May 19, 2019

1919: Growth Causes Prescott to Run Out of Water

Old City Dam, 1920s
By the time summer came along, water pressure had consistently fallen so low that everyone was required to boil it. Unfortunately, that did nothing to relieve its foul smell.

The main reason for the water shortage was escalating growth. Prescott was excited that Fort Whipple would be brought back to life in the form of a hospital, but even before it was in full operation, it was already consuming the majority of the water that could be pumped from Del Rio Springs—the largest source and producer of fresh water for the city.

City fathers had already become aware of the impending shortage the previous year and decided upon a stop-gap measure. Because of “the difficulty in sinking wells in that part of the county,” Prescott had been allowing farmers in the Chino Valley and Jerome Junction area to tap into the line for their domestic use for several years. They paid the same rate as the city dwellers. However, in May, 1918, the city turned off the tap.

This caused a group of farmers to appear before the Chamber of Commerce to protest the decision. “The (farmer’s) spokesman, Mr. Carbine, told the gathering that the city had taken its action at the very worst time of the year…when the farmers were all busy putting out their gardens and crops, and unless the city granted the settlers an extension of time in which to procure another water supply, great hardship will be worked on the tillers of the soil, in that the production of crops in that section (would) be materially curtailed.” 

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Prescott’s City Clerk, Frank Whisman, was on hand to explain the reasoning. In fact, the city really didn’t have the right to sell the water outside its limits and it could be stopped by a single taxpayer’s objection. Additionally, “the continual opening and shutting of taps connected directly with the trunk water mains caused a great deal of damage both to the pipes and to the pumps.” Indeed, installing a household tap into the main line is highly impractical. Water would rocket from the faucet with the pressure of a fire hydrant. It would sting, and potentially even injure one’s hands under the 700 pounds per square inch of force. 

“There was an impending water shortage,” Whisman continued, “and since the city had grown so large (nearly 8000) and the use of water had increased proportionately that it was a matter of self protection to cease selling water to the tract settlers.” Prescott also learned that “the city would (soon) be held to have furnished this service for such a long time that it would be obliged to continue the arrangement indefinitely” if it continued the practice much longer.

Another move the city made to protect its water occurred in January of 1919, when Prescott received a restraining order to stop the Santa Fe railroad from building a dam across Miller Creek. The city also sued the railroad for the cost of the water it had taken from there.

Even after cutting off the northern rural customers and the railroad, Prescott was still consuming more water than was being captured. In December 1918, over 17 million gallons were consumed. The previous December, the number was only 10 million.

Demand on the city’s water infrastructure was at its maximum when disaster struck October 1, 1918. “Caused either by defective wiring or an over-heated stove,” fire destroyed the water plant at Del Rio Springs. One of the workers took a short walk returning to find the roof engulfed in flames. A short hose was used to combat the fire, but it rapidly spread “to the engine room, igniting the oil-soaked interior” and the building burned to the ground. Damage was estimated at $75,000 (about $1.1 million today.)

In response, a mile of pipeline would be built to divert Banning Creek water to the Groom Creek plant “in sufficient quantity not only to supply all possible needs of the enlarged (Whipple) post, but possibly to leave a surplus for city use.” 

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Initially, plans were discussed to repair the Del Rio plant, but it was realized that harvesting from that location was both ignorant and tremendously wasteful. It was found that the Del Rio Springs were fed by Granite Creek which absorbed the rain and snow from the mountain creeks surrounding the city. 

Instead of capturing the water at the source in the nearby mountains, Prescott was waiting for it to flow 20 miles away while descending 1100 feet, before pumping it back to the city! This was costing water customers a relatively whopping 60 cents to produce 1000 gallons of water. Today, that would put the average monthly water bill at around $270! If the water was captured in the mountains above the city and gravity employed to move it, the cost would shrink to 2 cents. So the idea of installing 20 miles of wider pipes and larger pumps at Del Rio was quickly dismissed. Fortunately, some repairs were able to be made and some water was delivered to the new Ft. Whipple hospital complex, but they were now absorbing every drop of it.

Two possible dam sites were studied as early as the late 19th century; Potts (now Butte) Creek and Aspen Creek. When Harry Heap took over as mayor in February, 1919, he favored the Potts Creek site. However, neither Del Rio, Potts Creek, nor Aspen Creek ended up being used.

Eventually it would be another location that would solve the problem. It would take four years to build this new dam before water could be harvested from it. The new reservoir was named "Lake Goldwater" and it could hold 100 million gallons of fresh water. It was estimated that the city of 8000 would now have enough water to serve a population of 50,000--an incomprehensible number at that time.

Before the project was completed, however, it would take strict conservation and the grace of wet weather to see Prescott through its water crisis.


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