About 100 miles outside of metro Phoenix, a 110-year-old concrete goliath stands at 357 feet tall and holds back over 1.6 million acre-feet of water at Roosevelt Lake. This awe-inspiring water system infrastructure is known as Theodore Roosevelt Dam, and it has an impressive history.
More than a beautiful site, Roosevelt Dam serves an especially important purpose in the Valley’s water storage and delivery capabilities. It helped early settlers tame the wild and unpredictable waters of the Salt River and allowed a prosperous community to flourish.
Today it remains the cornerstone of a water delivery system that is responsible for delivering over half of the Valley’s yearly water supply. Serving as a guardian to the desert’s most precious resource, the dam helps us maintain a reliable water supply and face climate change and drought with certainty.
The rich history of Roosevelt Dam
Long before SRP began serving the area, the Valley’s early indigenous residents, the Hohokam, built an expansive irrigation system. This gravity-based system would be utilized and maintained for more than a thousand years. The ingenuity of these native Arizonans laid the groundwork for modern Phoenix and the system that SRP operates today.
Thereafter, settlers arriving in the Valley in the late 1800s sought to build a reliable water supply to support life and agriculture in this arid environment. Many of these folks uncovered the remnants of this ancient canal system and built modern canals in those same pathways.
In 1889, a survey team funded by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors explored the Salt and Verde rivers for potential reservoir sites. They noted that the most promising site was at the confluence of the Salt River and Tonto Creek, which is the current site of Roosevelt Dam. For the next several years, private enterprises unsuccessfully attempted to fund a dam at the site.
In 1902, an opportunity in the form of the National Reclamation Act came along that changed everything.
Theodore Roosevelt Dam timeline and milestones
National Reclamation Act
Signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, the National Reclamation Act provided federal funds in the form of loans to build irrigation infrastructure.
Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association Formed & The Apache Trail
Valley residents came together to form the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association (SRVWUA) and put their land up as collateral to secure a federal reclamation loan to build Theodore Roosevelt Dam. The Salt River Project was selected as one of the first five federal reclamation projects in the United States.
The construction of a 60-mile-long road known as the Apache Trail enabled people and freight to be transported to the dam’s construction site. Upon completion of the Apache Trail in 1905, the first stagecoach traversed the roadway on June 10.
Construction of Roosevelt Dam approved
SRVWUA members vote to approve the construction and repayment contract with the federal government for Theodore Roosevelt Dam.
Construction site flood
A massive flood of approximately 130,000 cubic feet per second washes away equipment and supplies during the early stages of dam construction.
Dam cornerstone laid
A work crew lays the dam’s cornerstone.
Construction site flood
Late summer flooding once again disrupts work on dam construction and causes damage.
Construction goes vertical
Despite setbacks due to additional flooding, the dam begins to grow vertically.
Roosevelt Dam receives power
Power from the Theodore Roosevelt damsite is transmitted to the Valley via a transmission line built between the dam and the city of Mesa.
Completion of dam
Construction on the dam is largely complete except for bridges and parapets (an extension of a wall that provides safety around ledges).
President Roosevelt’s historic journey and dam dedication
President Theodore Roosevelt traversed the Apache Trail on his way to the dedication of the dam and marveled at its construction through the rough terrain. The dam is dedicated on March 18, 1911.
Dam’s first spill and celebration
A trickle of water made its way across the spillway at Roosevelt Dam for the first time on April 14, 1915. Some of this water was captured in a copper flask and sent to New York to christen the USS Arizona. On April 15, a crowd of about 3,000 people gathered to celebrate the dam’s first spill.
Construction debt paid off
On Oct. 21, 1955, the Salt River Project paid off the original construction debt for Roosevelt Dam.
Golden Jubilee, 50th anniversary
On March 18, 1961, Roosevelt Dam celebrated its 50th anniversary with an event held on the crest of the dam with members of the public and many important guests in attendance, including Sen. Barry Goldwater, Gov. Paul Fannin, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Rep. John Rhodes. A time capsule was placed in the dam to celebrate the 50th anniversary. The time capsule was later opened in celebration of the dam’s centennial.
Dam safety modifications
In partnership with federal and state agencies and cities, the dam was raised 77 feet, enabling us to manage water releases more effectively. This increased storage capacity for six of the Valley cities.
Construction completion and rededication
The dam’s modification construction was complete, and the Roosevelt Dam was rededicated.
Centennial celebration, 100-year anniversary time capsule
On March 18, 2011, Roosevelt Dam celebrated its centennial. A celebration was held on the crest of the dam, and the time capsule placed in the dam at the 1961 Golden Jubilee was opened and a new time capsule was created.
World Heritage Irrigation Structure designation
Theodore Roosevelt Dam was the first structure in the United States to be designated to the list of World Heritage Irrigation Structures by the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage.
Historical reliability for future generations
Since 1903, SRP has delivered water to a growing population. Well into its second century of existence, one thing remains the same – Roosevelt Dam is vital to life thriving in the Valley. Want to learn more about the past, present and future of delivering a resilient water supply to the Valley? We share all of that and more in a stunning video miniseries.