The two-mile Tempe Town Lak

The two-mile Tempe Town Lake turns 20 years old this month and in that time it has been a recreational mecca for hundreds of thousands of people as well as an economic engine that has generated thousands of jobs.

A hundred years ago, we had to destroy our water in order to save it.

The Salt River, which begins in the mountains of eastern Arizona, had given life to the region since ancient times. 

Native civilizations depended on it, and early Anglo settlers had followed their footsteps, even completing a re-do of ancient canals, channeling the Salt River water to thirsty crops.

But the river was fickle. Sometimes in flood, sometimes merely a drought-starved trickle, it could not be relied on to consistently sustain the towns beginning to blossom in the Valley as the 20th century dawned.

So, we dammed it, and dammed it again, and again, and again, until the waters were trapped and ready for use only when we wanted them to be.

That series of Salt River dams is largely credited with turning the East Valley into the colossus it is today. But it also turned the riverbed into a wasteland, a ghastly, rubbish-filled scar through the heart of the Phoenix metro area.

But some wondered: Must civilization really come at such a price? Why couldn’t that scar be erased?

Beginning in the 1960s, folks at Arizona State University not only asked those questions, but they came up with an answer in the form of a proposal to rehabilitate the riverbed all the way from far east Mesa to the West Valley.

After years of refinement, the so-called Rio Salado project (salado is “salt” in Spanish) went to Maricopa County voters in 1987. They choked on the price tag and said no.

But one cohort of voters backed the idea. 

So, armed with that approval from their constituency, Tempe officials decided that part of the Salt River would someday again be beautiful. They would build a lake, and parks around it, and let the water do its magic.

The result was Tempe Town Lake, a shimmering two-mile-long oasis that has become one of the biggest magnets for tourism, business and culture in the American Southwest.

The lake welcomed its first visitors 20 years ago this month, and Tempe is celebrating with a year-long commemoration that kicks off with a big party at the lake on Nov. 9.

Mayor Mark Mitchell said the payoff for Tempe’s investment has been immense. Mitchell’s father, Harry, also served as Tempe mayor and was instrumental in keeping the idea alive after the 1987 election defeat.

With some help from other governmental entities, Tempe paid $42.3 million of the initial $45.5 million construction cost.

In return, Mark Mitchell said, the city has derived more than $2 billion in economic benefits from construction, tourism and associated revenues.

“It’s far greater than a dry riverbed,” he said. “It really benefits the entire region.”

The lake’s statistical profile also includes these numbers:

2.5 million visitors a year, making it second only to the Grand Canyon as a tourism draw in Arizona.

40 major organized events per year, including big-time athletic competitions and community festivals.

42,000 jobs within one mile of the water, many of them in high-paying sectors of the economy.

30,000 residents within one mile of the lake.

Many of those jobs and residences lie within the gleaming facades of a mid-rise skyline that has sprung up on both shores since the lake was filled.

None of that comes as a surprise to Neil Giuliano, who served as Tempe mayor 1994-2004 and is now president and CEO of Greater Phoenix Leadership, a private entity focusing on improving the region’s quality of life.

“We did have a long-term vision for the development of the lake itself and then all the surrounding area,” Giuliano said, “and by large, it is becoming what it was envisioned to be. It’s not done yet, still has a long way to go, but … everybody feels pretty good about the success so far.”

Developing the lake, he said, was “a very, very complex, long-term project that involved probably close to 40 different partnerships of private sector, public sector, government sector, nonprofit sector – everyone really had to be involved in this.”

They stayed on task despite a chorus of critics who, Giuliano said, complained “it would be a folly, no one’s ever going to build anything around a fake lake, it’s not going to attract anything but mosquitoes, on and on and on. 

“But we moved forward with good information, solid knowledge, and we were taking a level of risk that was well within our capacity as a community to make something really tremendous happen.”

“We didn’t have to raise taxes to build the lake,” Giuliano said. “That was very important to us at the time. The other thing that was important to us was that the entire perimeter – 100 percent of the perimeter of the lake – would allow for public access. Nothing would ever be able to be built right up to the lake itself.”

Kris Baxter-Ging, a spokeswoman for the city, said water for the initial fill came from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project and later the city used tax credits to bring water from the Salt River system itself.

Now, she said, the lake is sustained naturally from water that trickles through the riverbed – water that also feeds several riparian areas near Town Lake itself.

Evaporation from the lake, she said, is about equal to that from two golf courses.

If there was ever a moment when people wondered whether the lake had been a good idea, it probably came in July 2010 when one of the rubber bladders that served as the lake’s dam burst, draining the water in a flash flood in which, mercifully, nobody died.

Later analysis posited that the relentless Arizona sun took a premature toll on the rubber dam, which was replaced by a sturdier hinged-gate dam system.

Baxter-Ging said benefits of the lake extend far beyond its immediate neighborhood.

“If you’re a Tempe resident and you never go to Town Lake, you’re still benefitting from it,” she said. “Those 42,000 jobs that are around the lake, those are very good jobs. A lot of them are in fields like cybersecurity and technology.”

She added, “Not only are we bringing good jobs, but all the benefits that comes from town Lake translates into city services, like police officers, firefighters, improved streets. That money comes back into our city to improve our community.”

But, she said, it’s not just about the money, or even the recreation.

“Town Lake isn’t just a place where people go to do something,” she said. “Town Lake is a place that becomes the backdrop for amazing memories for people. This is where people go on Sunday evenings with their families for walks. This is the place where maybe you swam your first triathlon or ran your first 5K run. This might be the place where you proposed marriage to your wife.

“The 2.5 million people who visit here every year are choosing to come here for a reason. It’s become a beautiful part of our community, a place where we all go to be together.”

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