Strictly for the Birds | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Strictly for the Birds

A great egret flies over the eroding Salt River bottom near Central Avenue, but apparently has no reason to stop. The river that might have been its habitat decades ago is now just a human dumping ground.But with money from the Arizona Water Protection Fund, the degrading river will be...
Share this:
A great egret flies over the eroding Salt River bottom near Central Avenue, but apparently has no reason to stop. The river that might have been its habitat decades ago is now just a human dumping ground.

But with money from the Arizona Water Protection Fund, the degrading river will be transformed into a riparian area supporting native trees, some flowing water and, hopefully, the great egret, says Karen Williams, Rio Salado project manager.

"If you build it, they will come," she says, standing on the side of the Salt River, across from the seven-acre demonstration site that will be restored and open to the public spring 2002. "Any opportunity the community has to revegetate the floodplain to provide this valuable habitat is critical."

But the Rio Salado project may be one of the last of its kind. Like the rivers themselves, Governor Jane Hull is letting short- and long-term funding for the Water Protection Fund dry up. In April, she vetoed legislation that would have provided one of the few sources of money dedicated to the state's vanishing natural waterways.

"It's a real shame they can't see the vision of why it was created," says Fred Phillips, whose grant from the Water Protection Fund helped restore more than 1,000 acres of riparian habitat on the Colorado River Indian reservation, becoming a national model for river restoration. "If they're going to veto it, they should look at the effect it's had."

That effect is a resurgence of plants and animals in sections of rivers that are hospitable again. Although as much as 80 percent of wildlife depends on rivers and wetlands to live, wildlife biologists estimate that more than 95 percent of Arizona's riparian areas have been degraded by cattle grazing, farming, dams, groundwater pumping, development and other human activity.

The Salt River is a good example. A literal dumping ground, much of the riverbed is home to landfills, shopping carts, sporadic flows of contaminated water and crumbling sand banks. Except for a few birds rummaging through the weeds, there are few signs of life. Some areas are so dug up, they look more like a sand and rock pit than the former lifeblood of central Arizona.

Using money from the Water Protection Fund, federal contributions and funds approved by Phoenix voters in a March bond election, a riparian project will begin to rejuvenate the ancient riverbed from 19th Avenue to the Interstate 10 bridge. Managers of the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Project are trying to recapture the original look of the river as much as they can, planting 4,000 cottonwood, mesquite and other native trees grown from seeds and cuttings, most of them gathered within one mile of the Salt River.

Without help from the Water Protection Fund, authorities say riparian restoration would not get done -- especially projects like Phillips', which started out small and had few avenues for funding.

Hull has now slashed the annual $5 million the fund needs to keep riparian areas, and the wildlife they support, alive.

"It was very tough to do these line items," says Francie Noyes, press secretary for Hull. "They were all good programs, but she had to get the numbers down."

Noyes says the Water Protection Fund has enough money left to keep it going until fiscal years 2002 and 2003, when the state plans to give the fund $2.5 million each year, half as much as state law mandates. "They will have sufficient funding to carry them through. It shouldn't stop them from doing the good work they do."

But Roger Manning, chair of the Water Protection Fund Commission, vehemently disagrees. The balance the governor's office is referring to has already been accounted for, he says. When the fund awards grants for riparian restoration, it does not pay recipients until the work is done. The cash that remains will be used to reimburse those recipients.

Still, the governor's budgeting staff suggested that the fund use the balance for new grants -- a suggestion that drew an angry response in a January 16 letter from Manning to Senator Ruth Solomon: "Our answer is a resounding 'No!' The commission believes that the suggested action is irresponsible and possibly illegal."

Even worse, Hull signed off on legislation that takes revenue from a surcharge on Central Arizona Project water sold out-of-state -- money that was designed to be a long-term funding source for the Water Protection Fund -- and diverted it to the state general fund.

"It is kind of tragic," says Manning. "Much of Arizona's historic riparian systems have been radically diminished or altered as a result of a variety of things, and that affects riparian species, flows for human uses and water quality."

The fund was created as a compromise to end bureaucratic wrangling over taxes on CAP water, according to Manning. When Bruce Babbitt, former secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, learned about CAP water Payson wanted to sell to Scottsdale years ago, he wanted to tax the deal and send proceeds to riparian restoration projects across the West. To keep the revenue in Arizona, a compromise was reached to put all money from a surcharge on CAP water sold out-of-state into a fund for riparian restoration in Arizona. The revenue would relieve the general fund from footing the whole bill for the Water Protection Fund every year.

For the first time, the fund would have benefited from the surcharge in a deal with Nevada that Manning says should be complete by the end of the summer. With legislation diverting the surcharge away from the Water Protection Fund, Hull's budgeting staff estimates the general fund will be $2 million richer in fiscal year 2002 and $2.7 million richer in fiscal year 2003.

The current and future funding shut-off will not affect grants that have already been awarded, but it will halt projects in the planning stages. Staff members were expecting as many as 30 grant applications this year.

Perri Benemelis, an environmental planner for the state's Office of Colorado River Management, was planning to submit an application to the Water Protection Fund for a grant to purchase land near the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge.

Now that the fund has no money, Benemelis is stuck. "Ultimately, we're going to have to look for some other source of money, and I don't know how, exactly, that's going to happen."

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.