Community bands together to beautify Yuma wetlands

By Bruce Farr

Nowhere in Arizona is there a better example of how successful a community’s vision for restoring and beautifying its land areas can be than that of Yuma. The city’s Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area might yet be a work in progress, but the impressive results of its first 15 years of painstaking development speak volumes for what can be accomplished with a little consensus and a lot of good, old-fashioned elbow grease.

The Yuma Crossing project was designed to restore a 2,000-acre area bordering the river that had become overgrown and trash-ridden, and restore it to the vital, symbiotic connection between Yuma and the Colorado River, which had once been the city’s lifeblood and livelihood.

According to Charles Flynn, executive director for the project, Yuma Crossing is under the umbrella of the National Heritage Area program, of which there are 49 throughout the U.S.

“The National Heritage Area program’s goals are to conserve and enhance natural cultural historic resources through partnerships and consulting opportunities,” Flynn explains. “And then support engaging projects and programs that drive the redevelopment or reclamation of those areas.”

Historically, Yuma’s location at the only practical crossing point on the lower Colorado River—a waterway so important to early U.S. transportation and commerce that it was once referred to as “America’s Nile”—helped to leverage its value to the state. As the city grew and flourished, however, some of its outlying areas along the river began to suffer and deteriorate. River silt buildup, deforestation, a steady invasion of non-native plant species and other causes combined to turn the Yuma Crossing area into a thicket of uninhabitable, unattractive riverfront land, an area ripe for crime and other undesirable elements.

What’s more, from 1910 to 1970, part of the area was home to the Yuma city dump. The first phase of the project targeted a 110-acre site just west of town called the West Wetlands, where the city’s landfill had been located for the better part of a century. After layering eight feet of fill on top of the site, the commission constructed an attractive park.

Another 1,400 acres in what’s called the Yuma East Wetlands is the setting for a more recent and ongoing project. The area fell under the jurisdiction of more than a dozen landowners, the largest of which was the Quechan tribe of American Indians. Relations between the tribe and the city weren’t particularly good, but with some consensus-building on the part of Flynn and others, an agreement was reached that helped pave the way.

In fact, Flynn cites the coming together of several disparate community factions as the main reason for the project’s overall success. He says that the residents of Yuma, its local farmers, members of the local Native American tribe and the federal government were “odd bedfellows” by any measure, but they eventually all understood that the benefits of the project were in everyone’s best interest.

With these early phases largely completed, the project has now restored some 400 acres of land along the river, with hundreds of thousands of trees, vegetation and grasses having been planted. The multi-use area has become a major attraction for local residents and visitors alike.

“We have a three-and-a-half-mile hiking trail on the south side of the river, maintenance trails, a nice overlook about a half mile from downtown, along the river,” Flynn notes. “And, on the tribal side, there’s a nice park.”

The challenge now is maintaining all the fruits of the project’s labor, Flynn says.

“What we eventually saw as being vital to the project’s continuation was to build inadequate maintenance for all the work that was accomplished,” he says, adding that a 50-year agreement negotiated with the federal Bureau of Reclamation—which manages the project—will ensure that.

“The beauty of it,” Flynn continues, “is that we now have a mechanism to ensure that what we’ve already accomplished will continue.”

The Yuma Crossing project, led by executive director Charles Flynn (inset), aims to restore a 2,000-acre area bordering the Colorado River.

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