A History of the Salt River Project

A desert transformed:
Water reclamation key to growth

In 1867, people from across the nation were traveling to Arizona in search of their fortunes. Prospectors found a mother lode of copper ore in the rugged mountains of Central and Southern Arizona. In the Salt River Valley, settlers saw the promise of productive agriculture in desert landscape made lush by seasonal rainfall and runoff from mountain snowmelt. It was an oasis known for "eight months of heaven," but an undependable water supply and searing summer heat also meant "four months of hell."

Jack Swilling One of the adventurers was John W. "Jack" Swilling, who first observed the impressions left by ancient irrigation canals constructed by the Hohokam Indians centuries before. Swilling was intrigued with the challenge of re-constructing these canals to deliver water from the Salt River to land that could be cultivated.

His enthusiasm attracted business partners, and soon the Swilling Irrigating Canal Company dug what is now known as Swilling's Ditch. This first canal, built in 1868 and first known as "The Salt River Valley Canal," is located near 40th Street and Van Buren and runs West through Phoenix to the Agua Fria River. It enticed more people to settle in the area and reap the benefits of a revitalized irrigation system.

More irrigation companies sprang up, but the problem of managing crop production with spring floods and summer droughts became increasingly difficult, threatening the survival of the Valley's fragile farming economy.

How those early citizens of the Valley solved the problem of flood followed by drought is a story of how the metropolitan Phoenix area became the thriving Southwestern community it is today. It is a story of a community still challenged with the task of managing its water --- the most important of natural resources - and with sustaining life in a harsh environment. And it is the story of an organization that has evolved over a century into a water and energy provider that is still a prime contributor to the economic vitality of Central Arizona.

It is the story of the Salt River Project, a 100-year-old Arizona institution focused on a vibrant future.

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Desert droughts afflict the Valley

By 1889, the Valley enjoyed an advanced irrigation system, but still suffered from summer droughts. Crops and cattle were dying. The community needed a more permanent solution. This led three men to load up pack mules in the middle of August to scout dam sites in the sandstone and red rock mountains along the Salt River northeast of the Valley.

Click to enlarge Those men -- William Breckinridge, James McClintock and John R. Norton -- identified the Tonto Basin dam site in a narrow canyon 80 miles northeast of Phoenix. They believed a dam at the site could store the winter snow and rain runoff from the mountains above the Salt River providing a steady supply for delivery through the canals in the summer. The site would become the location for Theodore Roosevelt Dam.

For more than a decade, private companies and local communities tried unsuccessfully to finance a dam at the Tonto site. Meanwhile, a national movement was growing for federal financing of water reclamation projects.

George H. Maxwell, a California water lawyer, became the leader of an alliance of business interests and advocates for federal irrigation projects throughout 16 Western states. Arizona businessman Benjamin A. Fowler quickly assumed leadership among local advocates.

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National Reclamation Act

By 1901, Fowler was in Washington, DC, to lobby Congress on Arizona's behalf. Fowler and Maxwell worked together with Rep. Francis G. Newlands of Nevada and Sen. Henry Hansbrough of North Dakota on draft legislation that would provide a way for local organizations in the West to borrow money from the federal government to build water storage and delivery projects.

Click to enlarge When Theodore Roosevelt became President, the four gained an ally. President Roosevelt knew the future of the United States lay beyond the Mississippi River, and even beyond the Great Plains. He also understood that the management of the West's natural resources - especially water -- was key to its future. Roosevelt signed the National Reclamation Act on June 17, 1902. The act authorized the financing mechanism advocated by Fowler and his cohorts.

A triumphant Fowler returned to Arizona and began organizing citizens to take advantage of the new law. To obtain the loan necessary to build the dam, settlers had to use their own land as collateral. The owners of 200,000 acres of Valley land formed the Salt River Valley Water Users Association, and became shareholders in the organization, according to how much land they owned.

