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Bill Walton and the wash

Scottsdale’s first park, Eldorado, celebrates its 50th anniversary Sept. 30. Eldorado is more than a park, however. It was the first piece of a visionary project that not only transformed Scottsdale, but also the science of flood control.
Many people played a role in the evolution of Eldorado Park and the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt. What follows is the story of one of those pioneers:

 

Bill Walton   

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Scottsdale’s future was literally being swamped in the 1960s by a brush-choked, impassable gash dividing the community in two. The Slough, as it was called back then, was a marshy low point that carried rain runoff from the Valley’s northern mountains to the Salt River basin in Tempe.

It was an unbuildable no-man’s land and the Army Corps of Engineers had a plan to fix it – a 150-foot wide concrete ditch extending seven miles through the heart of Scottsdale. Drawings depicted a sterile and intimidating solution, similar to the cement banks of the L.A. River, a landscape made famous by a chase scene from the Terminator movie.

Bill Walton was fresh out of Iowa State University at the time, with a wife, four kids and a new job as a landscape architect for a Scottsdale firm. To save money, Walton rode his bike to work, crossing the often muddy Slough.

During those trips, he’d notice how the dirt and gravel in the channel could be pushed around by floodwaters, but grass on the nearby Villa Monterrey Golf Course remained intact.

“I started to investigate the type of soil in there and the grass,” he said. “I thought you could put grass in this whole thing and make it work.”

Walton wrote a column for the Scottsdale Progress newspaper proposing an alternative to the Terminator-esque concrete ditch. It was published in February, 1964.

“Scottsdale had one swimming pool and that was their park,” said Walton. “With all that open space (in the Slough) I just felt that would be a great place to have something like Central Park. I thought, well boy, to have a seven-and-a-half mile park through the middle of the city that would be kind of neat.”  

The column urged the fledgling township of Scottsdale to think beyond the Army’s concrete ditch and imagine the immense recreational and cultural value of a transformed Slough.

“If we have foresight and boldness why couldn’t we create in Scottsdale a park similar to the one in New York,” his column asked. “The entire open space area could stagger the imagination with all the possibilities …”

Walton’s words were visionary and they inspired a swift call to action.

At 10 p.m. the night after his column appeared, Walton was startled to hear a knock at his door. “It was two members of the City Council and they asked me if I would chair a committee to see if (the parks idea) was feasible,” he said. 

If may have been the most influential cold call in Scottsdale history.

It launched Walton on a 40-year career in public service. It jump started the influential planning process dubbed the Scottsdale Town Enrichment Program. And perhaps most importantly, it laid the groundwork for the Indian Bend Wash, a project that would change the face of Scottsdale and revolutionize flood control.

The vision may have been simple, but turning the idea into reality was a marathon struggle that battled federal bureaucracy, voter suspicion and the strapped finances of an infant community.

“Scottsdale … didn’t have a lot of money,” Walton explained. “They didn’t have a tax base that was worthwhile.”

What Scottsdale lacked in cash it made up for with tenacity, imagination and that rarest of political commodities – a shared community vision.

“There were tons of people who supported it,” said Walton. “When you get a lot of 7-0 (Council) votes … that simply meant to the community that we should be doing this.”

Land for the future Eldorado Park – Scottsdale’s first park -- was acquired. The city adopted a density transfer policy, where property owners who donated land for the greenbelt could place that lost development potential on to parcels they owned outside the wash.

As the project moved forward, Walton remembers the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies asking tough questions and demanding adherence to seemingly impossible standards.

“They started throwing out all these rules,” he said. “You couldn’t put up a fence unless it broke away … you couldn’t plant trees … all these kinds of things.” 

The city hired additional planners to develop new concepts and meet the rules. Time tempered initial optimism. Opposition formed, maintaining the greenbelt was too ambitious and expensive. Several bond proposals failed. Years passed with only incremental progress.

“Then we got a little help from Mother Nature,” Walton said.  In 1972 record rains swelled the wash and flooded several neighborhoods. 

“The Council in their wisdom decided to have another bond election,” Walton said. “Because of that flood, the bond issue passed 7 to 1. So we had our money.”

The Corps of Engineers and Maricopa County finally came around to support the greenbelt plan. The pieces – land acquisition, ordinances, park development – slowly came together.

When the golf course that would eventually be known as Silverado opened in 1999, the greenbelt was complete.

Today, more than 63,000 people live within walking distance of the Indian Bend Wash and its parks, golf courses, lakes and recreation paths. 

The wash and the innovative methods used to create it have been honored and copied across the globe. The project was named one of the nation’s top engineering feats in 1974. In 1981, the wash was the subject of a multimedia exhibit at the 11th International Congress on Irrigation and Drainage in Grenoble, France.

The project was also honored with a Medallion Award from the state chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The greenbelt joined an impressive group of landmarks singled out for the award, including Grand Canyon National Park and the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. 

Walton, whose newspaper column helped launch the greenbelt project, would eventually become the city’s planning director. He would also serve two terms on the City Council, as well as stints on the planning, airport and parks and recreation commissions.

He’s still active with efforts to revitalize the McDowell corridor and enhance Scottsdale tourism. And he’s never lost his passion for what he believes built the greenbelt and still makes Scottsdale special.

“You’ve got to work together. Everybody has to be involved,” he said. “A good idea is going to be broken down. It’s going to be put together in different ways. But eventually if you hang in there, you can do it. We proved that as a city.”

Walton also spends time on the greenbelt -- enjoying the fruits of his labor. He plays golf and goes for walks along its paths. He understands more than most what it took to create this Scottsdale jewel. 

“It’s part of my history,” he said. “I’m honored to be known as the father of the Indian Bend Wash … but so many others worked to make it possible. We had such tremendous political will to make it happen. That’s one of the things I love about Scottsdale.”

 

 

 

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