Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch

Kids can feed the birds at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, one of the East Valley’s signature attractions for bird lovers and people looking for a quiet respite in nature.

Carol Lang was looking for a place to take her grandson during last week’s school break when a friend told her about the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert.

“It’s just wonderful, peaceful,” the Chandler resident said. “And getting kids away from technology and into nature is wonderful.”

Her 8-year-old grandson Henry Lang agreed as he fed bird food to ducks from his hand at one of the preserve’s seven recharge ponds.

The preserve, which attracts over 200 bird species and thousands of visitors each year, celebrates its 20th birthday next weekend.

The 110-acre urban wetland habitat and water recharge site is the brainchild of Gilbert Councilman Scott Anderson.

“Way it came about was it all started back when the state passed the Groundwater Management Act,” recalled Anderson, who was the town’s planning director at the time. “Gilbert put together a policy and the one way we implemented that act was to recycle all of our water, reclaim all of our water, even wastewater.”

In 1980, then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt signed the forward-thinking law mandating central and southern Arizona communities pump no more water from aquifers than they put back in.

The town in 1986 began storing treated wastewater in six recharge basins at the 72-acre Neely Ranch near Cooper and Elliot roads.

“When we were ready to build the additional five (basins) I received some input from people that it was a favorite spot for bird watching many species of birds,” Anderson said, noting:

 “That is when I thought, ‘why not try developing something with a dual purpose, recycling water and preserving some habitat that is fairly rare in Arizona?’”

According to the Arizona Riparian Council, 60-75 percent of the state’s resident wildlife species depend on riparian areas to sustain their populations, yet these areas occupy less than 0.5 percent of the state’s land area. 

And, in the western United States, riparian areas comprise less than 1 percent of the land area, but they are among the most productive and valuable natural resources, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

So, Anderson applied for and received a $100,000 grant from the Arizona Heritage Fund.

Sweat labor created a wildlife preserve at Neely as volunteers began planting vegetation around the recharge basins and building facilities for birders to enjoy their pastime. 

Finally, the Neely Ranch Riparian Preserve opened in 1990.

The idea for a second preserve didn’t come until after the town purchased the 110 acres of farmland at Guadalupe and Greenfield roads for about $10 million, according to Anderson.

Town leaders’ primary purpose for the land was to dedicate 10 acres for a library and use the remainder for a park or for some other community amenity, Anderson said.  

“We tried to come up with an idea of what to do with it and we decided to continue with the policy of recycling water and decided to do it again and build another preserve, one that was done purposely rather than falling into it,” Anderson said.

He recalled that “we had to find somewhere to recharge groundwater because we were committed to that and that led into building another recharge site.”

He said the public demand for a park with playing fields back then when the town population was approximately 29,000 wasn’t critical but became more so over the last few years. Today, some 248,000 people call Gilbert home.

The Gilbert Riparian Preserve enabled the town to continue its water policy with seven aquifer recharge basins on 70 acres and to provide a natural habitat, where 298 species of birds have been identified on-site.  

“Frankly we were the only community in the state at the time committed to do recharge in a natural manner like this,” Anderson said. “Most others did it with a direct injection of water back into the aquifer. It was really kind of leading-edge what we were doing at the time.”

This time around, the town used general fund dollars and system development fees to build its second preserve, which debut in 1999.  

That year, the town also opened the Southeast Regional Library, built on town land in a town-owned building but is staffed and operated by Maricopa County Library District.

Although Neely Ranch Riparian Preserve was the town’s prototype, access there is restricted with chain-link fencing because the water is not chlorinated for human protection like at the Gilbert Preserve.

Today, the 110-acre preserve boasts over 4.5 miles of trails, a floating boardwalk, a fishing lake, a paleontology dig site, a play area and a state-of-the-art observatory.

The observatory came about during a chance conversation Anderson said he had with Win Pendleton, a fellow Gilbert Rotary Club member who also was a retired physics professor and had worked in an observatory.

“He and I got to talking about ‘wow, wouldn’t it be great to have an observatory dedicated just for public use,’” he said. “I had some architects work on some plans not only for an observatory but a visitor center.”

He said SRP donated $100,000 toward the project but the town hit a snag with the visitor center so the two were separated out. Anderson said $33,000 of SRP’s contribution went into buying the telescope, which Pendleton went to Mississippi and retrieved from the manufacturer.

The East Valley Astronomy Club, which Pendleton was a member, then built and gifted to Gilbert the observatory, which officially opened in 2006. The club’s volunteers manage the facility for the town.

Although a variety of wildlife live at the riparian, including cottontail rabbits, turtles, coyotes, frogs, rock squirrels and insects, birds remain a big draw.

The site is listed as one of Arizona’s 48 “important bird areas” by the National Audubon Society.

“I think it went beyond what we expected,” Anderson said. “We never realized how big of an attraction it has become especially for wildlife watching. 

“When I was still going out there, I was contacted by people all throughout the United States and internationally by people planning their vacations to come to Gilbert and see certain birds not seen before and find them in Gilbert. It’s gone from being a pretty obscure bird-watching area to a premier-bird watching area in the state now.”

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