easily: Already, the private developers eyeing state land north of the reach have retained lawyers to talk to the city about building a municipal golf course on the east end.

Another early thought was to build aquifer recharge facilities in the reach to put excess surface water back into the ground as a future supply, but most such facilities don't lend themselves to recreation. If recharge facilities are installed, they will be secondary to recreation, laid beneath turf areas.

The plan presented by Dames & Moore included 10 soccer fields and 10 baseball diamonds as well as tennis and basketball courts between the far western end of the reach, near the new high school, and the new highway interchange. There will be a new polo field cleared near the equestrian facility to replace the polo grounds at 40th Street and Union Hills, which will eventually be plowed under by the Squaw Peak Parkway. The washes and mesquite bosks will be kept natural, as will the more desirable desert-vegetation areas. And the far eastern end of the reach will be made into ponds and lawns and picnic areas.

The soccer constituency is pleased.

"We're about 10 years behind the times," says Rick Mobley of the Paradise Valley Soccer Club. "Ten fields is going to be nice. It's more than we've ever had in one spot. But with the soccer community growing, and the enrollment in the state near 40,000 soccer players, it's really insufficient."

"There's never going to be enough fields," adds the Parks Department's Burke.

In September, community comments will be incorporated into a final proposal and presented to the Parks Board for approval. Federal law requires an environmental-impact statement.

So far, neither Dames & Moore nor the Parks Department will commit to an estimated completion date or cost. As analogy, Burke points out that plans to develop 1,100 acres of Papago Park will cost $25 million; Reach 11 is 1,365 acres.

As for money, right now the project hinges on a 10th of a cent sales tax to be decided in a ballot proposition this fall; that tax would also help provide funds for the proposed Sonoran Desert Preserve.

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: [email protected]

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Michael Kiefer