There were no autumn leaves or football games when Phoenix celebrated an unusual early Thanksgiving on April 26, 1941, and the rejoicing had nothing to do with bumper corn crops or plentiful turkeys. Instead, the 50,000 grateful residents who gathered Downtown were giving thanks for that most basic of resources – clean, potable, life-sustaining water.
Hosted by Arizona Governor Sidney Osborn, the hydrologic fiesta marked the end of a long, debilitating drought – similar to the sustained dry period that erased the Hohokam civilization from the Valley in the 1400s, as some historians speculate. Obviously, Phoenix would survive and flourish. But it took a timely wet winter and a vastly improved water infrastructure to make it happen.
Modern water development in the Valley began in 1867 when Jack Swilling reused ancient Hohokam canals to divert water from the Salt River to irrigate his crops. Early Phoenix residents also drank from the canals, though water quality was suspect. This was especially so downstream of saloons, which commonly cleaned their spittoons in the ditches. “Desist, gentlemen, from this foul practice,” implored the Phoenix Herald in 1882.
The Phoenix Water Company, a private enterprise, began serving the young city from shallow wells located on a small hill near Ninth and Polk streets in 1889. The city purchased the company in 1907 and continued using the somewhat salty groundwater. In 1922, Phoenix improved water quality by constructing a 28-mile, gravity-fed, redwood pipeline to obtain a fresh supply from the Verde River.
The fragile pipeline was Phoenix’s largest public works project at that time. “The redwood proved an attractive target for water rustlers, who shot holes in the pipe to capture a cool drink,” Douglas E. Kupel wrote in his book Fuel for Growth: Water and Arizona’s Urban Environment. A concrete pipeline replaced the leaky redwood conduit in 1931.
Concurrently, Valley farmers sought a more dependable water source for irrigation than the fickle Salt River, which often had meager flows during summer’s critical growing season. The U.S. Reclamation Service completed Roosevelt Dam, the cornerstone of the Valley’s water supply, in 1911. Salt River Project built three smaller downstream dams on the Salt River and Bartlett Dam on the Verde River by 1939. This system provided enough water to irrigate 242,000 acres across the Valley.
Phoenix and the rest of the Valley appeared to have an adequate water infrastructure to handle Mother Nature’s vagaries, but they were soon put to the test. By 1920, Roosevelt Lake – the main water source – had filled and overflowed the dam’s spillways four times, but a prolonged dry spell began that same year. Spotty rainfall caused lawns to brown and public swimming pools to go unfilled. The drought occurred almost 50 years before the Central Arizona Project and its diverted Colorado River would be available in the Valley. There were no other streams to tap for supplies. Farmers also suffered as Roosevelt Lake went dry. “Those planning to visit Roosevelt [Lake] should pack their own water in with them,” advised Lin B. Orme, president of the Salt River Water Users’ Association, in a 1940 Arizona Republic article.
The situation became so dire by 1939 that there were worries violence might result from the acute water shortage. The Phoenix Gazette described Roosevelt Lake as a “mud hole in which fish died by the thousands and even the mud cracked and baked into a hard unsightly pattern of bluish ooze” in 1940.
The little available river water was rationed to Valley farmers, who increasingly had to rely on groundwater supplied by wells. So many new irrigation pumps were being installed that an emergency power line was built to provide extra electricity from Hoover Dam.
The drought also struck Phoenix hard, even though the city had a population of 65,450 in 1940 compared to today’s 1.5 million. The city’s water usage had increased due to the popularity of evaporative swamp coolers and new military facilities sparked by World War II.
The Verde River’s reduced flow decreased the amount of water the city’s pipeline conveyed. The smaller water supply and hot weather caused Phoenix’s water reserves to dwindle to 5 percent of capacity in June 1940. The city temporarily banned lawn watering and kept the large community pool at Coronado Park near 12th Street and McDowell Road near Downtown Phoenix empty, using that well water for municipal use.
These temporary emergency measures helped, but by August, the city was frantically putting backup wells into operation to stave off more water shortages. Plans were approved to drill additional wells, but, “In an ironic turn of events, the delay in well drilling was partly attributable to wet weather causing difficult construction conditions,” Kupel wrote.
By October 1940, generous rains allowed Phoenix to rescind water use restrictions; precipitation continued into March. The subsequent runoff filled the five Salt River Project reservoirs for the first time, and the excess water caused flooding in the Valley. The impact of the wet year was apparent to Valley leaders, as agriculture was still by far the most important sector of the local economy. “The measure of water in our reservoirs is the measure of our prosperity in the Salt River Valley,” Orme said to The Arizona Republic.
To celebrate, Governor Osborn declared a “Day of Thanksgiving for Water.” The 50,000 revelers were urged to dress in either Western wear or Mexican fiesta costumes. To create a suitably rollicking atmosphere, organizers assembled the largest band concert ever staged in Arizona, combining 500 musicians from Valley high schools and colleges.
Many of the festivities took place Downtown. Central Avenue, which had been transformed into a giant outdoor chuck wagon restaurant creating seats for 500 diners using tables improvised from pine boards and hay bales, was party central. In front of the Heard Building was a stage with a model of Roosevelt Dam, from which water poured over the spillways of the 24-feet-long by 16-feet-high replica to symbolize Arizona’s newfound liquid abundance. Cornucopias overflowing with the Valley’s crops flanked the dam. An example of the resulting agricultural bounty caused by the wet weather was the more than 100 tomatoes grown on a single plant by Phoenix resident Mrs. F.C. Barnett, according to the Gazette.
At the Arizona State Fairgrounds, King Neptune made an appearance, trident in hand, along with his court of swimsuit-clad sea nymphs recruited from Arizona State Teacher’s College. Speeches and lunch began at noon, and dancing in the streets below a cascading waterfall of fireworks went on past midnight in what was one of the Valley’s largest celebrations.
Since this close brush with natural disaster, the Valley has continued to invest in developing a sustainable water supply. “Despite the historic severity of the drought from 2011 to 2016, the Phoenix metropolitan area never faced mandatory water use restrictions,” says Charlie Ester, SRP manager of surface water resources. “We expect to continue to protect our future water supplies from the next inevitable drought. After all, we live in the desert, and drought conditions are more the norm than not.”
Still, Kupel warns that while our infrastructure is very highly developed today compared to 1941, we shouldn’t get too complacent when it comes to water planning. “A water crisis can happen here, and it did happen,” he says.
After the previous decades’ dry conditions, drought remains a reality in Arizona. “I hear these television weather forecasters talking about what a ‘wet winter’ we had this year,” says Marshall Trimble, Arizona State Historian. “Shoot! We’ve still got a deficit.”