Salt River Project


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The story of Salt River Project parallels the story of growth of Arizona. From its inception by local citizens and landowners, to the building of Roosevelt Dam, to its current status as the nation's third-largest public power utility and one of Arizona's largest water suppliers, SRP has been a part of the Arizona story for over one hundred years.


Narrator: At the end of the 19th century, Arizonans struggled against a harsh desert. The Salt River, lifeblood of the valley, was extremely unpredictable: at times bone-dry, at other times a raging torrent. A small group of concerned citizens knew the key to their future would be a reliable source of water.

Doug Kupel: At that time, the only water source for domestic use was wells, and of course, for agriculture, it was the Salt River. And if there wasn't any water in the river, you couldn't have agriculture: you couldn't plant your crops, you couldn't grow things. As a matter of fact, around the late 1890s, a huge drought starts, and people actually were leaving the valley because they couldn't farm, they couldn't make a living. So they were actually selling their farms that they could sell and they were moving to other places -- California in particular was a big part -- and so there was actually a tremendous population loss around the turn of the century.

Narrator: A reliable source of water meant building a dam, and to do that required support of the Federal Government. Repeated attempts to convince congress were unsuccessful until the small group of farmers found an ally: President Theodore Roosevelt. He believed that the natural resources of the West could sustain a vibrant economy as well as a lifestyle that respected the grandeur of the natural environment. President Roosevelt backed the National Reclamation Act that would allow the valley's farmers and businessmen to secure a government loan and construct a water storage and delivery system that would transform the Salt River Valley. The Reclamation Act was passed in 1902, spurring the formation of the Salt River Valley Water Users Association. The site chosen for the dam was a natural: 80 miles northeast of Phoenix, just below the confluence of the Salt River and Tonto Creek. Theodore Roosevelt Dam took six years to build and drew men from all over America to the site looking for work, including Margurite Nelson's father, who left his beloved Texas.

Margurite Nelson: So I said to my -- my mother, "Well, why did my father come here if Texas is a wonderful place?" And she said, "He come because of the Roosevelt Dam." Word spread back about this wonderful project in Arizona, and it was good advertising for this little backcountry Arizona that people thought was the hinterland and was nothing.

Doug Kupel: And of course at this time, Arizona was a territory, it was not a state, and for many years, Arizona had been looked at as backward, it wasn't ready for statehood. But when you start the dam construction and as it moves along, then the federal government and the rest of the nation realized that Arizona's time had come. So it's no coincidence that the dam was completed in 1911 and then statehood's finally achieved in 1912.

Narrator: On March 18, 1911, Theodore Roosevelt made the jarring, dusty journey up the Apache Trail to dedicate the dam. Now with a dependable source of water, the land rush was on.

Song Lyrics: And your heart, it will be yearning -- for an Arizona home -- you can join me down in Phoenix -- where Teddy built the dam.

Narrator: Water released from the dam fueled the growth of the valley and produced an important byproduct: electricity. Initially supplied to mines and businesses, in 1928 the association delivered its first electricity to rural customers, nearly ten years before a similar program would wire other farming communities across the rest of the country. As the demand for power and water grew, more dams were constructed to provide these essential services. The stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the great depression in the United States. In Arizona, copper prices tumbled and farms and businesses were going bankrupt. To reduce costs and continue to serve shareholders, the association had to refinance its debt. The Arizona Legislature passed a law to help the water users association repay its loan. To better serve the growing demand for the generation and distribution of electricity, the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District was established in 1937, joining the Water Users Association to form the Salt River Project. A reliable source of low-cost water and power helped the local economy improve, and the construction of Bartlett Dam in the late '30s also provided much-needed jobs. But it would be a shocking international event half a world away that would change the Salt River Project and Arizona forever.

Doug Kupel: World War II was a huge change in the valley, because people that came during the war to work in the defense plants or to get training in the military facilities, they realized that really Arizona and Phoenix is a great place to live, and so they want to stay here and raise their families. But the issue after the war is the water supply because you have so many people coming in, and there's a big change, a big transformation between what used to be agricultural lands, and now you have lands that are sprouting homes instead of plants.

Narrator: These new homes needed electricity. Generating it first by hydro, then by steam, SRP helped power the explosive growth of the valley in the post-World-War-II era. Salt River Project's role as a power utility greatly expands in the 1970s with the construction of the Navajo Generating Station and as part owner of the PaloVerde Nuclear Power Generating Station. As a longtime steward of the valley's watershed, SRP faced balancing the need for more energy, storing water for drier months, and protecting the environment. In 1978 and again in 1980, that balance was upset as record rain and runoff filled the reservoirs and roared down the Salt River. Once the water subsided, SRP and the Federal Government completed more than $400 million in improvements on the Salt and Verde River Dams, measures designed to keep flooding like that of the '70s and early '80s a distant memory. Today, Salt River project manages seven dams in a 1,300-mile water delivery system that provides water storage, flood protection, and recreation. It provides energy to nearly 1 million customers through a sophisticated transmission network with generation facilities that produce electricity with coal, hydro, natural gas, nuclear, solar, and landfill gas, all due to the dreams of a small group of farmers and businessmen that wanted to build a dam.