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The way we were

Dreaming of canals

A few months back, this column discussed George Roskruge and his 1893 map of Pima County which hangs on the wall of many local government offices. It was only after publication that someone pointed out to this writer an unusual feature on the map: the "Proposed Santa Cruz Valley Water Storage Company's Canal."

The canal is shown to cut across nearly 50 miles of rangeland south and east of Tucson before ending among a series of reservoirs south of Esmond Station near the present-day intersection of Houghton Road and I-10. The operative word is "proposed," as the canal was planned but never constructed, and goes down as yet another bold but somewhat quixotic scheme in a history full of dreamers and charlatans.

The early history of Pima County includes a number of tales of dreamers who, for one reason or another, could not see through their vision. For example, Solomon Warner, one of Pima County's earliest Supervisors, spent his last years attempting to build a perpetual motion machine. The short-lived mining camp of Quijotoa, on what is now the Tohono O'odham Reservation, never amounted to anything resembling the metropolis that the folks selling townsites there advertised. Boosters of numerous railroads surveyed across the county never put together the capital that they needed to get them built.

Pima County being a desert, water was always the chief limiting factor to development, and lack of a reliable supply left large portions of the county effectively closed to significant settlement. Destructive floods in 1887 and 1890 inspired local boosters to think of ways to not only divert floodwaters to mitigate potential damage, but also to impound this surplus so it could be made productive. To this end, community leaders came together in 1891 to form the Santa Cruz Water Storage Company.

The officers of the new company included Chairman George Roskruge, recently the Pima County Surveyor. Selim Franklin, the former Territorial Representative who was credited with creating the University of Arizona, served as counsel. William "Billy" Breakenridge, the former Cochise County Undersheriff who would later help create Tombstone mythology by writing "Helldorado: Bringing the Law to The Mesquite," was commissioned as the "engineer in charge."

A man named C.H.R. Fitzgerald was brought on board as a "Company Representative." Fitzgerald was already involved in efforts to develop Calabasas, a town north of what is now Nogales (then in Pima County), which promised to be a border metropolis despite the lack of clear title to the land or a railroad to Arivaca. He had generated some ill will in Tucson because of an attempt to get the Council to sell the Military Plaza for development, but generally, he seems to have impressed the community as the sort of man who could get things done.

By the spring of 1892, the Company had surveyed a route for the canal and made public their plan. It included a series of dams on the Santa Cruz starting at Calabasas to divert water into a canal, which would run northward toward a series of 21 reservoirs (only 17 are on the 1893 map) south of the Southern Pacific Railroad and east of the San Xavier Reservation, land that previously had little access to water. Breakenridge and Roskruge estimated that the stored water could irrigate 75,000 acres of land, which would add "millions to the wealth of Pima County."

But this was not to be. In May 1892, upon returning from a trip to Colorado to secure capital for the scheme, Fitzgerald found himself in court, accused of embezzlement and "concealing the true state of affairs" of the Company from its officers. Even a reorganized board could not save the project at this point, and they spent the next year or so fighting lawsuits from contractors. The nationwide financial panic of 1893-1897 assured that the plan, along with many others, would perish for lack of financing.

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The Santa Cruz Water Storage Company was hardly the first time that local leadership promoted a scheme to "make the desert bloom," nor would it be the last. Perhaps the story could be seen as a cautionary tale about the perils of challenging nature. Another lesson might be that such an ambitious vision takes years of work with the backing of the community to come to fruition, and that the support of a handful of political hacks is simply not enough to make things happen.

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U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The Central Arizona Project's 336 mile canal - the longest aqueduct in the United States - diverts water from the Colorado River to serve 1 million acres of irrigated agricultural land in Central Arizona and to provide municipal water to Phoenix and Tucson.