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Habitat Restoration at Town Lake

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Project Overview

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Tempe have combined resources to restore portions of the Salt riverbed to their natural state, making them once again attractive to wildlife and to those who like to observe nature.

The work took place at three sites: the Indian Bend Wash confluence, the area near the Tempe Town Lake west dam and the area at the east dam of Tempe Town Lake. Through federal funding, the Army Corps of Engineers paid for 65 percent of the improvements to the Salt River. The Army Corps of Engineers plays a significant role in renewing wetland areas even today. Through this agency, several Arizona communities are receiving funds to restore river habitat.

The Salt River is a significant tributary to the Gila River in the State of Arizona. The river originates in the White Mountains in eastern Arizona and flows westward through the metropolitan area to its confluence with the Gila River about 15 miles west of downtown Phoenix.

Historically, the Salt River was a perennial stream fed by snowmelt from the mountains to the east and the highlands to the northwest. Beginning in the early 1900's, the historical conditions of the river were radically altered by man-made constructions. The most significant of these was the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Salt River Project, in which a series of dams in the Salt and Verde River watersheds were built. The Indian Bend Wash (IBW) flood control project, completed in 1982, also changed and controlled the flow of water into the river. Channelization, sand and gravel mining adjacent to the river channel and landfills within and along the riverbanks have affected the river and its wildlife.

Due to dams and diversions, perennial flows in the Salt River have ceased. The natural condition of the river has been drastically degraded compared to historic conditions. The elimination of natural base flows has caused the groundwater table beneath the river to drop, resulting in the death of much of the river's cottonwood-willow ecosystem.

Today, most areas of the Salt River are barren or contain mainly non-native species, such as salt cedar. The dense riparian vegetation and abundant wildlife that historically characterized the Salt River in Tempe is now relegated to small, widely spaced areas. The purpose of Tempe's habitat restoration project is to restore the native plant communities and natural wildlife habitat that historically existed along the Salt River before flows were diverted..

Indian Bend Wash Habitat- PHASE I

The Indian Bend Wash from Tempe Town Lake's east dam to McKellips Road serves as the initial phase of the three restoration areas. South of Curry Road the project has re-established a riparian forest dominated by a combination of cottonwood and willow trees.

This plant community is typically found along the edge of active streambeds. The understory includes desert broom, elderberry, and other native plants. Small wetland marsh areas are established with a mix of emergent vegetation and open water ponds. The edges outside of the cottonwood-willow habitat transition to mesquite bosque habitat dominated by honey, velvet or screwbean mesquite trees and with elderberry, greythorn and wolfberry used in the understory. The central channel of the Indian Bend Wash (Rio Salado Golf Course), contain mesquite bosque habitat plantings.

Trailhead parking for 20 vehicles is found beside Curry Road at the Indian Bend Wash. A new well head, pump and storage tank is also located adjacent to the trailhead parking. The well is used for irrigating the vegetation in the Indian Bend Wash and for the wetland ponds. Multi-use paths provide visual and pedestrian access along the outer edges of the project. A system of signage and an overlook ramada are for use by pedestrians and bicyclists on the multi-use path, but entrance into the habitat is not permitted.

Salt River Downstream Habitat - PHASE II

The Salt River Downstream Habitat Project has allowed the City or Tempe to extend the lake by creating a natural riparian habitat from the west end of Town Lake to Priest Road. Drought-tolerant plants, flowering shrubs and native trees were used to create a beautiful park environment. As portions of this habitat lie within 10,000 feet of the Sky Harbor Airport, the needs of wildlife will be balanced with the need for aviation safety.

The Phase II Habitat highlights the delicate balance between the connection of landscape and community development. The habitat connects nature by creating migration corridors and connects people through surrounding communities while promoting healthy multi-modal activity. Amenities include multi-use paths outside of the habitat, viewing areas for watching animals, ramadas, picnic areas, and interpretive signs detailing the types of trees and vegetation that can be found along the lake edge.

Salt River Upstream Habitat - PHASE III

In the acres upstream from Tempe Town Lake, the Army Corps habitat project established a corridor of the mesquite and palo verde on the north and south banks of the Salt River. A multi-use path run parallel to the corridor.