Art in the Heritage District: Water Focus

Art in the Heritage District: Water Focus

Art in the Heritage District: Water Focus

Elaine Kessler


Before we continue the tour, it is important to understand the history of water delivery and usage in Gilbert. With the help and expertise of Annikki Chamberlain, a former Town of Gilbert Water Conservation Specialist (currently a Water Resource Analyst in Spokane), I am sharing a little water history below.

There was very little water available when the early settlers of Gilbert started farming. The first canal company in Phoenix started in 1865, opening old Hohokam canals. Then Mesa began tapping into the Salt River in 1877, and a person named John Anderson dug off one of those canals – a 4.5-mile canal – to what is now the Gilbert area.

A drought during the late 1880’s almost ended what was to eventually become Gilbert. But instead some major canal construction took place. First was the Consolidated Canal built in 1891. The canal was masterminded by Dr. A.J. Chandler to bring water to the area that now bears his name. Because the canal was built during one of the driest periods in the Salt River’s history, its owners faced supply problems. Lands with older water rights had first claim on the meager water supply in the Salt River, and the occasional surpluses that occurred were too small to cultivate a lot of new land. (This canal didn’t come through Gilbert until 1904.) The Highland Canal was also constructed in 1891.

By the early 1900’s Gilbert had a bit of water coming into the general area via a couple of canals. But it was hard as the river and canals were subject to both floods and droughts, it was a difficult resource to manage.

Teddy Roosevelt passed the National Water Reclamation Act on June 17, 1902. This act provided funding for reclamation projects with low-interest government loans and paved the way for the creation of the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association (SRVWUA) the following year.

Over 200,000 acres of private land belonging to the ranchers and farmers in the association were pledged for collateral and the association was officially incorporated February 7, 1903, becoming the first multipurpose project started under the reclamation act.

Following on March 14, 1903 this project was one of the first five reclamation projects approved, under the Act, by the Secretary of the Interior. Construction would commence the following year in 1905. Construction of the Roosevelt Dam at the Salt and Tonto Creek confluence began in 1905. Many Gilbert residents helped with the construction of Roosevelt Damn knowing it would guarantee success for the region. Completion was in 1911 and the dam was named after Roosevelt.

But even before the completion of the Roosevelt Damn, SRVWUA was harnessing water by way of the Granite Reef Diversion Dam, constructed near the confluence of the Salt and Verde rivers. This does not actually hold back a reservoir but is used to divert water from those rivers into the system of canals feeding into the Phoenix area. It was the first of the dams constructed, finished in 1906 to replace the Arizona Dam, which had been washed away by floods the previous year.

The Association started to incorporate existing canals in the area in the Association infrastructure. Recognizing the water savings, the Consolidated Canal made possible, the federal government later sought to acquire the canal as part of a unified water distribution system for the Association. Negotiations to buy the Consolidated Canal began in 1907. It was sold to the government in November 1908 for $187,000.

The Eastern Canal was built by the federal government in 1909, the Eastern Canal replaced the old Highland Canal which was one-quarter mile to the west. Lack of good water rights, coupled with droughts in the late 1890s and early 1900s, helped motivate landowners served by the Highland Canal to pledge their property as collateral to the federal government to build the Salt River Valley Water User’s Association. These canals built the foundation for a future farming community and more water infrastructure was to come. Multiple Salt River Dams and Verde River Dams were built between 1906 and 1946.

The Western Canal was built in 1912-1913 by the Western Canal Construction Company, the Western Canal went into operation in February 1913 and its deed was filed in April 1915. The canal was built under contract with the federal government to be a part of the Salt River Valley Water User’s Association. In addition to alfalfa, there was also cotton now that Gilbert had water.

The Town of Gilbert became incorporated in 1920 when there were only about 500 people living in the 840-acre (1.3 sq. mile) town limits.

In the early days, each home had its own well. The new town Council wanted to develop a consistent public water supply, to build a water tower that would supply a gravity flow system to the citizens of Gilbert. In 1925, the well for Gilbert’s domestic water was drilled to a depth of 475 feet where a large flow of pure water was found. A well was sunk to bring the water to the surface. A centrifugal pump produced 450 gallons of water a minute supplying the 50,000-gallon steel tank that stood 130’ off the ground. This domestic water supply system cost $40,000.

Prior to the water tower being completed, every family in town had their own private water well and retrieval system. It is incredible to think that now we have 16 wells that supply water to the town and a population of 250,000 and 76 square miles.

To get a renewable source of water into Arizona and relieve some pressure on the groundwater usage, people looked to the Colorado River despite its geographical distance. During the early 1900’s, the seven states of the Colorado River Basin: Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah negotiated for shares of Colorado River water. In 1922, Arizona, California, and Nevada were sectioned into the lower basin, and were instructed to divide their 7.5-million-acre-foot allotment among themselves. Arizona was in dispute over its share of the river, however, and was the last state to approve the Compact in 1944.

In 1946, the Central Arizona Project Association was formed to educate Arizonans about the need for CAP and to lobby Congress to authorize its construction. It took the next 22 years to do so, and in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill approving construction of CAP. Despite getting renewable resources into Arizona, the Department of the Interior insisted Arizona find a way to manage groundwater resources. So, in 1980, Gov. Babbit passed the Groundwater Management Act, placing limits on groundwater withdrawals and encouraging use of renewable supplies. Gilbert committed to reusing or storing 100% of its treated wastewater (aka reclaimed water).

  • 1986: Neely Water Reclamation Facility opened (wastewater treatment plant)
  • Reclaimed water from Neely was used:
    • To irrigate a city park
    • To maintain a lake
    • Leftover reclaimed water was put into evaporation ponds to be “disposed”
  • In 1989, Gilbert’s philosophy changed on use of reclaimed water
    • Built 35 acres of recharge basins for storage
    • Basins were steep sided and kept vegetation free
    • Basins filled and percolated until dry
    • Side effect: Constant changing mix of shallow open water and wetland habitat attracted migrating birds
    • Expanded to 70 acres a few years later

Gilbert’s water journey has been a long and interesting one, but today Gilbert has these water resources:

  • Colorado River (CAP)
  • ~25,000AF/YR
  • Salt River Project
  • ~23,000AF/YR
  • RWCD
  • ~3,000AF/YR
  • Groundwater capacity (16 wells)
  • ~36,000 AF/YR
  • Reclaimed Water
  • ~15,000 AF/YR

As we move forward through the “tour,” you’ll now be able to fully appreciate the thoughtfulness and creativity that went into the design and implementation of the functionally aesthetic water features.

Bauder, James W. “Irrigating Alfalfa: Some Guidelines.” Montana State University.

Braun, Eric. “RE: Help with an article for HD south?” Message to Elaine Kessler. 4 June 2020. E-mail.

“Canal History.” SRP.

Chamberlain, Annikki. “Fwd: Gilbert Water History docs.” Message to Elaine Kessler. 8 May 2020. E-mail.

Chamberlain, Annikki. Phone conversation. 8 May 2020.

Hallock, Dale C. 2007. Gilbert Arizona From Cowboys and Sodbusters to a Mega-Residential Community. Virginia Beach: The Donning Publishing Company. pp. 30-50, 72-73.

Hallock, Dale C. “Gilbert history: Roosevelt Water Conservation District helped area’s growth.” AZCentral. 25 May 2016.


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