July 15, 2013

Parker Dam almost started war

Parker Dam diverts water from the Colorado River for irrigation and supplies electricity to towns in Arizona, Nevada and California. (Bureau of Reclamation)

By John Stanley
Special for The Arizona Republic

In 1934, Arizona stood on the brink of armed conflict.

The governor declared martial law, machine-gun nests were put in place and ships were authorized to carry troops, all to deal with one of the gravest dangers the state had ever faced — an invasion by the water-thieving varmints of California.

Water rights have long been a contentious issue in the Southwest, especially the water within the region’s greatest river, the mighty Colorado.

In 1922, the six other states drained by the river or its major tributaries — New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California — signed the Colorado River Compact, an agreement that spelled out how much water each state could draw from the river.

Arizona refused to sign.

Not only did officials believe the agreement shortchanged the state, many thought that California, with its much greater political clout, was bullying the others to grab more than its fair share.

The situation irritated a good many Arizonans over the years, perhaps none so much as Benjamin Moeur, the fourth governor of Arizona.

Moeur, known for his short temper and profane vocabulary, was a Tempe physician and apparently something of a stereotype — his gruff exterior hid what contemporaries described as a generous and compassionate soul. As governor, he held free medical consultations in the capital during his lunch hours. And he was known for writing off his patients’ medical debts every Christmas.

At any rate, Moeur was none too pleased when the federal Bureau of Reclamation starting building a dam on the Colorado River, about 14 miles upstream from the little town of Parker. When he got reports that construction crews were working on the Arizona side of the river in November 1934, he declared martial law along the east bank and dispatched National Guard troops from the 158th Infantry Regiment to the site.

Their mission was clear: Take whatever steps necessary to prohibit the workers from even touching “the sacred soil of old Arizona.”

The troops seem to have taken his words to heart. Arriving at the dam site, they set up machine-gun emplacements to defend the border, presumably from the construction crew.

Moeur also authorized ferryboat operators in Parker to transport the troops across the Colorado River, creating an official, if temporary, naval force that consisted entirely of two antiquated ferryboats.

The Navy of Arizona had something of an inglorious history. When the ferries ended up snagged in the river during a nighttime reconnaissance, construction workers from the enemy state of California had to rescue them.

The national press had a field day, mocking Arizona for its preposterous politics.

Imagine that.

But the Supreme Court ruled that because the dam had not been properly authorized, California and the Bureau of Reclamation were, in fact, acting illegally.

Congress hastily passed the Rivers and Harbors Bill, officially authorizing the construction of Parker Dam.

Moeur died in 1937, just a couple of months after leaving office; Parker Dam was completed a year later. And Arizona signed the Colorado River Compact in 1944.

Parker Dam is still the deepest dam in the world, with nearly three-fourths of its 320-foot-high structure buried below the original riverbed.

In addition to diverting water for irrigation, the dam generates electricity that goes to towns across Arizona, Nevada and California. Parker Dam also created Lake Havasu, one of western Arizona’s greatest recreational resources.

There are no tours available at Parker Dam. But cars can drive over it from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Parking areas on either side offer fine views of this historical structure. It’s 12 miles north of Parker just west of Arizona 95.