A once trash-laden irrigation ditch that runs parallel to the César Chávez Border Highway has found new life as a recreational trail that’s welcoming borderland residents to walk, run or bike along its 25-foot wide banks.
“This is an amenity we always admire when we visit other places, so it’s nice to see them in our backyard,” said Tracy Yellen, CEO of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation. “Especially when it makes active living an easy choice for our residents.”
The Playa Drain Trail, which runs about 3.4 miles from Ascarate Park to Riverside Park in the Lower Valley, is the first portion of a planned 60-mile trail spanning El Paso County. It takes its name from the historic irrigation system that runs alongside it.
A ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday and a community event Saturday celebrated the opening of the trail – a partnership with the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, city of El Paso and El Paso Water. The nonprofit Creative Kids was also part of the project, working with students from the Ysleta Independent School District to create ceramic tile murals along the trail.
The recreational linear trail had long been a dream of former Paso del Norte Health Foundation CEO Myrna Deckert, and new and improved trails were among the projects under the city’s 2012 quality of life bond.
With a piece of land that seemed wasted at hand, the banks of the ditch became a field of dreams.
The health foundation spent about $3 million from its Healthy Eating and Active Living initiative to design and build the trail along the ditch where salt water from the cotton fields that once bloomed in the area used to flow.
El Paso Water bought the ditch from the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 for about $2.75 million in 2015 for use as part of its storm water system, said John Balliew, president and CEO of El Paso Water.
“This three-way partnership is a win-win for the community and is a model for delivering needed improvements in this part of El Paso,” Balliew said. “We feel that open spaces contribute to a healthy lifestyle.”
And that’s exactly why the trail was created, Yellen said, citing that two-thirds of El Paso’s population is overweight or obese, and one-third of residents have little or no recreation near them.
“We want to make recreational opportunities more accessible to more people from our neighborhoods so you don’t always have to drive out to the mountains for a hike or a walk,” Yellen said. “And we want to do that using facilities that make sense for recreation.”
Playa Drain has trees, benches, picnic tables, shade structures, exercise equipment, bridges, bicycle racks, drinking fountains, and signage and markers along the trail – $300,000 in amenities paid for through the city’s quality of life bond funds.
The city is now working to install lighting in some portions of the trail. The Rio Grande Cancer Foundation donated sunscreen stations for the project.
“We want people to use the trail, to go out with their kids, meet and mingle with each other, with their neighbors, enjoy our great outdoors, and get some exercise out of it,” said Tracy Novak, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s not just another thing to do in El Paso, but something new and different and healthy.”
The 13 Creative Kids murals will mark every quarter-mile so users can track their recreation all the while enjoying the colorful artwork by students from Cedar Grove and Ascarate elementary schools, Riverside middle and high schools and Tejas School of Choice.
“It was a great opportunity to collaborate with a nonprofit, the foundation and the school system to showcase the kids’ talent through visual art while at the same time beautifying our community,” said Stephen Ingle, creative director and co-founder of Creative Kids.
Novak describes the trail as a necklace with segments being pearls that connect back to the main string. One of the sections, or pearls, connects to Independence Trail by Shawver Park, and another connects Ysleta High School to Capistrano Park.
“People are so excited about this trail, from this small portion to the larger picture of connecting countywide,” Novak said.
The next step is to extend the trail from Riverside High School to Ysleta High School – just under two miles. That’s estimated to cost another $1.5 million, with a $50,000 donation already in the bucket from Andeavor (formerly Western Refining) for that section’s design.
But the big vision is to extend it in both directions so it runs from the Upper Valley to the Mission Valley – a 60-mile trail in all.
“That’s the big dream, the big picture,” Yellen said. “We hope that once people see this first section it will build momentum and more excitement about the possibilities. They’re endless.”