For as long as I can remember, I have heard of the Charleston Dam project, once apparently considered a part of what would become the Central Arizona Project.
The CAP, of course, is in full swing today, providing water from the Colorado River, through a series of canals, to Phoenix and Tucson, and perhaps soon to the Green Valley area courtesy of the aborning Rosemont mine.
The Charleston Dam, which was to be located somewhere near the erstwhile Wild West town of Charleston on the San Pedro River, was designed to capture water before it wended its way to the Gila River and thence on to the Colorado.
While the massive CAP was a concept for decades, it wouldn’t get funding for quite a while. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Charleston dam was once authorized for construction for water conservation and flood control [in the Colorado River Basin Project legislation of 1968], but a review of the project in 1977 recommended it be removed from the project and the concept went no further.
About 20 years ago, I took a trip up the San Pedro in Mexico (it originates in the Cananea Mountains) with Gene Brust. The ejidos, or communal farms, that line the river in Mexico have extensively dammed and put to beneficial use the waters of the San Pedro, perhaps accounting for the reduction in the river’s flow over the past decades. That, of course, would have made the Charleston Dam less tenable.
There was, back in the 1880s, a small dam on the river near Charleston, but nothing like what was planned for the CAP. Charleston was a town across the river from Millville, where much of Tombstone’s ores were hauled, by wagon, to be processed. Milling, even using the old stamp-mill process, was water intensive, requiring much more that Tombstone had in its early years, before mining operations got down to the water table, when water because an issue the other way — too much instead of too little.
Planning a lobbying effort
Let’s move forward to 1904. On Jan. 23 of that year, the Bisbee Daily Review reported on a meeting that day in Benson, “the first active public demonstration in favor of the movement to secure funds sufficient to send a representative to the national capital and lay before the Secretary of the Interior [Ethan A. Hitchcock] the necessity of aiding the San Pedro Valley Development Association in the work of irrigation of the San Pedro Valley.”
As could be expected, the meeting would feature “speeches by prominent men” and an explanation of the purposes of the group.
Blending news and comment, as was common at the time, the Review suggested that the work “should be aided in every way by the business, men and the citizens of Bisbee and surrounding cities,” since it meant an “immense” saving to every consumer.
(As a sidebar, that same day, the Navy launched its own Charleston, a “protected cruiser,” the “largest and most powerful vessel of its type in the American navy.”)
Has promise for funding, sort of
On Jan. 13, the Review had reported that the development group had “all but secured the promise” of Hitchcock for funding for further development of artesian water in the San Pedro River Valley, which supplied crops for the growing cities of the county.
There were 150,000 acres of tillable land between the border and Tres Alamos, near Benson, which “could supply the consumers with hay, grain, poultry and eggs,” saving “many thousands of dollars” now sent to California for those products.
The Review also called out the Cochise County Board of Supervisors, which it said the prior August “refuse to appropriate the sum of $500 to assist the association at a time when a little money would have gone a long way in securing the appropriation from the national government they so much needed.”
The Salt River Valley, surrounding Phoenix, had been successful in raising funds for lobbying Washington, and as a result, work on the Tonto Dam was already under way, the paper said.
On Jan. 16, the Review in an editorial encouraged the businessmen of the local community to support the proposition. “It can readily be accomplished,” the paper said, “if the businessmen of Bisbee and vicinity will take hold of the matter and simply subscirbe sufficient funds to send” a local representative to Washington to lobby for the valley’s needs.
“There is no dark or doubtful side in the solution of the reclamation of our arid lands,” the paper said. “No class will be injured. On the contrary, all classes will be benefited.”
Providing more irrigation in the San Pedro River Valley, the paper said, “easily means $50,000 per annum of saving to the consumers of products in Bisbee alone.”
Efforts will go on for years
This was just the beginning of an effort to develop agriculture in the San Pedro River Valley. Work in various forms would continue for years, driven by local leaders and merchants as well as elected officials at the state and federal level. We know today that little would happen, leaving the Upper San Pedro to play a minor role in regional crop production.
Rather, it would be Bisbee’s other “valley,” the Sulphur Springs, which would become more of a breadbasket, figuratively speaking, a function it still plays today. And this would be developed primarily with private money, plus the funding that came into the electric cooperative that would be developed about 80 years ago.
In both valleys, today many give consideration to whether there really is, or would have been, a “dark side,” related to a drawdown of the aquifer. In production of food, there apparently is no such thing as a free lunch.