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Worker inside tunnel construction
Worker inside tunnel construction, c. 1906 Photo: Walter J. Lubken

Salt River Project

The legacy of the Salt River Project (SRP), one of Arizona's largest water providers and electric utilities, reaches back two thousand years ago to an ancient system of canals developed by native people. SRP, which makes the metropolitan Phoenix area the jewel of the southwest desert, was born out of a partnership between the federal government and landowners in central Arizona during the mid-1880s.

SRP today comprises two divisions that function together. The electric side of SRP, a political subdivision of Arizona state, provides electric power to 700,000 residential, business and industrial customers throughout a 2,900 square mile area in central Arizona. The water side is a private corporation, delivering more than 1 million acre-feet of water to a 240,000-acre service area.

The earliest archaeological evidence suggests that the Hohokam civilization was beginning to emerge in the Sonoran Desert basin at the beginning of the first millennium A.D. These people constructed the world's most extensive gravity-based canal system using stone tools, without the benefit of surveying equipment. Their irrigation system sustained their community until their mysterious disappearance around 1450 A.D.

Four hundred years later, the remnants of the Hohokam canals system became the inspiration for visionary pioneers that began to settle in the newly formed Arizona Territory. Over the next 40 years, settlers re-established use of the Hohokam system and constructed a number of canals, and diversion dams and laterals. By the 1880s, territorial leaders had identified the need for a dam and reservoir, estimated to cost between $2 and $5 million, as paramount for the valley's continued success. As a territory, Arizona was prohibited from assuming such a large debt, so landowners in the Salt River Valley pledged their homes and farms as collateral to secure federal loans. The governor and other civic and business leaders established the Salt River Valley Water Users' Association in 1903, which began the first multipurpose reclamation project under the Water Reclamation Act of 1902.

In 1906, the cornerstone was laid for Roosevelt Dam, the largest masonry dam every built at that time. Before its completion in 1911, it became apparent that the dam could also be used to develop hydroelectric power. In 1917, the federal government turned over canal operation to the association, which assumed all future operation and control expenses, and repaid the entire cost over time. In 1930, when only 25 percent of rural America was electrified, 80 percent of those living in the SRP service area received electricity.

During the Depression, the Arizona legislature allowed the formation of the Salt River Project Agriculture Improvement and Power District to help valley farmers reduce payments on their outstanding loans. The Power District's boundaries and interests were practically identical to the association's, but the district could refinance outstanding bonds at a lower rate with tax-exempt bonds. Under a contract, association properties were transferred to the district. The district operates the electrical system, and the association still operates the irrigation system. Legally they are two separate organizations, yet they function as one, and are commonly known as the Salt River Project.

Documentation comprises 18 page of text report on SRP's history, 30 photographs, and a video tape with historic footage and contemporary events.

Originally submitted by: J.D. Hayworth, Representative (6th District).

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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