- Author: Douglas Towne
- Category: History
- Issue: Sep 2011
Arizona has produced some bizarre ideas, but perhaps none of them is stranger than a 1960s plan to detonate atomic bombs near Phoenix to help supply the Valley with water.
The audacious idea began in 1964 with the formation of the Arizona Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) to “encourage more development and uses of atomic energy in Arizona,” according to its pamphlet, The Peaceful Atom in Arizona. In 1967, the AAEC stated that nuclear explosions might prove more economical than traditional construction methods for creating reservoirs and water transmission tunnels for the Central Arizona Project, which would transport water uphill from the Colorado River to Phoenix. Although some federal officials thought the idea had merit, the AAEC didn’t persuade the Arizona Interstate Stream Commissioners, who were in charge of the project.
Undeterred, the AAEC proposed another plan to set off nuclear explosions at 14 sites around the state for water development. Detonations just below the surface would create large craters that would increase water supplies by recharging stream flow and perhaps even form permanent lakes. The runoff captured by the effects of the atomic blasts could add “2-to-3 million acre-feet of water to the Arizona supply... roughly equivalent to the potential of the Central Arizona Project,” according to a 1968 Phoenix Gazette article. Known as “Project Aquarius,” the first nuclear detonations were tentatively scheduled at a site along Clear Creek south of Winslow. The plan was canceled in 1969, however, because of public outcry. No atomic blast ever took place.