Rio Reimagined to Revitalize Rivers & Spur Economic Growth in the Valley of the Sun

“Restoring these rivers will not only reconnect people to these areas, but help promote important conservation goals and provide economic revitalization opportunities along the Salt River and southern Phoenix,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, Governor of the Gila River Indian Community. (Courtesy GRIC)

Two Native communities, original inhabitants of Arizona’s Valley of the Sun, are involved in a federal-local partnership to revive the Rio Salado through ecosystem restoration, flood mitigation and economic development.

Known as Rio Reimagined, the project recently earned an Urban Waters Federal Partnership (UWFP) designation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — the only such designation from the Trump administration and the 20th project chosen by the EPA since it launched the collaborative UWFP effort under the Obama Administration in 2011. Former U.S. Senator for Arizona John McCain pioneered Rio Reimagined, with early support from Arizona State University. 

The new UWFP designation sets the stage for further federal investment to fulfill long-range goals involving infrastructure, parks, recreation, housing and more. Even prior to last week’s UWFP public announcement, grant funding over the past year to Rio-related projects from the EPA, U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies totaled more than $1 million for local planning and project activity. 

The growing convergence of federal, local and Tribal interests will power Rio Reimagined’s momentum forward. Valley community stakeholders include the cities Buckeye, Goodyear, Avondale, Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa, and two Tribal communities: the Gila River Indian Community and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. The partnership comprises 15 federal agencies. 

The Gila River Indian Community is integral to the huge initiative to revitalize the Rio Salado, a.k.a. the Salt River, and its banks to support economic growth for the entire Valley. 

“Restoring these rivers will not only reconnect people to these areas, but help promote important conservation goals and provide economic revitalization opportunities along the Salt River and southern Phoenix,” Gov. Lewis said.

The Gila River Indian Community is made up of two distinct Tribes — the Akimel O’otham, which means “the people of the water,” and the Pee-Posh, or the Maricopa. The-Pee Posh originally came from the Colorado River, and when they arrived in the area that is now metropolitan Phoenix, they settled there, forming a military alliance with the Akimel O’otham. Today, the two Tribes still exist within the 23,000-member Gila River Indian Community, each retaining its own distinct language, culture and ceremonies.

The Gila River Indian Community continues to care for and preserve the area’s rivers and waterways. The Community has “made great strides” toward healing the Rio Salado, which is the largest tributary of the Gila River, winding through the Valley, touching six cities and two Native communities: Gila River and Salt River. 

The Gila River Indian Community has added an interpretive trail, an aquifer-recharge program and restoration of riparian areas along Rio Salado, GRIC Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis has said. Central Arizona’s rivers “are not only sacred to us, but are important to the non-Indians who live and visit central Arizona,” Gov. Lewis noted. 

The grand vision for Rio Reimagined is to transform a desolate riverbed into a thriving urban asset. Rio Reimagined will infuse vitality and opportunity along Rio Salado’s riverbanks. (RioReimagined.org)

For the GRIC, protecting, preserving and maintaining their legal rights to the water has been an upstream battle for centuries — and yet always a deeply entrenched commitment. The Gila River was the Tribes’ lifeblood. When the water was diverted more than 150 years ago, the Community’s agriculture-based economy collapsed, and they were pushed almost to the edge of extinction. It wouldn’t be until 2004 that their water rights would be restored. With more than 25 percent of Colorado River water part of the Tribe’s entitlement, they’ve restored farming and agriculture, and are today building a modern, state-of-the-art irrigation system.

“That was devastating to us, because we were historically agricultural and farmers,” Governor Lewis told Native Business. “We traced ourselves to the Hohokam civilization, which inhabited current metropolitan Phoenix for thousands of years. Their ancient canal system is one of the most sophisticated architectural engineering feats that rivals even the Egyptian canals of the Nile Valley.”

Gov. Lewis knows the history firsthand. His father, Rodney Lewis was the Community’s first attorney, and when he passed away in 2018, at the age of 77, a headline in the Arizona Republic referred to him as “Tribal trailblazer” and “a force behind [the] landmark water settlement.” Rodney Lewis was the first Native American to pass the bar in Arizona and the first Native American to argue a case — which he won — before the United States Supreme Court. His advocacy and legal representation led to the passage of the historic Arizona Water Settlements Act. 

For Governor Lewis, his father’s example provides a perspective of the past that he uses to anchor his own leadership for the future. “My father was really a trailblazer and a visionary with regards to water and to protecting our sovereignty,” Governor Lewis said in an interview with Native Business. “He was there at the table negotiating the first compacts with Tribes in Arizona in the 1990s, and he saw economic development as really one of those engines that would sustain us for the future.”

“I see myself as being a caretaker of all my father’s work and his decisions, and being a defender of all the achievements that my father had so dearly fought for,” Lewis continued. 

That entails playing an essential role in the Rio Reimagined partnership. Gila River and partners will also restore infrastructure to protect the surrounding areas from 100- and 500-year flooding events — just as the Hohokam people (of whom the Gila River and Salt River people descend) carved millennia and centuries ago. 

READ MORE: Infrastructure and Tribal Resistance to Catastrophe: How the Hohokam Survived 

The Hohokam

The Gila River Indian Community traces its roots to the Hohokam — a Tribal people who inhabited the Phoenix basin along the Gila and Salt Rivers for over 1,400 years, irrigating and sustaining their crops in desert conditions using a system of canals. But these were no ordinary canals. The Hohokam’s network of waterways was the most sophisticated system north of Peru. The Hohokam’s water routes inspired Arizona’s modern-day infrastructure, and will continue to be the framework for inspiration as it pertains to Rio Reimagined. 

For the Hohokam, the canals were everything. Without irrigation, there would be no crops in the arid desert; without crops, the people might starve. Archaeologists have found evidence that the Hohokam responded to floods as a community, teaming together to repair the canals and get their society functioning again.

Modern-day infrastructure follows the framework of the canals originally constructed by the Hohokam — and the Rio Reimagined restoration project will honor the ingenuity and wisdom of the Valley’s original people, the Hohokam.  

“Some of these canals have been dated to be over a thousand years old,” Gov. Lewis told Native Business. “That gives you a perspective on how long we have been a part of this land here.”

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