Less than 2% of the southwestern United States is suitable riparian habitat, and the lower Gila River is one of the few riparian habitats in the West Valley. The river is home to a large and diverse population of fish and wildlife, including several species of birds on the threatened or endangered species list.
The West Valley is also where I’ve called home my entire life. Some of my fondest childhood memories are from the adventures spent along the banks of the Gila River.
Today’s landscape of the riverbank is completely different from my youth. Yes, an abundance of birds, fish and wildlife still call the Gila River home, but their habitat now lacks many of the native, nutrient-rich plants required to sustain their way of life along the river.
That’s because in the late 1800s, salt cedar trees, or tamarisks, were introduced to the riverbanks as a way to control erosion.
These trees are nonnative, aggressive, and difficult to control and eradicate. They’ve congested more than 15,000 acres in and along the Gila River not only in Buckeye, but in our neighboring communities of Goodyear and Avondale – and across the state, too.
Salt cedars actually “out-compete” the native cottonwood and willow trees for water and soil nutrients.
They grow quickly and densely and threaten not only the environment, but put many residents at risk for fire and flooding. Salt cedars are highly flammable and burn hotter than most trees because of their density.
Future floodplain projections indicate more than 4,500 acres will be added to the flood zone near the banks of the Gila River. This expansion will limit development opportunities and will require both landowners and homeowners to purchase more costly flood insurance.
Salt cedars also consume more water than native trees. It’s estimated each salt cedar tree consumes between 200 and 300 gallons of water a day. More than 200,000 households along the 18-mile stretch of the Gila River could use that water instead.
Removing salt cedars has been one of my top priorities for years. I, along with the mayors from Goodyear and Avondale, have partnered with numerous state and federal agencies to create a way to get assistance in the removal of these trees.
Together, we met with many of our state and federal representatives on both sides of the aisle, educating them about this critical situation in the West Valley and throughout Arizona, and also working with them to introduce and support salt cedar legislation.
Recently, West Valley legislators from both the House and Senate introduced legislation (HB2580 and SB1450) to establish the Nonnative Vegetative Species Eradication Fund to assist cities, towns, counties and Indian communities with grant money for the permanent removal of nonnative, invasive plants like salt cedars.
Removing these trees and other nonnative plants will reduce the risks of fire and flooding, conserve water and restore natural habitats in riparian areas for threatened and endangered species.
It will also open the door to a variety of sustainable development along the Gila River.
The best part of all is, establishing this grant money is a statewide effort, not just a West Valley effort.
Sens. Sylvia Allen and Frank Pratt also sponsored SB1450, even though they are outside of Buckeye’s region.
This legislation is also a bipartisan effort. Republicans Joanne Osborne, Tim Dunn and Sine Kerr from District 13 sponsored this legislation, as did Democrats Lisa Otondo and Geraldine Peten from District 4.
Restoring the Gila River to its natural habitat will remain a top priority for me. Thanks to the help of our legislators, we are now one step closer to making this a reality sooner than later.