It was spring, 1963, and we were hiking up the canyon along the east Verde River from our cabin, which is at the end of the private land. The canyon slopes gently upward until the last 1,500-foot ascent rises sharply to the top of the Mogollon Rim. We had been irresistibly called by the wilderness, and decided to sit in silence. We listened as birds darted about and watched a water ouzel do its dance. The tassel eared squirrels scurried up and down waving their long, full tails, and we whispered to each other about the awesome beauty of this place.
Our meditation was interrupted by the roar of a diesel engine. Rousing ourselves, we followed a deer trail to an opening where we beheld a giant Caterpillar tractor widening the old pioneer’s trail, pushing giant boulders into a wash. We were hypnotized by this intrusion into our sanctuary. Suddenly a sharp “crack” echoed against the canyon walls, and an ancient Douglas fir tree snapped wildly into a severe lean. The “Cat” had clipped the mighty tree with its deadly blade. An eerie look of power crossed the face of the driver as he prepared to finish his mistake. One push of a gear and the great tree came down, torn up at the roots and felling two lesser trees in its descent. I felt I had witnessed an execution.
This operation was a small part of the Phelps-Dodge Mining Company’s plan to bring water over the Rim from its newly created Blue Ridge Reservoir. They were required to replace water used from high up in the Salt River drainage for the growing mine operation at Clifton-Morenci. This was the third such project since World War II when increased copper supplies were critical. The first diverted water from the Black River was in exchange for the company building the Horseshoe Dam on the Verde River to store the extra flow. In 1952 the company replaced yet more water by building the Show Low, or Jaques Dam, pumping water over the Rim into the Salt River for storage at Roosevelt. Now the third exchange agreement between Phelps-Dodge and the Salt River Project resulted in building the Blue Ridge Dam on East Clear Creek, bringing water from the Little Colorado River drainage into the East Verde River. From there it would eventually end up in the Salt River at Phoenix.
The plan was unique. The reservoir at Blue Ridge would have a tunnel-aqueduct bored into the mountain at a 7,000-foot altitude, and the water, carried by gravity, would empty into the East Verde at about the 6,000-foot level. All summer and fall the mighty Caterpillars plowed their way through the forest and along the river to make a viable road for equipment needed to drill the nine-mile aqueduct through the Rim.
For the next year we watched with mixed emotions as the drilling took place far up-river, and a narrow gauge railroad for hauling rock was installed. However, the Rim fought back just as it had for the pipe-dreamers in 1883 who attempted a tunnel in the Rim. That time they planned for a railroad to connect Flagstaff with southern Arizona. Then they ran out of money. This time the ground was too unstable, the fault lines too numerous, and the springs of water ever-present. A unique alternative was planned. A ten-mile, 33-inch pipeline was laid over the Rim, causing much more disruption of the forested canyon. Water flowed out of the reservoir through a 3,500-foot tunnel that had been bored below the surface of the rising Blue Ridge Lake. Then eight electric pumps drew the water up a 435-foot shaft to where it was deposited in the pipeline. Gravity carried the water down the mountain to a small hydroelectric generating plant before being discharged into the river. These turbines produced enough electricity to operate the pumps on top of the Rim.
By the summer of 1965 a gushing flow of water from East Clear Creek was racing past our cabin, at least quadrupling its normal year-around flow. We loved it, and felt ready to forgive the damage to the forest. The increased water acted as a giant evaporative cooler in summer; Game and Fish rangers paid weekly visits to our cabin neighborhood to plant more than 200 rainbow trout, a boon for all the grandchildren to catch their limit.
Included in the agreement with Phelps Dodge was an option for the Salt River Project to buy the project when the mining company no longer needed it. This happened in 2005. Immediately Payson and other communities located near the pipeline vied to buy water rights from SRP. Years of red tape and many hoops to jump through have been negotiated since then, and a 16-inch pipeline is planned to transfer the water from the large pipeline on the upper East Verde to Payson. Obviously this requires yet more uprooting of the forest under the Rim, but every step of the entire project, from start to finish, has meant compromising the values many people hold dear.
At the time the SRP purchased the project from Phelps-Dodge the name of the dam and reservoir was changed to C. C. Cragin, in honor of SRP’s General Superintendent in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a visionary for the various dam sites on the Salt River and for the importance of using SRP’s water management to generate electricity.
The Cragin Reservoir has a surface of 100 acres with an average depth to 40 feet. It is stocked with trout and the fishing is good. However, the shoreline is very steep, and a boat or other floating device is needed. There are restrooms and camping areas at the lake.
It is with nostalgia that we recall lazy days at the cabin, when the gentle flow of the upper East Verde made it easy to call to our neighbors across the river, planning a potluck with leftovers after a weekend of company, or a get-together around a campfire. In those days the children could safely play in the river, building little dams, fishing by hand, or just enjoying a splash under the nearby waterfall. The “big water” changed that, but again the joy of rushing mountain water and the weekly stocking of trout make it easy to adjust. The “big water” will continue to run its course down to the East Verde until enough water has been drawn and the system shuts down. However with each return of a large flow many up and down the river will rejoice – except when it floods.
Next: Bray Creek