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Yuma hosting binational conference on Colorado River
Common ground: A river
Near San Luis, Ariz., on a stretch of wilderness that overlaps Arizona, California and Mexico, years of crime and environmental degradation have devastated 1,000 acres along the Colorado River.
This area, called Hunter's Hole on the U.S. side of the border, has been known by the U.S. Border Patrol, local police and the Yuma County Sheriff's Office as fertile ground for illegal crossings and criminal smuggling.
But a group of environmental, government and public safety workers on both sides of the border are trying to turn it into something else by restoring that portion of the river.
"If we could just restart the flow of water down, even just to San Luis along that stretch and restore that whole area, it would serve as inspiration maybe to other parts of the border," said Charles Flynn, executive director of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. "This is so unique because a community isn't fighting with the government or fighting with Mexico. We're trying to figure it out together."
This was the message of the Common Ground Conference, which brought Mexican environmental scientists and students to Yuma Thursday to meet with their local counterparts, along with government and law enforcement personnel.
The conference centers around the restoration of the Limitrophe Division of the river - a 1,000-acre area that includes the 450 acres of Hunter's Hole on the U.S. side. The project started about a year ago, according to Flynn, when the Heritage Area developed a concept plan to restore Hunter's Hole using input from the Border Patrol and YCSO.
The goal was to duplicate the work done in the Yuma East Wetlands. As the project moved forward, it gained the attention of Mexican environmental groups, who eventually formed a collaboration. They have been working together over the past few months on restoration efforts.
"We were doing similar things in Mexico ... We were kind of in the same interest of restoring. We came to meet and, it's not a large world in the environmental community and we learned about the environmental projects in Yuma," said Dr. Osvel Hinojosa Huerta, a representative for Pro-Natura.
From an environmental standpoint Hunter's Hole faces many of the same challenges that once plagued the East Wetlands, said Fred Phillips, principal consultant on the Wetlands project.
"It was basically a dump, not the kind of place you could take people walking," Phillips said.
Before the restoration efforts over the past three years, the wetlands were overgrown with invasive non-native plants. The tangled vegetation had made it a haven for crime, drugs and vagrants in Yuma, said Sheriff Ralph Ogden.
Restoring the wetlands has uncovered and curbed the crime in that area and it is hoped something similar will happen in Hunter's Hole.
Border Patrol Agent Betty Mills-Carilli said part of the Hunter's Hole project will clear brush, creating a visual corridor for agents patrolling the area. The border fence, which is supposed to be in place by December 2008, will go through there. But Carilli said they could work with restoration officials to build the fence around, and in complement, with Hunter's Hole.
"That area is predominant for smuggling - alien smuggling and drug trafficking. So, by having the fence in there is going to prevent the illegal flow of vehicles coming through and pedestrians coming through," Carilli said. "(Restoration workers) reached out to the chief patrol agent in charge for Yuma sector."
The project has gained international attention and is in the first stages of securing more funding. A $140,000 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation allowed the installation of groundwater pumps to aid in water restoration.
It is now entering the permitting stage. More funds will be needed to complete all necessary studies, excavate and create channels, construction wells and clear and replant vegetation.
Flynn said they hope to secure approximately $700,000 for that effort.
Hunter's Hole has gained the support of the city, Yuma County, the Cocopah Indian Tribe, state wildlife and environmental agencies and Mexican educational and environmental groups.
Representatives have been lobbying the federal government, both in the U.S. and Mexico, for further aid. Officials say they've received a lot of support but actual federal funding has not been secured at this time.
Thursday's leg of the conference unveiled the Limitrophe Binational Restoration Plan and brought stake-holders together to tour Hunter's Hole and the Yuma East and West Wetlands.
It will continue at 8:30 a.m. Friday with a roundtable discussion at Yuma City Hall, One City Plaza, that is open to the public.
Sarah Reynolds can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6847.