Among them were citizens such as Fowler, rancher-merchant Frank Alkire (who later would become the first publisher of Arizona Highways and also would bring telephone service to Phoenix), brothers William and George Christy (who founded the bank that today is Bank One Arizona), rancher, school principal and attorney Frank Parker, veterinarian and land developer A. J. Chandler and territorial Judge Joseph Kibbey.

Judge Kibbey wrote the Articles of Incorporation for the Salt River Valley Water Users' Association, which prescribed how the Association would be organized and managed and would represent the landowners to the government. Fowler became the Association's first president. Shortly thereafter, the dam project at Tonto Basin site became one of the first five projects authorized under the Reclamation Act.

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Arizona water rights

As construction began, the Association worked out differences among its members, or shareholders, and clarified their water rights through a lawsuit, Hurley vs. Abbott. Settled in 1910, the decision became known as the Kent decree in recognition of the presiding judge, Edward H. Kent. It is a landmark in water law that still governs water management in Arizona today.

Building the dam

The dam was built by the U.S. Reclamation Service under supervision of Louis C. Hill. Stones for the dam were cut out of the canyon walls and set in cement manufactured at the site. Work went on around the clock, but was interrupted by several powerful floods in 1905. At least a dozen men died in the construction.

Click to enlarge Hill found creative ways to meet the challenges of the rugged and remote site. When he discovered how expensive it would be to ship concrete to the site, he built a concrete factory on-site. He also established a lumberyard and a power plant. The end result was a dam constructed in ways that would be repeated at other dam sites throughout the West in the early years of the 20th Century.

When finished in 1911, the dam and associated works cost $10.3 million, and stood as an unprecedented technological feat -- 284 feet high, 184 feet thick at the base, and 16 feet wide at the crest. The dam created a lake 30 miles long and 4 miles wide that held enough water to serve the growing Valley for five years.

Completion of the dam was a major community milestone worthy of dedication by the man for whom the dam was named, former President Theodore Roosevelt. So on March 19, 1911, Roosevelt rode in an automobile caravan over gravel roads up the twisting and turning Apache Trail to the crest of the dam.

"Reclamation has always been dear to my heart," Roosevelt told the crowd, noting the passage of the Reclamation Act and the completion of the Panama Canal as the two most important achievements of his Presidency.

The dam was finished, but the work of the Salt River Valley Water Users' Association was just beginning.

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Ownership of the Salt River Project

In 1917, the Association took over operation of the dam and canal structures, but the federal government retained ownership. Rights to the water stored and delivered by the system belonged to the landowner-shareholders of the Association.

Car by a canal Also by 1917, the Association had assumed full responsibility of the Salt River Project. Water was delivered to 4,800 Valley customers and power from Theodore Roosevelt Dam's hydroelectric facilities was sold on a wholesale basis to 49 customers. Arizona and the Salt River Valley would continue to grow.

In the 1920's, the Association constructed three hydropower dams below Theodore Roosevelt Dam - which provided additional water to allow approximately 10,000 acres to join the Project. The Mormon Flat, Horse Mesa, and Stewart Mountain dams allowed for 53,000 kilowatts of additional hydropower generating capacity.

Originally only an industrial supplier to the copper mines northeast of Phoenix, the Association began building a rural electric delivery system in 1928 to provide power to the farms of Association shareholders. This development resulted in the rural areas of the Salt River Valley being electrified nearly 10 years before the national Rural Electrification Act did the same thing, in essentially the same way, for the rest of rural America as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

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Tough times lead to creation of Power District

By the early 1930s, Arizona was experiencing the worst of the Great Depression, and the Association had difficulty making its debt payments. Power sales dropped when the copper mines closed. When jobless miners and their families began leaving the area, farmers lost an important market for their goods, and were unable to pay Association water assessments. Both of the Association's major revenue sources were threatened.

Early Phoenix street scene Salvation came in 1936 when the Arizona Legislature passed an amendment to an existing law, which allowed the formation of agricultural improvement districts (which are units of government that can finance themselves with tax-free bonds). This amendment allowed for the creation of the second part of SRP -- the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District -- as a means of refinancing Association debt at a lower cost.

