History: Colorado on the Verde

One man’s fight to turn river into a pipeline

Fred Colter was a wealthy businessman before he embarked on a crusade to divert Colorado River water to the heart of Arizona.

Fred Colter was a wealthy businessman before he embarked on a crusade to divert Colorado River water to the heart of Arizona.

CAMP VERDE - For the last 10 years the residents of Yavapai County have fought over a proposed pipeline that will, according to its critics, take water from the Verde River.

The general feeling of those who oppose the idea is that the pipeline will spell the end of the river as we know it and create an ecological disaster that can never be reversed.

In truth, the Prescott pipeline project is a drop in the bucket compared to an earlier idea, one that was the talk of Southwest water planners and Arizona politicians for over 20 years.

Instead of piping water away from the Verde, the Arizona Reclamation Association proposed turning the Verde River itself, into a pipeline that would carry water from the Colorado River to central Arizona.

The story began in 1918 when the Arizona Engineering Commission suggested diverting water from the Colorado River to the Gila River to irrigate lands in southern Arizona.

By 1922 the plan had shifted to building a dam at Boulder Canyon and diverting the river's flow through a series of canals along the western side of the state to lands in central and southern Arizona, an idea championed by George Maxwell, a prominent figure in the national irrigation movement.

That same year, representatives of the seven western states that shared the river's drainage met in Santa Fe, N.M., and agreed on the Colorado River Compact, a less than specific document that did little but divide the river into upper and lower basins.

Arizona's representative, W.S. Norviel, signed the compact, but the state's leadership refused to ratify it, fearing the compact would deny Arizona its right to exploit the rivers water flowing within its borders.

Failure to ratify the compact was largely due to the vehement opposition of wealthy cattleman, former Democratic candidate for governor and six-term Apache County state senator Fred T. Colter.

For more than 20 years, Colter staved off ratification, dedicating his life's work to fighting the compact and all it stood for. His battle cry was "Save the Colorado for Arizona."

He and his supporters argued that almost half of the Colorado's drainage was within Arizona's boundaries and therefore the state deserved the lion's share of the river's water. They had every reason to be concerned that California, a state with just 5 percent of the river's drainage, was going to take it all.

Colter formed the Arizona Highline Reclamation Association with the goal of drawing up and executing a plan to divert the Colorado River into the heart of Arizona.

What was viewed from outside the state as a madman's dream became the obsession of many people within the state.

To ensure he had all his bases covered, Colter filed claims on 40 dam sites along the Colorado and within the state in 1923, making those claims as the self-appointed trustee of Arizona's water.

His plan would morph several times over the years. Originally, though, it incorporated Maxwell's idea for a diversion dam downstream from the Grand Canyon, along with other dams to generate electricity for the citizens of Arizona. One of the proposed dams was at Glen Canyon.

As promoted, the project would generate 5 million horsepower of electricity and irrigate 6 million acres throughout the state.

His ideas became known as the Arizona Highline Canal Project. The name would change as the project's design and engineering changed, but the mission would remain the same.

In 1927 a survey revealed the waters behind the Bureau of Reclamation's proposed Boulder Dam site would inundate the diversion dam site proposed at the lower end of the canyon, if Boulder dam was built more than 700 feet high.

An alternative plan was developed that would divert the river's flow at the proposed Glen Canyon dam site.

As envisioned, the plan called for a 438-foot dam near the site of the current Glen Canyon Dam. It would raise the level of the reservoir to 3,543 feet elevation and have a capacity of 16 million acre feet.

On the south side of the reservoir a 28-foot diameter tunnel would be cut into the canyon wall and carry the water 46 miles to a dam located 10 miles above the mouth of the Little Colorado River.

That dam would raise the water level back to the same elevation it started with at Glen Canyon and back nine miles up the Little Colorado River's canyon, where the water would be diverted once again through a 28-foot diameter tunnel.

The second tunnel would carry the water 97 miles south, beneath the heart of the Colorado Plateau, to the mouth of Oak Creek and into the Verde River.

Below Camp Verde a third dam would be built to the elevation of 3,145 feet, essentially inundating the town and the surrounding farmland with a new lake.

A mile north of Camp Creek's confluence with the Verde, a fourth dam would be constructed to divert the water out of the river through a 16-mile canal to McDowell Pass.

From there, a series of canals and siphons and penstocks would carry the water west and south to reclaimed lands in Pima, Pinal, Maricopa and Yuma counties.

Fred Colter began his campaign to divert the Colorado to Arizona as a well to do cattleman with an estimated wealth of over $1.5 million dollars in 1923. He would spend the vast majority of it on his dream.

Colter and his Highline Reclamation Association generated stacks of documents and filings over the years, the vast majority of it securing, promoting, documenting and defending his plans.

He lobbied anyone who would listen, badgered federal officials, cajoled politicians, argued with engineers and suffered more than his share of ridicule.

Colter's arguments for building a delivery system of Colorado River water, fed by gravity, were deemed by engineers and politicians to be too fanciful, too costly and totally unacceptable.

Big moneyed interests from California, political and business interests in other basin states, detractors in the federal government and eventually the erosion of support at home, defeated the Highline Reclamation Association and its well-intentioned plans.

Colter became viewed as an obstructionist. Arizona politicians began believing their continued refusal to sign the Colorado River Compact was hindering any chance of receiving Colorado River water. In 1944, the Arizona State Legislature ratified the compact.

Fred Colter died that same year.

His dream to divert water down the Verde River lived on a while longer in an organization called the Colorado-Verde Association.

But it was a competing group, the Central Arizona Project Association that ultimately accomplished what Colter had set out to do. In the end the federal government chose to fund an even more costly and equally wild scheme that became the Central Arizona Project.

In 1962, as the finishing touches were being applied to Glen Canyon Dam, the Arizona State Legislature passed its first concurrent memorial of the session, calling on Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall to "take appropriate action to name the Glen Canyon Dam the Fred T. Colter Dam."

By that time, though, it is likely his opponents up and down the Colorado River had seen and heard enough of Fred Colter.

Comments

Comments are not posted immediately. Submissions must adhere to our Use of Service Terms of Use agreement. Rambling or nonsensical comments may not be posted. Comment submissions may not exceed a 200 word limit, and in order for us to reasonably manage this feature we may limit excessive comment entries.

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.