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Winding Waterways of the Desert

Our Canal Origins

Many visitors to the Valley are intrigued (as they look out their airplane window) by the many winding water canal systems they see as they fl into Sky Harbor International Airport. The canals seem to be everywhere, and many are as they meander throughout the region. We have a total of nine canals that make up the Valley’s canal system, which have been developed over the past 100 years. The present system of canals was created primarily by three groups: the ancient Hohokam Indians, the pioneers, and the federal government. Here is how each played a role.

The Hohokam

Archaeologists believe the Hohokam Indians were peaceful farmers who inhabited the Salt River Valley for about a thousand years, from A.D. 300 to 1450. They are most noted for constructing irrigation ditches with stone hoes to provide them with the required water. The Hohokam canal system traversed nearly 500 miles and may have served as many as 50,000 people at a time. The Indians lived here for more than 1,000 years, but left the Valley by about A.D. 1450. Nobody knows exactly why they left.The Hohokam set the groundwork for today’s major canal system, which follows many of the same paths. The precise locations of all the Hohokam canals are unknown.

Unfortunately, over the past 100 years, ruined Hohokam villages were plowed under or paved over on both sides of the Salt River from Mesa in the east to Tolleson in the west. By 1920, archaeologists had identifies 150 miles of ancient canals, most of which had been destroyed by land development. Even so, steps have been taken to preserve some Hohokam history. The protected ruins at Pueblo Grande Museum are an example. Located near 44th and Washington streets, Pueblo Grande uses history to show how today water-system is was developed.

The Pioneers

The adobe ruins of the Hohokam baked in the Arizona sun for some 400 years. Then in the 1860s, a central Arizona gold rush brought an influ of non-Indians, including an ex-Confederate cavalryman named Jack Swilling. Perhaps Swilling noticed the ruined Hohokam canals and thought they could work again. In any event, in December 1867, he formed the Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company at the gold camp in Wickenburg. With 16 others, he intended to take water from the Salt River via a canal so he could grow crops to sell to miners at Wickenburg and the U.S. Cavalry stationed at Ft. McDowell. That waterway became known as the Swilling Ditch.

By March 1868, Swilling and his partners had harvested their firs crops on land near the present-day Arizona State Hospital. During that same month, a government survey party came to the Valley and noted that a small community calling itself “Phoenix” had appeared on the scene. In a short while, the whole area went “canal crazy.” Dozens of ditches were started, and some enterprising individuals even tried to make water in canals flo uphill. The more successful canal projects were the work of private companies and associations, which assessed members a fee for construction and maintenance.

The Drought and the U.S. Government

The private canal companies and associations existed for about 30 years, and could have lasted longer if nature had cooperated. But in the late 1890’s a severe drought occurred and the Salt River did not have enough water to meet the Valley’s needs. At one point, the flo in the river diminished to 25 cubic feet per second (about 187 gallons per second). Thousands of acres of agricultural land went out of production. Orchards withered, forcing hundreds of people to move away. For those who remained, the obvious solution was to build a water storage dam to capture the annual spring run. Various schemes for financing a dam, including private capitalization and an attempt to sell bonds, were unsuccessful. Finally in 1902, the Federal Government passed the National Reclamation Act into law. The Act provided for government loans to “reclaim” the West with irrigation projects.

While the major effort in Arizona was the Theodore Roosevelt Dam, government engineers also saw the possibilities for improving existing Valley canals and the efficiency of unifying the canal system. Over time, the government purchased all of the private canals, one by one. The government also built Granite Reef Diversion Dam to replace all of the brush and rock canal headings on the Salt River. (Headings are structures that divert water from the river into a canal.) The north side of the dam delivers water to the Arizona Canal and all the canals on the north side of the river. The south side of the dam provides water to the South Canal and all the canals on the south side of the river. In 1917, operation of the canal system was turned over to the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association, which to this date, still operates the canals for the federal government.

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