Celebrate AZ Water: Tempe Town Lake – Making Waves in the Desert

February 19, 2019

Tempe Town Lake is Arizona’s second-most visited public attraction. More than 2.4 million people spend time at Town Lake each year. The more than 2-mile long lake was created by damming a portion of the dry Salt River and adding water. Today, the lake continues to act like a river to convey rainwater and snow run-off by lowering the dam when needed and raising it again to maintain the water within the lake.

Tempe Town Lake is located in the heart of Tempe, running from west of McClintock Road to east of Priest Road between Rio Salado Parkway and Curry Road. A system of paths allows people to walk, jog, bike, and more along its edges. It’s also a great place for electric, wind and human-powered boats.

Since its origin in 1999, the City of Tempe has built several parks and facilities along the lake’s shores, including the Tempe Center for the Arts, Town Lake Marina, a Veterans Memorial, a Public Safety Memorial, volleyball courts, a boat beach, and several habitat areas. 

The lake is adjacent to downtown Tempe’s Mill Avenue, Arizona State University, and Sky Harbor International Airport, with light rail access. No other waterfront in the Valley offers boating, dozens of special events, miles of bike and running paths and both business and residential opportunities. The economic impact of Tempe Town Lake since its creation is nearly $2 billion. More than 40 special events happen at Town Lake annually, including Ironman Arizona, the Fantasy of Lights Boat Parade, and the state’s largest Independence Day celebration.

Spectators gather to catch sight of the Independence Day fireworks over Town Lake.


Town Lake History

The original concept for the lake was created in 1966 at Arizona State University. Tempe opened the lake on Nov. 7, 1999. The lake’s 20th Anniversary will take place this fall. Tempe Town Lake’s capacity is about 3,000 acre-feet or 977 million gallons. There are 220 surface acres, and it is 2 miles long. The lake is 800-1,200 feet wide at various points. The average depth 12.5 feet, ranging from 7 to 19 feet.

Water to keep the lake full comes from reclaimed water, recharge and recovery, and water exchanges. Water quality is maintained by keeping the water well mixed, proper aeration, and chemical controls. The lake does not lose water to seepage, thanks to a recovery system that pumps water back into the lake. Evaporation costs Town Lake about the same amount of water used by two golf courses each year or consumed by a 1,000-acre alfalfa field.

Controlling the Water

Flood control is an important aspect of the lake. It can sustain more than the impact of a 100-year flood event. In the event of a 100-year flood, the steel gate dam that creates Town Lake would be lowered and water would remain within the river channel. Once stormwater passes through, the gates are raised and the river becomes a lake again.

Tempe Town Lake boasts more than five miles of paths around the lake for skating, running, bicycling and walking. Paths can take pedestrians and bicyclists to Tempe Marketplace, Mill Avenue, the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt, Papago Park and toward downtown Phoenix. Crossing the lake can be accomplished using the Mill Avenue, Pedestrian Bridge at Tempe Center for the Arts or Rural Road bridges. Many non-profit groups use these paths each year for 5K and 10K races and triathlons.

It’s a beautiful day for paddleboarding on Town Lake!

Boating and Fishing

The lake is the perfect place for boating and fishing. More than 2,000 rowers use Town Lake each year. Visitors can sail, row a dragon boat or outrigger canoe with one of the many other boating clubs, or people may bring their own boats to Town Lake after purchasing a permit.

There are more than a dozen varieties of fish that swim in Town Lake, including bass, sunfish, and catfish — and Town Lake has among the best catch rates in the state. Thousands of rainbow trout are stocked in cooler months. Fishing is permitted with a standard Arizona Fishing license available at sporting goods stores.

The Tempe Town Lake Marina includes five lanes of boat launches, boat storage, parking, a safe harbor, and a park for concerts and events. Many of Tempe’s boating programs operate from Town Lake Marina. Boat storage is available at Town Lake Marina for a fee.

To learn even more about Tempe Town Lake, please visit tempe.gov/lake.

Be sure to check out our other Arizona water destinations and stories in our Celebrate AZ Water archives.

Shannon Reed is a public information officer with the City of Tempe, one of 20 Water – Use It Wisely partners to offer water-saving advice and programs