The power district map boundaries conformed, for the most part, with the Association's territory. Voting rights were given to property owners in the district on the basis of one vote per acre. The theory, still true today, was that those with the largest land-holdings bore the greatest debt responsibility and risk, and therefore should have the largest say in governing the District.

The Association continued to manage water while the District was given the authority to sell power. The result helped keep both water and power rates low and framed what is known across the West as the Reclamation Principle - "Power is the paying partner of water."

For customers, the Reclamation Principle resulted in more reasonably priced water and power, and strongly assisted Arizona's economic revival in the 1930s. Today, this principle is still behind SRP's core mission of providing affordably priced water and power for the benefit of customers and shareholders, and continues to be an important contributor to the economic vitality of the Salt River Valley.

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Post-war boom

In its first half century, SRP was primarily a provider of water and power to the rural parts of the Salt River Valley. The service area for irrigation water included 240,000 acres within a permanent boundary, which had been proven feasible for agriculture. Phoenix and the other towns within the Project boundary totaled less than 10,000 acres, and supplied their own drinking water from wells. Many SRP shareholders within city limits, though, also received irrigation for their yards or small farms.

Accounting Office World War II transformed Central Arizona and the Phoenix area. Copper mining, again, thrived because of the need for the metal in the war effort. SRP and Phelps Dodge cooperated to build Horseshoe Dam on the Verde River to secure water for the copper mining company's operations.

Year-round good weather also made Central Arizona the favorite location for military flight training. Thousands of young men introduced to the Valley's mild weather and stunning desert vistas would return post-war to establish careers and families. By the end of the century, a baby boom-driven era of growth would propel Phoenix to its status as the sixth largest city in the United States.

In 1947, Illinois-based Motorola established a major outpost in Phoenix, bringing the first of a string of high tech businesses to Arizona and becoming, in its heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, the state's largest private employer and one of SRP's largest customers. Air conditioning was introduced as a residential amenity, making life livable in Phoenix year-round. Tourism, always a linchpin of Arizona's economy, also grew. New housing subdivisions and commercial and industrial development replaced farms. Such growth - much of it in SRP service territory -- meant the Valley maintained a voracious appetite for electricity and a need for water, despite the decline of agriculture.

In response, SRP set about the dual task of rehabilitating water delivery and electric transmission systems that were a half-century old, and expanding both to meet growing need. That meant lining canals with gunite and replacing rotting wooden delivery gates with metal to lessen water loss through leakage. It also required converting a 25-cycle electric system to the modern and more reliable 60-cycle system.

SRP also was lobbying aggressively for the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The CAP was designed as a 330-mile canal to carry Arizona's share of Colorado River water from the California border to Phoenix and Tucson. Finally authorized in 1968, the canal was completed in the mid-1980s and provides Arizona with another important source of surface water.

On the electric side of the business, SRP built three steam-generating plants in the Phoenix area to serve its growing territory. It also became a major player in the building of an electric transmission system across the Southwest that enabled multiple utilities to deliver electricity generated at power plants in the Four Corners area and hydro facilities along the Colorado River into their local communities.

By the 1970s, SRP was a leading partner in several regional coal-fired power plant projects. SRP built and operated the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona, and built another coal-fired plant - the Coronado Generating Station - in St. Johns, Arizona. SRP also joined the Arizona Nuclear Resource Study Group, which would assess the loads, resource needs, hazards and the optimum installation size and siting issues for what would become the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Eventually, SRP secured a 17% share of the plant, which now operated by Arizona Public Service.

By 1980, SRP was generating nearly 13 billion kilowatt hours of electricity for 357,000 electric customers.

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The floods of 1980

Though SRP was formed in part to harness floodwaters for beneficial use at the turn of the century, unprecedented snow and rainfall on the Central Arizona watershed in the late 1970s presented SRP with one of its greatest challenges ever.

SRP officials realized during flooding in 1978 that more information was needed regarding weather, rainfall and runoff in order to make decisions about water resource management. Joint studies by SRP and the federal government determined that a catastrophe could ensue if the state were hit in rapid succession by a series of three progressively heavier storms. After two years working to establish an emergency response team with the city of Phoenix, the unthinkable appeared to become reality.

