Phoenix’s Canal System Once Raised the City from the Ashes – Can it Raise the City to a New Level Today?

By: Taz Loomans

Phoenix’s canal system is essentially the city’s vascular system that pumps life into the metropolis. It conveys water and generates electricity and serves as indispensable infrastructure for the city. But the canals have the potential to pump another kind of life into the city, in addition to the much-needed infrastructure work they already do. They can become places for people. Because the canal system is uniquely separated from the automobile grid of Phoenix, they offer an incredible opportunity to create car-free connective zones in a city where it’s hard to get away from the car.

In the Canalscape Publication, Nan Ellin tells us that “Amsterdam has 47 miles of canals. Venice 125. And Phoenix has … 181.” As such, Phoenix has a unique opportunity to use its vast network of canals for things like bikeways, linear parks, landscaped public spaces, and various other creative uses that bring people together, outside of their cars.

The canals in Phoenix have a long history. Some of them are more than 560 years old! They have always been the life blood of the region. But now is the time that the canal system can take a leap and become more than infrastructure, and become a social, cultural and recreational asset for the city. But for this leap to happen, we have to shift the way we think about the canals as dreary waterways that no one thinks about to the remarkable cultural and historical landmarks that they are. And to do that, we have to know where the amazing canal system in Phoenix came from.

Below is a brief history…

How the Canals were originally built:

The Hohokam Indians lived in the area we call Phoenix for about 1000 years, from 300 to 1450 AD. They were able to settle in the area because they discovered how to construct irrigation ditches using stone hoes.

The Hohokam canal system spanned nearly 500 miles and may have served as many as 50,000 people at a time. The Hohokam suddenly disappeared around 1450 AD, no one is sure why. But they left behind them the groundwork for the canal system that serves Phoenix today, which follows some of the same paths as the ancient canals.

How the canals were resurrected by pioneers:

The ruins of the Hohokam civilization sat abandoned for some 400 years until gold rush pioneers, one of whom was Phoenix founder Jack Swilling, discovered them in the 1860s. The remnants of the Hohokam canals probably played a part in inspiring Swilling to begin a settlement in the area. In December of 1867, he formed the Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company at the gold camp at Wickenburg, Arizona.

With a small group of 16, he set out to capture water from the Salt River via a canal he dug so he could grow crops to sell to the miners at Wickenburg and to the U.S. Calvary stationed at Fort McDowell. This canal came to be known as Swilling Ditch and by March 1868, Swilling and his group were able to harvest their first crops.

After seeing this success, other enterprising settlers in the territory got “canal fever” and embarked on various canal projects to irrigate and farm the land. The most successful and lasting projects were backed by private companies and associations, which assessed members a fee for construction and maintenance of the canal.

How the federal government eventually acquired the canals:

The private companies and associations created and operated the canals in Phoenix for about 30 years. But in the late 1890’s, Phoenix experienced a severe drought that left the Salt River almost dry. Because of the drought, thousands of acres of agricultural land became unproductive, orchards withered, and hundreds of people left the region.

Those who remained planned to build a water storage dam to capture spring runoff to mitigate the effects of drought. But these committed settlers were unable to finance and build this dam until 1902, when the National Reclamation Act was passed during the tenure of President Theodore Roosevelt. The Act provided settlers with government loans to reclaim the West with irrigation projects.

While the major focus of the federal government in Arizona was to build the Roosevelt Dam, government engineers saw the benefits of improving existing Valley canals and the efficiencies of unifying the canal system that was built by private companies earlier. So over about 15 years, the federal government purchased the canals one by one and in 1917 turned the operation of the canal system over to the Salt River Valley Water User’s Association, which still operates the canals today for the federal government under the name of Salt River Project.

When the nine canals we see today came to be:

The nine canals that make up the region’s canal system were developed over the past 100+ years. Below is information on the beginnings of each one.


Image source: SRP

• The Arizona Canal was constructed in May 1883 by the Arizona Canal Company. The Secretary of the Interior agreed to purchase the canal in March of 1906 and assumed canal operation in May of 1907.

• The Grand Canal is the oldest remaining pioneer canal on the north side of the Salt River. It was constructed in 1877 by the Grand Canal Company. The federal government purchased the canal in 1878 for $20,488 in June 1906.

• The old Crosscut Canal was built by pioneers in 1888 to connect the Arizona Canal to the Grand Canal. It was sold to the federal government in 1906 for $15,730. Since, portions of the canal have been turned over to the City of Phoenix to carry away storm drainage from northeast Phoenix.

• The Salt River Valley Water User’s Association constructed a new Crosscut Canal in 1912-1913. The new Crosscut Canal feeds the Crosscut Hydroelectric plant, which was constructed in 1913-1914.

• The South Canal was built by the federal government between 1906 and 1908 to unify the entire south side canal system. The South Canal features the Val Vista Water Treatment Plant, which was built in 1975 to supply Mesa and Phoenix with water. The South Canal also feeds the South Consolidated Hydroelectric Unit, which was built in 1980-1981.

• The Eastern Canal was built by the federal government in 1909. This canal replaced the old Highland Canal, which was destroyed in the flood of 1891.

• The Consolidated Canal is now the largest canal in Mesa and is approximately 18 miles long. The canal was constructed by Dr. A.J. Chandler, the founder of Chandler, AZ, in 1891. The Consolidated Canal is connected to the Chandler Power Plant. It was sold to the federal government in November of 1908 for $187,000.

• The Tempe Canal was constructed in 1870 by the Tempe Canal Company and is the oldest continuously used canal in the canal system. In 1925, the Tempe Canal Company joined the Salt River Valley Water User’s Association.

• The Western Canal was built in 1912-1913 by the Western Canal Company. It was built under contract for the federal government to become an extension of the Salt River Valley Water User’s Association.

[Source: Salt River Project

Today, the canal system in Phoenix is a wonder hidden in plain sight, and should be a point of pride for its residents. As history shows, it is the foundational system upon which the city was settled and is part of how the city was able to become the bustling metropolis it is today. The Hohokam left a fading blueprint of the canals they built, and the gold rush pioneers of the late 1800s resurrected the city based on that blueprint. Eventually, the federal government acquired each of the canals and ensured their continued operation and service, creating a stead water supply to the region.

Knowing how the canals were literally the mechanism from which Phoenix rose from the ashes makes them even more precious, not only as infrastructure, but as cultural and historical landmarks with the potential to become recreational and connective corridors of the future. They may be the single most precious resource in Phoenix besides the mountain preserves. Thankfully, the Canalscape effort started by Nan Ellin is alive and well and is under the stewardship of Valley Forward. However, there is so much more that can be done to turn the canals from being hidden infrastructure to being at the centerpiece of the way people live in Phoenix.

Lead Image Credit: Photo by Wars [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC-BY-3.0, CC-BY-SA-2.0-de or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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