In the 1960s, the Rio Salado wasn’t in good shape. It was largely barren and folks thought the river was dead.

With eyes set on creating a point of pride in the Valley, Arizona State University Dean James Elmore and his students devised a plan to reimagine the Rio Salado, creating an oasis across the Valley’s desert.

The plan, dubbed the Rio Salado Project, needed a Herculean effort that would require buy-in from multiple municipalities, the state and federal governments and the myriad of communities that make of the fabric of the Valley of the Sun. The creation of Tempe Town Lake is the only portion of that grand plan that has come to fruition. So far.

Now, most of the Rio Salado still appears to be dead. It’s dusty and few realize they’re even passing over or past a river when crossing the barren land. But with ASU once again taking point after the prompting of the late Sen. John McCain, the Rio Salado could be reimagined once again — changing the face of the Valley and Arizona in the process.

This revitalized mission, Rio Reimagined, will work on 58 miles of land across the Valley, reaching from Granite Reef Dam to State Route 85, with both the Rio Salado and Gila River playing a part. Eight communities along the river will oversee the creation of this river corridor as they partner to create a point of pride and an anchor of water — and economic development — in the Valley.

Unleashing the vision

In March, Arizona municipalities and tribes signed on to see the Rio Reimagined project become a reality. Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community were a few of the entities that signed on to move the project forward.

On May 31, Arizona Forward, which brings business and civic leaders together to promote efforts to improve the environmental sustainability and economic vitality of the state, hosted its first-ever Statewide Sustainability Summit. More than 250 experts from professions that ranged from architecture to hydrology gathered in downtown Phoenix to share their thoughts on Rio Reimagined.

“This is a task that is well-suited for our members,” says Lori Singleton, president and CEO of Arizona Forward. “We are an organization that brings everyone together and we help governments connect the dots. That has always been Arizona Forward’s role and that’s exactly the role we plan to take with Rio Reimagined. And that’s what Rio Reimagined needs.”

Arizona Forward’s consortium agreed on a set of recommendations for Rio Reimagined, creating a framework for the project to follow in the decades ahead as the rivers are transformed.

“This was an important first step in a major multi-generational project,” Singleton says. “When we brought in folks from the San Antonio River Walk and the Los Angeles River Revitalization and showed that these types of projects take a long time but have results that last generations, everyone got excited. We recognize this as an incredible opportunity to leave a meaningful legacy for future generations.”

Not only will it impact residents, but the potential economic impact is undeniable.

“Look at what Tempe Town Lake has done for Tempe,” Singleton says. “The economic impact is immeasurable. I don’t think Rio Reimagined will take that form in other parts of the Valley, but it can be a connector from one community to next and it can be that ribbon that brings everything together.”

An oasis in the desert

The project got a kick-start when McCain approached ASU President Michael Crow and Wellington “Duke” Reiter, Crow’s senior advisor, wanting them to revitalize the dream of making the Rio Salado Project a reality.

During an Arizona Forward luncheon held in Tucson in July, Reiter said McCain saw the economic development and the benefits that sprouted from the creation of Tempe Town Lake and wanted to see more of it in Arizona.

With McCain hoping to see this become a reality in Arizona, Reiter and many others got to work on figuring out how Rio Reimagined could become a reality.

They set out by focusing on four things that could get key stakeholders on the same page.

“I think the things we’re talking about at the outset need to be obvious,” Reiter says. “Of course, let’s not find reasons to disagree with the project, let’s find reasons to rally around the project. So, that’s what we decided to do.”

Reiter and his team set about focusing on four core concepts on what the project has to be to make it come to fruition. The four concepts are:

• This project has to be water positive. Rio Reimagined must both be perceived to be water positive and it must actually be water positive, Reiter explains. Water is so vitally important to Arizona and the Valley and water is one of the first things businesses that are looking to relocate to Arizona ask about, Reiter says. This project has to be a positive contributor to the water challenges and to the perception of those challenges.

• Identity creator. Rio Reimagined must contribute to the identity of the Valley in a way that will help businesses decide to locate operations here. Reiter mentions State Farm creating Marina Heights beside Tempe Town Lake. It’s not by accident they decided to locate there, he mentions. The lake is an attractive amenity that people want to be near.

• Including the community. Leaders from the top can’t be the only ones involved. Reiter says there are already many people living alongside the Rio Salado, so they must be included in this project.

• Funding. The funding issue must be addressed. Reiter says organizers behind Rio Reimagined understand the situation cities, the state and federal governments are in, but he suggests it’s time to think differently. There’s a variety of rocks to overturn to find a funding solution. Reiter says many other river projects similar in scope have received funding through a variety of different ways.

“We think of this project more than just a river project,” Reiter explains. “We think of it as something much larger. When you think about the funding, look at the different modes of funding.”

Some projects in the U.S. have utilized a lot of federal funding, while others used city funding and philanthropy. Reiter says there is a perfect mixture of funding mechanisms that will make Rio Reimagined a reality. The right formula just needs to be identified.

The force behind the reality

Reiter says that ASU is in the process of figuring out the main plan for Rio Reimagined. ASU has Melissa McCann, director of University City Exchange, working on understanding all that’s happening along the Rio Salado currently, while also tending to all of the stakeholders’ interests.

“There are complexities — federal, regional, county, city, local tribal governments,” Reiter says. “McCann and ASU have unearthed hundreds of projects of various kinds. Some have been determined, completed, halfway done, some are waiting for something like Rio Reimagined to happen.”

ASU is mapping out this plan so a 501(c)(3) can then take over and make Rio Reimagined a reality. This is a private-public partnership that is going to need to form to make this happen and the upcoming creation of a nonprofit will be that private portion that will nudge stakeholders and provide funding and be the source and leadership arm that will turn Rio Reimagined into a reality.

With the city mayors signed on, Reiter says it’s now time to nudge everyone a little further and further. It’s time to figure out how much cities might contribute to assist with Rio Reimagined, and it’s time to find out what the expectations for the nonprofit will look like.

It’s time to get everyone on the same page, Reiter says, by figuring out what departments at each city will be in charge of their portion of Rio Reimagined.

And it’s time to figure out the funding for the nonprofit, too. Soon, Reiter explains, the mission of the nonprofit will be announced, showing a pathway to this decades-long project.

After all these years, it seems Rio Reimagined is closer than ever to becoming a reality.

“Some elements of Rio Reimagined are ready to go,” Reiter says. “The West Valley, and the convergence of Goodyear and Buckeye, they have some projects ready to go, so how can we help them push this forward? We have the Army Corps of Engineers consolidating their six projects, which I think is becoming an achievement of ours.”

And as for the potential impact on the Valley?

“It will certainly set Phoenix apart and keep our economic momentum and growth going,” Singleton says.