On a Thursday, Valentine's Day 1980, a storm hit Central Arizona dumping nearly 10 inches of water on the mountainous watershed that drains into the Salt and Verde rivers. A second storm was expected Saturday morning, and still a third was expected as early as the following Wednesday.

Precipitation from an already wet winter had substantially filled the reservoirs behind the Salt River dams. Fear of flooding forced crews at Theodore Roosevelt Dam to move out of the power house to an emergency post at the top of the dam. They spent the night inside the shaking dam, listening to the roar of the water as it was released through the spillways.

Water pouring through the dam spillways peaked at about 180,000 cubic feet per second, the largest controlled flow ever to go down the Salt River. The dam was only inches from overflowing the crest. Had it overtopped, the dam would have breached, creating a waterfall plunging 284 feet-more than two times the drop at Niagara Falls. The uncontrolled flow would have cascaded down the Salt River, eventually breaching Stewart Mountain Dam downstream. Within hours, a floodplain through the Phoenix area would extend a mile north and south of the usually dry Salt River bed. Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt ordered preparations for the evacuation of thousands of residents and businesses in the extended flood path.

Fortunately, the second and third storms did not have the expected impact. Neither Theodore Roosevelt nor Stewart Mountain dams breached, but severe damage was done. The Phoenix metropolitan area suffered more than $70 million in destruction to roads, bridges and other structures. SRP facilities sustained $6 million in damage.

This brush with disaster, plus reams of hydrologic and meteorological studies convinced SRP that Theodore Roosevelt Dam and the rest of the dams on the Salt and Verde rivers required upgrading to state-of-the art engineering safety standards. SRP became the champion for the National Safety of Dams Act, which eventually funded more than $400 million in improvements on the Salt and Verde dams.

By partnering with the Valley cities and the federal government, SRP also added flood control features to Theodore Roosevelt Dam and more water storage capacity. On April 12, 1996, SRP rededicated a Theodore Roosevelt Dam that was 70 feet higher with lake capacity expanded by 20 percent.

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Environmental stewardship

As a water and power manager in the fragile Arizona environment, natural resource stewardship had always been a core value of SRP. The demand for power in the 1970s coincided with the rise of the environmental movement, making environmental mitigation as important as water and electricity supply. For example, when SRP built the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona in the 1970s, nearly a third of its $755 million cost was the result of environmental controls.

Navajo Generatiing StationNearly 20 years later, SRP retrofitted Navajo with an additional state-of-the-art emissions control system aimed at reducing unnatural haze in the Grand Canyon. The project resulted in a 90-percent decrease in sulfur dioxide emissions and praise from President George Bush who signed the Navajo Visibility Agreement at the Grand Canyon in 1991. The agreement was hailed as a creative and cost-effective solution to improving visibility at the Grand Canyon.

In the 1980s, SRP partnered with government and private agencies in a program to safeguard birds of prey, such as eagles and hawks, that might become entangled in power lines or other electrical facilities. SRP constructed perches to protect the birds from the energized lines, and began participation in a bald eagle nest watch program to help protect these birds in their natural habitat found within the SRP watershed.

In the late 1990s, SRP committed to a five-year, $29-million renewable energy development program. Since then SRP has completed a state-of-the-art landfill gas generation facility that harnesses methane gas released by decomposing trash; increased its generation from photovoltaics and constructed a low-flow hydroelectric generator on one of its Valley canals.

To help maximize water delivery while maintaining water quality, SRP in 1989 introduced the weed-eating White Amur fish into its canals, replacing tons of chemical weed deterrents. SRP also is working with Tempe, Chandler and Phoenix to beautify the canals. What were once waterways that helped spur commerce now are also valued aesthetic and recreational amenities.

The Salt River itself has been turned into a recreational development with the creation of the Tempe Town Lake in the Rio Salado area. SRP currently operates the dams that contain the lake under an agreement with the City of Tempe.