From ashes to cottonwoods

Bob Wagner
Public Works Director
City of Yuma, Arizona

Like a beautiful Phoenix, a park is rising from the ashes of an abandoned dump to become the central attraction celebrating the heritage of Yuma, Arizona.

When I was young my Grandmother once told me, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." The conventional wisdom was that ugliness couldn't be turned into beauty. Over the years I have learned that, through the use of engineering and technology, you can come pretty close with some remarkable projects. Here in Yuma, we are turning an early 20th Century landfill into an urban nature preserve along the Colorado River. The transformation will be remarkable.

What, for more than 50 years, was a 75-acre urban embarrassment along the banks of the river is quickly becoming a combination city park and nature appreciation attraction. In 1909 Yuma started a "dump" just outside of town along the banks of the Colorado River. Regularly, it was burned for the sake of sanitation. This continued until 1950 when it was closed. It can only be assumed that the town had grown too close and smoke was becoming a nuisance. The area remained a burned-out wasteland down by the river harboring transients and rodents, largely ignored by the citizens.

In 1971 another section was reopened as a landfill. This time, however, it was operated in accordance with newly-formulated landfill standards requiring compaction and cover. After about four years this, too, was closed and the landfill was moved several miles away from town out in the desert.

The area went unnoticed for the next 25 years until the citizens of Yuma called for the reclamation and rehabilitation of the riverfront as an urban asset. In 1991 the idea was hatched to turn the area into a riverfront park. Over the ensuing six years a vision, scope of work, feasibility study, and environmental evaluation evolved into grant applications. In 1997 the Environmental Protection Agency tested, inspected, and monitored groundwater and evaluated the old landfill sites, ultimately to declare them free of toxic wastes and water pollution problems.

In 1998, approval was granted to develop a wetlands park, with the proviso that a minimum of six feet of clean fill be used to encapsulate the landfill. Shortly thereafter the City received over $3,000,000 in grants from federal and state sources along with local matches. The City immediately began diverting excavated soil from its construction sites to the area. Of course, this material was also tested to ensure the continuing quality of the project. At the same time, a consultant was hired to design the park features and infrastructure. One of the early-identified problems was the proliferation of non-native trees and other vegetation along the riverfront. Civic groups, volunteers and City work forces were mobilized to clear the area of trash and weeds. At the same time, a temporary tree nursery was established to nurture and provide stock to reintroduce native plants to the area. Upon completion of this effort, the nursery area will be transformed into an outdoor amphitheater and artisan work center.

The eastern end of the project will have the flavor of a city park with playgrounds, picnic tables, water features, rest rooms and parking. It will also be highlighted with a lake and boat launch. As one progresses to the west they will encounter trails and multi-use paths leading to a hummingbird garden, nature overlooks, pavilions, a natural history interpretive center, a children's outdoor education center, and other passive recreation opportunities.

Currently underway is the construction of the lake, boat launch, picnic ramadas, trails, rest rooms, and the hummingbird garden. This is targeted for completion in 2002. The entire project is expected to take nearly 10 years to bring to full maturity. The Greater Yuma Riverfront area was recently designated the first National Heritage Area West of the Mississippi River. The project will eventually include nearly eight miles of riverfront restoration, a celebration of Yuma's history, and significant economic development. It may not exactly be a silk purse but it will most certainly be a jewel in the desert.

For more information on the project, please direct inquiries to Roger Blakeley, West Wetlands Project Superintendent, at Roger.Blakeley@CI.YUMA.AZ.US or at our website www.ci.yuma.az.us/.