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Audubon View

Water brings life to the desert, so it’s no wonder the city of Phoenix was founded on a river, the Río Salado, or Salt River. And like so many cities, Phoenix has had a love-hate relationship with its river.

Long ago the Río Salado teemed with wildlife, including coyotes and javelinas and hundreds of species of birds. First the ancient Huhugam people and then other native communities used the river to water their crops and serve their needs for more than 1,600 years. After European-American settlers arrived, both people and wildlife continued to prosper along the river. Then things changed.

As the growing community’s water needs increased, dams were constructed upstream to store the water. Soon the river downstream went dry, and the vegetation along its banks disappeared. The wildlife disappeared, too. Eventually the dry river-bed became a dumping place for discarded tires, appliances, and trash. What remained beyond its banks was a low-income inner-city community, mostly Hispanic and African-American, defined by an abandoned river left to become a landfill.

Starting in 2001 the City of Phoenix began partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Audubon Arizona, and others on a bold initiative to revitalize its downtown southside. The plan started by restoring a five-mile stretch of the Río Salado riverbed, from 16th Street to 19th Avenue. First the partners hauled away more than 1,200 tons of old tires and truckload after truckload of accumulated landfill material. Then they dug out a flood control channel in the old riverbed, and planted some 75,000 native trees and plants, including willows and cottonwoods and 40 acres of mesquite bosque. On top of that, they created 57 acres of wetlands, and built 16 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. With habitat restored, the javelinas and coyotes returned, along with a host of other species, including muskrats and jackrabbits, great blue herons and Lucy’s warblers, and monarchs, damselflies, and dragonflies. People started to notice as well.

Audubon’s role in this partnership has been generating private support to create an Audubon Center where people can access the restored river corridor and trails in the heart of the city, right where the Salt River crosses Central Avenue. Thanks to generous donors and dozens of hardworking volunteers, the $7 million campaign was successful, and the Nina Mason Pulliam Río Salado Audubon Center will open in June for children, families, and other visitors to enjoy.

The construction of the Río Salado Audubon Center is an important step in revitalizing the local economy of South Phoenix, the beloved home of generations of Arizonans and new immigrants alike. Victor Vidales grew up here in the 1970s and 1980s, and has stayed to raise his family and run his small business. Early on he recognized that a new Audubon Center would help his urban community, so he volunteered to join the effort to make it a reality. Today he is a member of the Audubon Arizona board of directors. Victor sums up the experience this way: “When I was a teenager, I’d go to the Río Salado dump site to break glass. Now my children will go to the Audubon Center there to break the cycle of poverty.”

Audubon is building centers in other cities across the country. We need your help, especially in these challenging economic times. To learn more about what you can do, visit Audubon.org.

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