Theodore Roosevelt Dam Centennial

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For 100 years, Roosevelt Dam has provided Phoenix, and the rest of the Valley, with a reliable water supply making it possible for the desert region to grow and prosper. Salt River Project historian James LaBar shares some remarkable stories about the making of the dam.

Ted Simons: In February 2012, Arizona will celebrate its 100th birthday -- a milestone marked by tremendous growth. In the past century, Phoenix and the Salt River valley grew to a metropolis of millions. That growth was made possible, in part, by Theodore Roosevelt dam. Last Friday was the dam's 100th birthday. And its operator, Salt River project, threw a party to mark the occasion.

>> Thank you to everybody here to help us celebrate the centennial.

Narrator: Friday march 18th, hundreds people gatherat SRP's paraclub in Tempe to commemorate Roosevelt's Dam's 100th birthday.

>> It's a pride that comes from the heart. The heart of the people.

Narrator: They watched as Governor Jan Brewer addressed a crowd some 60 miles away on top of the dam.

>> Whereas the Theodore Roosevelt dam was the first major structure built by the United States Bureau of Reclamation on the Salt River and when complete was the world's tallest masonry dam. Therefore, I do hereby proclaim March 18th, 2011 as Theodore Roosevelt Dam Centennial Day. Thank you. [Applause]

Narrator: 100 years earlier this is where president Roosevelt dedicated the dam that was many years and not to mention blood, sweat and tears in the making.

>> The amazing thing was Roosevelt dam being constructed when you consider the hardships that the people had to go through. When you consider the quarrels and fight that the people farming here or having -- were having with each other over who had the first right to water. Building this dam helped aleve a lot of the situation.

Narrator: The dam provided stability and helped ensured that water would be available where and when it was needed.

>> And certainly, that's what Roosevelt dam has done for the past 100 years, as a silent icon, it's provided this resource that has ensured that the valley could prosper for the past 100 years, from an agricultural community to the fifth largest city in the United States.

>> It's been a transition. Historically, we were growing crops here in the valley. Today, we're growing people.

>>> For Arizona, it was a handful of farmers and businessmen who believed a dam at the confluence of the Salt River and the creek could harness and store water for agricultural purposes. The goal was to sustain the valley with a reliable water supply while also managing floodwaters from ravaging crops. There were repeated attempts to convince congress were unsuccessful. That is, until they found a champion. A champion in President Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt supported the national reclamation act and signed it into law in 1902. And brought the idea of building the dam, we celebrate today, to life.

Narrator: September 20, 1906, workers lowered the six-ton cornerstone into place. Almost five years later, the dam was complete. On March 18th, 1911, president Theodore Roosevelt pushed a button sending water rushing to a valley that was anxiously awaiting its arrival.

Ted Simons: Here now with more of the history behind Roosevelt dam and the dam's importance to Arizona's growth is James Labar, a historian with Salt River project. Thanks for joining us.

James Labar: Good evening.

Ted Simons: Talk to us about Arizona before Roosevelt dam and what changed when it was put into operation.

James Labar: Prior to Theodore Roosevelt Dam, the valley was settled by anglo settlers from 1860s onward and there was a population of about 10,000 people and about a dozen to two dozen canals coming out of the salt that were re-dug and the farmers had a hard time dealing with the Salt River. Too much water during flood periods, too little water during drought times.

Ted Simons: Who was responsible then for saying, hey, let's build a dam?

James Labar: Primarily it was the farmers in the valley that really understood the relationship between making a go in the valley and reliable water supplies so started working with the national movement for reclamation and the federal government to build a large permanent storage dam on the Salt River.

Ted Simons: How long was the idea discussed?

James Labar: The idea of building a storm dam on the Salt River was long into planning in the 1880s and '90s and comes to fruition of the dedication of Roosevelt in 1911.

Ted Simons: Were there folks opposed both in Arizona territory and nationally? Saying, this is not a good idea?

James Labar: In Arizona, everyone was on the same page. That was one of the reasons it got done. On the east coast, there were skeptics, they thought why should the tax dollars go to reclaiming western land and westerners argued, hey, we've been digging deeper harbors and building railroad stations and canals across the nation and it was all for building a stronger economy. So finally, that argument for reclamation across western lands really fit the bill in regard to building the country.

Ted Simmons: With the dam and construction starting, how long did construction it take?

James Labar: The dam got identified as one the first five reclamation projects in 1903 and construction ended in 1911.

Ted Simons: My goodness. Talk to us why that particular location was selected.

James Labar: It was an ideal dam site. First, you had a large productive watershed that the dam would collect all of this water and another reason was that the dam was located at a high elevation which would cut down on evaporation. And the other good thing, there was an emerging canal system that could connect into this large storage dam.

Ted Simons: I found it fascinating to learn that farmers actually offered their land as collateral to get the thing done?

James Labar: Arizona -- at the time, Arizona was a territory. So the money coming out of the national reclamation act wasn't a gift. It was a loan and the farmers wanted to make the project enticing for the federal government to choose. So putting their lands up for collateral, even though it was a huge risk, made an attractive investment for the feds.

Ted Simons: Rough land and huge risk. Talk about the dangers and difficulties in building the thing.

James Labar: The dam was in a rugged place. 80 miles from Phoenix. They had to build the road, the Apache trail, through the salt canyons to move materials at the dam site. The other piece is that, no one expected the millions of gallons of water that would rush through and slow construction numerous times through the 1903-1911 time frame.

Ted Simons: Had a lot of problems with floods?

James Labar: The watershed was productive during the construction time.

Ted Simons: Interesting. The dam is built and then further dams built from the '20s to the '40s?

James Labar: The Theodore Roosevelt dam completed in 1911 and the salt river project wanted to take advantage in the drop of elevation down to the valley and built three other lower salt dams from '22 to 1930.

Ted Simons: OK, give us a bird's eye-view. How does this work? A lot of -- these other dams but how does this work? What's the process of getting the water through to Phoenix?

James Labar: The process starts at watershed level. Up the salt -- 13,000 square miles and a series of six storage dams, four on the salt and two on the Verde. All that water is stored and it's released when called upon and hits the granite reef diversion dam east of Mesa and the water is diverted to the north along the Arizona canal or south on the south canal and SRP manages about 131 miles of canals to go to a dozen water treatment plants.

Ted Simons: The modification in the mid '90s, that was what? To increase satorage capacity?

James Labar: Two things, to increase storage and provide flood control.

Ted Simons: Raised 70 some odd feet, something like that.

James Labar: 77 feet and now stand at 357 feet tall.

Ted Simons: And it was a huge project at the time and changed the face of Arizona for the future. Do you foresee a project like this, that doesn't have to be a dam -- do you see anything changing Arizona the way this did? Especially the Phoenix Salt River valley.

James Labar: Nothing like the Theodore Roosevelt dam. When Theodore Roosevelt Dam was built the population in Maricopa county was about 34,000 people. In 1920 economy they took the census, the population was approximately 90,000. It was a population increase of 160% -- the largest all throughout Arizona's history. In the future, there's going to have to be water storage and management projects but nothing like Theodore Roosevelt.

Ted Simons: Something like reclammation as far as desalination and those sorts of things?

James Labar: There are lots of options on the table and desalination is one of them.

Ted Simons: Alright. It's fascinating discussion to talk about water, always and the Roosevelt Dam's impact on Arizona. Thank you for joining us, we appreciate it.

James Labar: Thank you.

James LaBar:Historian,Salt River Project;

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