Starting today, Yuma will host an international waterfront conference. Yuma will be one of the smallest cities to host the conference, and it’s a big deal for the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. For the Arizona Science Desk, Maya Springhawk Robnett explains…
At Yuma West Wetlands, the Colorado River flows lazily, its surface mirroring the plant-life all around. cottonwood, mesquite, and willow trees tower over the water and birds chirp overhead. Vianey Avila, the Environmental Program Coordinator with the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, walks the trail. She says the greenery all around her says something specific and important about Yuma.
"It says we have water!" she laughs. Having water is a big deal. The Colorado is the most dammed river in the U.S., though, and there’s a lot less water here than there used to be. The Colorado is one percent the size it was a century ago.
“You know, it’s not really a river,” Avila says, “It’s more like a canal, or a stream—a creek. There’s really not much left but if you can only imagine, it used to cover this whole area that we’re walking through.”
Now native cottonwood trees compete with non-native plants, like salt cedar and others. Even 20 years ago, before a massive project to restore the area, Avila says it looked very different on the river, and invasive plants weren’t the only trespassers…
“Before, it was full of phragmites, which is a really tall reed,” she explains. “There was only one portion of the river that you could actually access and then really by the time it hit dark, you couldn’t stay out because of so much illegal activities going on, either homeless camping or meth labs or so forth.”
20 years ago, Yuma committed to developing the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. The East Wetlands’ 400 acres were cleared of invasive species, irrigated, planted with native species, and weeded, costing $10-million-dollars. The West Wetlands, which had been a 110 acre city dump from 1910 to 1970, cost about 6-million-dollars to restore. The massive undertaking is still in progress, paid for by the City of Yuma, the National Heritage Areas, and grants. And Charles Flynn, the Yuma Crossing Heritage Area Executive Director, says the plan, which focused heavily on conservation and environmental concerns, has been a great success.
“It raises the regional and national profile of Yuma. And when people come here, they’re like blown away at everything that’s occurred,” Flynn says.
The Waterfront Center, based in Washington, D.C., honored Yuma with an Excellence on the Waterfront award in 2014. Flynn says this is one of the reasons the Center chose to hold their annual Urban Waterfronts Conference in Yuma—decidedly smaller in size compared to past conference host cities like New York and Philadelphia. Decades ago, riverfront efforts in cities were primarily recreational in focus. But Flynn says these days conservation has a much larger role.
“But what’s happening now is—it’s called resiliency,” Flynn says. “How do you be near the water and not be overwhelmed by the water?”
U.S. cities have seen a number of recent disasters involving water. New York dealt with Hurricane Sandy and in Houston, Texas, flooding occurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Here in the West, drought and over-allocation are the main concerns.
“What we decided doing this conference,” Flynn explains, “was to set up two different tracks. One is about the Colorado River and the other is about things like hurricanes, flooding—things that are happening mostly back East. And you know, it’s sort of like too much water, too little. That’s the theme of the conference.”
Anne Breen is the co-director of the Waterfront Center, which has been organizing the conference for more than three decades.
“I think back in the day, the environment wasn’t getting the focus that it’s getting today, that’s for sure. The environmental underpinning is extremely important these days,” Breen says.
The 2018 Urban Waterfronts Conference opened with participants getting an up close tour of Yuma’s restored wetlands.