Like a late-blooming teenager, 19th century Arizona was still trying to define itself. Soldiers, miners, and rugged pioneers gradually made their way to Arizona to begin life anew in a challenging landscape. These early pioneers quickly realized water was both the key to their survival and a powerful force to reckon with. Water, in the Arizona territory, was a double-edged sword — there was either too much or too little.
By the late 1800s, entrepreneurs and visionaries realized Arizona needed consistently reliable and controlled sources of water to kick-start the state’s growth. In their mind, the best way to meet this goal was by damming rivers and building canals to deliver water where it was needed. Tens of thousands of men were involved in engineering and building dams and canals from one end of the state to the other. One man, unknown to many current Arizonans, devoted a large part of his life to ensuring central Arizona would have the water it needed. This man was William Beardsley.
What was notable about Beardsley was the fortitude with which he pursued his mission of building a dam and canals to store and divert water. He would endure a series of setbacks over a 40+ year period that would culminate in a controversial, multiple-arch dam harnessing the Aqua Fria River. Such long term persistence and commitment is rarely seen among men of any age.
Beardsley was part of a group of businessmen who banded together to privately develop the Aqua Fria River. They planned to harness the river by building a reservoir, a diversion dam and a series of distribution canals. Work on the diversion dam and canals began in 1892 but stopped three years later due to lack of funds. To make matters worse, in the fall of 1895, a flood tore away the west side of the preliminary dam. Things looked bleak. Beardsley was unable to raise money to continue the project and legal complaints from unpaid contractors forced him into bankruptcy.
The story could have ended there but in a fairy-tale twist, a group of Beardsley’s associates from Ohio took possession of the assets and deeded them back to him so he could continue his work. For years he tried to restart the endeavor but the project remained stalled.
As 1902 approached, he started to run into issues with the federal government, specifically with the Department of Interior and the newly founded Reclamation Service (now called the Bureau of Reclamation) which was the 800-pound gorilla in Arizona’s water world. Technicalities with surveys and public lands would hold the project up for another 17 years.
Finally, in 1919 construction began on a multiple-arch dam designed by engineer Carl Pleasant. This style of a dam was selected due to its strength and economy to build. William Beardsley died in 1925 and his son, Robert, would ultimately finish the project. The dam would be named the Carl Pleasant Dam in 1926 and then renamed the Waddell Dam in 1964 after an investor from New York who had a financial interest in the project.
More issues would follow the construction of the dam. Cracks appeared in the buttresses of the dam and much controversy loomed over its safety. Several engineers poured over plans and reviewed the integrity of the dam. None seemed to agree on the significance of the cracks. Ultimately, modifications were made to ensure the dam’s safety and the required upgrades were completed in 1936.
Historically, this dam was unique because it was the only Salt River Valley water storage project successfully completed by a private interest. All the other central Arizona water storage schemes were developed with federal government assistance. It was also the world’s tallest multiple-arch dam when it was completed; quite an accomplishment for a private outfit.
All this would dramatically change with the passage of the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968 which ultimately led to the development and construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The budding CAP project would need a place to store much of its Colorado River allocation and Lake Pleasant proved to be one of the best options.
The New Waddell Dam, built in 1994 by the Bureau of Reclamation, is the successor to the original Waddell Dam. The new dam increased the storage capacity of Lake Pleasant from 157,600 acre-feet to 1,108,600 acre-feet of water and substantially increased the size of the Lake Pleasant. The Lake now stores water from both the Aqua Fria River and from the Colorado River.
Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department (MCPR) formed Lake Pleasant Regional Park in 1965. It is Maricopa County’s only water-based park. The MCPR website notes the size of the original Lake Pleasant Regional Park was comprised of 14,000 total acres of land with a surface size of 3,706 acres of water and a shoreline of 50 plus miles. After the New Waddell Dam was constructed, the surface area of the lake increased to 10,000 acres and the Regional Park is now approximately 23,662 acres.
Today, Beardsley’s project is known as the Maricopa Water District (MWD) which maintains its original water rights to the Aqua Fria River and is entitled to 157,600 acre-feet of water stored in Lake Pleasant. George Cairo Engineering, Inc. (GCE) serves as the District Engineer for MWD and provides technical support to the organization.
According to the George Cairo Engineering webpage, the Maricopa Water District provides power and water service to an area approximately 60 square miles west of Phoenix. Most of the water is used for agricultural irrigation. Water released from the New Waddell Dam for MWD purposes is fed into Hank Raymond Lake, MWD’s storage reservoir, created by the Camp Dyer Diversion Dam.
Water from the Hank Raymond Lake is directed through the Camp Dyer Dam into the Beardsley Canal which is MWD’s main water delivery system. The Beardsley Canal system extends nearly 33 miles and feeds a series of laterals and sub-lateral piping almost 100 miles long. The MWD also has an interconnect with the Central Arizona Project (CAP) for collaborative use of the region’s water supply.
What started out as a construction project with his brother George, turned into a multi-generational water business with his son, Robert. Thanks to the fortitude and sheer determination of William Beardsley, the Phoenix area has another source of water and power for generations to come as well as a beautiful lake for recreation.
Water – Use It Wisely is proud to feature guest bloggers who write about topics related to water and water conservation. The author of this blog post, Sandra Hurlbut, is a self-described “water nerd” and the Education Coordinator for the Aqua STEM program with Arizona Project WET, whose mission is to promote responsible water stewardship through excellent and effective water education.
This blog originally appeared on March 1, 2017, and is being reprinted with permission.
Blogger’s Note: Much of the information presented here I learned on the job as a Park Ranger for Maricopa County Parks and Recreation at Lake Pleasant Regional Park. Senior Ranger Terry Gerber holds a wealth of information on the history of Lake Pleasant and he assisted author Gerald Giordano with background information for his book “Images of America – Lake Pleasant.” Giordano acknowledged “Ironman” Terry’s help at the beginning of his book. While at the park, most of this information became common knowledge for me and I routinely shared my understanding of the history of water in Arizona, the Beardsleys, the Lake, and the connections with the CAP and MWD with visitors from all around the world at Lake Pleasant’s Discovery Center. I recently updated this blog to include additional references and to document other sources with an interest in the Beardsley project.
Waddell Dam (Pleasant Dam). Photographs – Written Historical and Descriptive Data, Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, Western Region, Department of the Interior, San Francisco, California, HAER-ARIZ-7-PHEN.V.5.
Giordano, Gerald. Images of America – Lake Pleasant. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2009.
Complete the form to receive your free landscape watering guide.