By Arizona's geologic standards, the Salt River gorge in Tempe isn't much. In fact, few people even notice it is there.

Flanked by the red-rock outcrops at Papago Park to the north and the twin buttes embracing Sun Devil Stadium to the south, the shallow gorge marks the narrowest point along the Salt River flood plain in the Valley.

It is here the Salt River reaches its greatest fury when upstream dams can no longer contain run-off from one of the largest watersheds in the world. And it is here Tempe wants to build a $1 billion commercial extravaganza: office towers, a shopping mall, a 500-room hotel-convention center and a Disneylandesque playground on the banks of a disposable lake carved out of the Salt River bed.

Tempe's grandiose Rio Salado Project completes a centurylong assault on the Salt River that began with the completion of Roosevelt Dam in 1911, that accelerated with the diversion of nearly all water from the river beginning in the mid-1930s and that will conclude with Tempe's planned artificial reintroduction of water into a sterile lake contained by a collapsible rubber dam.

Tempe's Rio Salado resurrects yet again a 27-year-old idea hatched by Arizona State University architecture students to put water back into the Salt River and to turn its banks into a vibrant corridor of parks, homes and businesses. While the idea is appealing, the impracticality of building on a flood plain and the daunting financial cost were too much for voters, who rejected versions of Rio Salado promoted by Phoenix in the 1970s and by Maricopa County in the 1980s.

Those votes have gone unheeded in Tempe, where elected officials have decided to plow forward with Rio Salado--this time without taking the project to the ballot box. In their relentless zeal to bring more business and money into town, some councilmembers have resorted to rewriting history to show widespread support for Rio Salado that never existed.

Tempe has cleverly sold the development scheme to the community as a recreational haven, but the clear goal is for Rio Salado to generate a cash cow for both the private and public sectors. To feed the cow, Tempe wants to return water to the river, but under completely artificial and highly controlled conditions.

Instead of the free-flowing river envisioned by ASU students, Tempe intends to impound water behind a 1,000-foot-long collapsible rubber dam to create a narrow, 1.5-mile-long body of water. Planners call it a lake, but it is really nothing more than a wide canal, complete with steep banks that will make exiting the water extremely difficult.

Like a canal, the water isn't meant to stay. Whenever upstream dams release water into the river, as they are doing presently, the rubber dam will be lowered and the lake will drain downstream, to be replaced by the river. The schizophrenic pattern of first a river, then a lake, then a river extends onto the banks, where grass lawns and shade trees will be interspersed with native desert plants.

Marking the center of Tempe's Town Lake will be a massive cannon shooting an arch of water, accentuating the profligate use of that resource by the project. Up to four million gallons per day will be lost to evaporation, irrigation and seepage--but no swimming will be allowed.

Before Tempe can accomplish what is nothing less than a flood-control engineer's wildest dream, a few other hurdles must be jumped, the biggest of which is money. Tempe, so far, has sidestepped the issue of who is going to pay for the estimated $30 million in infrastructure improvements still needed to build the 180-acre Town Lake. A few options--landing a long-term, low-interest federal loan or tapping into President Clinton's proposed infrastructure-improvement funds--are being bandied about. But even before the funding is in place, Tempe is ready to give a prominent downtown builder with close political ties to city hall exclusive development rights to build a $500 million residential, commercial and retail development on the banks of the lake. The development team chosen to undertake the project is something less than stellar. Bay State Milling Company, a flour-manufacturing company, has no real estate development experience, and its chief consultant has been connected with some of the state's biggest real estate misadventures, including Governor Fife Symington's Camelback Esplanade development. The other partner, Benton/Robb Development Associates, has a spotty success rate, at best. The company's biggest Tempe project, Hayden Square, was also built in conjunction with the city. Hayden Square now sits bankrupt and mostly empty on Tempe's busiest street.

If a lack of funding to build a lake useless for swimming so a bankruptcy-plagued developer can make the ultimate sales pitch (Overlooking a pristine desert lake . . .") isn't twisted enough, the whole project could also be wiped out in a day by a catastrophic flood.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty