Roosevelt Dam Is 100 Years Old, Still Shaping History

SRP plans dual celebrations Friday and Saturday to mark centennial of the dam

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The completion of Roosevelt Dam in 1911 made modern Phoenix possible and launched the transformation of the American West.

Its builders threw an epic party at its dedication on March 18, 1911, with enough drawing power to prompt President Theodore Roosevelt to make the then-arduous buggy trip up the Apache Trail from Phoenix.

Now, the Salt River Project will throw a 100-year birthday party for a dam that served as one of the engineering wonders of the world — until eclipsed by the giant dams on the Colorado River like Hoover Dam.

The festivities include an invitation-only bash on Friday that will draw Gov. Jan Brewer, two Arizona congressmen and a host of dignitaries to witness the opening of a time capsule sealed in 1961 during the dam’s 50th birthday bash.

On Saturday, the Salt River Project will host tours of the dam for the general public.

The Saturday festivities will begin at the Roosevelt Lake Visitors Center, where complimentary shuttle buses will take visitors to the crest of the dam on a first-come, first-served basis, starting at 9 a.m. The last bus to the dam will depart from the Visitors Center at 3:30 p.m.

Once the world’s largest masonry dam, the construction of Roosevelt Dam still casts a long shadow across Rim Country’s water rights. Beset by floods and droughts, the big farmers in the Valley sought to control the Salt River, whose vagaries had first sustained and then collapsed the sprawling Hohokam civilization in the 1400s.

The growers in the Valley formed an irrigation district and pressed the federal government to build a dam on the Salt River. That led eventually to the construction of Roosevelt Dam and the creation of the Salt River Project, to manage water in the massive Roosevelt Lake and then in the much smaller reservoirs created by a chain of dams on the Salt and Verde rivers.

At the same time, Congress authorized construction of Roosevelt Dam, it created the Tonto National Forest to manage the watershed that drained into the Salt and Verde rivers. In creating the forest, Congress essentially ceded rights to all surface water to the Salt River Project — following the cynical western adage that water flows downhill to money.

All the communities of Rim Country have grown up in the shadow of that water right awarded mostly before they existed to the distant Valley users. SRP has spent the last century selling the water from Roosevelt Lake and its smaller reservoirs to Valley growers and homeowners, making the growth of the nation’s fifth largest city possible.

SRP has also spent that century defending its claim to the surface runoff from a wide a vast watershed, leading to an intricate network of lawsuits, court rulings and side deals. The giant utilities effort to use the arrival of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir to settle claims with a host of small communities pumping well water from alongside the East Verde River constitutes the latest spin off from that historic dam dedication a century ago.

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