Arizona Water History – Marshaling Martial Law

Arizona’s history is colored by feuds and fights; the most famous being the OK Corral in Tombstone. One of the most protracted fights in Arizona history was with California over water allocations from the Colorado River.  Political leaders on both states fought bitterly over water rights for decades. Threats of fistfights and filibusters were written into the history of the Seventieth US Congress. Ultimately the water allocations issue was resolved in a Supreme Court battle which lasted over 11 years, included 340 witnesses, 50 lawyers and produced 25,000 pages of testimony – as well as one whimsical war story along the way.1

The rumbling started when Arizona refused to sign the Colorado River Compact of 1922. Arizona saw the compact as an aggressive push by California to secure river water at their expense. The compact divided the Colorado River into two basins, an upper and a lower one, with each basin allotted 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually. Arizona, California and Nevada were part of the lower basin while Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico were part of the upper basin. Under this scheme, Nevada would receive 300,000 acre-feet of water annually, Arizona 2.8 million acre-feet per year and California 4.4 million acre-feet per year. To Arizona, the inequity was obvious and they weren’t going to sign.

Politics being politics, a “legal” means of moving the project forward without Arizona’s consent was devised and the compact was signed into law by mid-1925. Throughout the three year delay, California had been feverishly working on moving forward with an All-American Canal to divert large portions of the Colorado River into the southern part of the state. Congress passed the “Boulder Canyon Project Act” which included provisions for the All-American Canal and the construction of Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam) on the Colorado River. The pot was being stirred and simmering.

Then California stepped over the proverbial line in the sand. They decided to build another dam, Parker Dam, on the Colorado River without asking Arizona for permission. Arizona’s fourth Governor Benjamin Moeur was boiling mad. He called on the Arizona National Guard to do some reconnaissance work.  Six soldiers were dispatched to Parker Arizona for observation and patrolled the dam construction site for several months.2

Moeur was “something of a stereotype” and “known for his short temper and profanity.”3 He was also very generous. Being a physician, he often offered “free medical consultations in the capital during his lunch hours. And he was known for writing off his patients’ medical debts every Christmas.”4 His generosity apparently had limits and one of them was California trying to take water away from Arizona.

His patience was tested in November 1934 when California decided to begin construction of a trestle bridge that would connect to Arizona.5 This action prompted Moeur to declare martial law and he dispatched 100 Arizona National Guard troops to block construction on Arizona’s land.6

He also started the first official Navy in landlocked Arizona when he authorized a ferryboat operator in Parker to transport the troops across the Colorado River.7 The Governor declared ferryboat owner and 17 year operator, Nellie Bush, as the Admiral of his new Navy. She would be in command of the ships.8

fa_1281_0334julieb1940
March 1934: The “Julia B.” Colorado River ferry during the so-called Parker Dam War. After several members of the Arizona National Guard used the vessel to scout the river, the “Julia B.” was dubbed the flageship of the Arizona “Navy.” This photo was published in the March, 8, 1934 Los Angeles Times.

At one point, the troops got in a bit of a pickle when one of the ferryboats got snagged in the river during a nighttime reconnaissance mission and “construction workers from the enemy state of California had to rescue them.9 The press had a field day with the news of “enemies” helping out the Arizona troops.

Can you picture this scene? A woman Naval commander, unheard of at the time, asking hearty male construction workers for assistance in freeing their boat. I’m sure the scene went sort of this: “Excuse me gentlemen, we seem to be in a bit of a bind. Would you mind helping to free us from this snag. Thank you so much.” Can you imagine what the construction workers as well as the Arizona troops were thinking?

In spite of this whimsical incident, the ferryboat Navy and the National Guard troops meant business. Forty members of the new Navy rode on the riverboats while twenty machine gunners were stationed on the shoreline to prevent construction on “the sacred soil of old Arizona.”10

In the end, Arizona won the Parker Dam battle as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, intervened and halted construction. A court case ensued and on April 29, 1935, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s right to object and interfere with the construction.11 Arizona felt vindicated and used this victory as a means to negotiate a deal to create its own irrigation system; the Gila River irrigation project.12 Parker Dam was completed three years later in 1938. The resulting Lake Havasu Reservoir now provides water to both southern California and to Arizona.

What happened to the infamous Admiral Nellie T. Bush? She became quite well known in Arizona. She was a justice of the peace in Parker, served in the state legislature and became a lawyer – passing the bar in both California and Arizona. She was inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame in 1982.13

References:

  1. August, Jack L Jr. “Shaped by Water: An Arizona Historical Perspective” in Arizona Water Policy – Management Solutions in an Urbanizing, Arid Region. Bonnie G. Colby and Katharine Jacobs, editors. Resources for the Future. Washington. 2007. p. 18.
  2. Harrison, Scott. The Parker Dam War. Los Angeles Times. Posted 21 August 2015. Web. Accessed 22 January 2107.
  3. Stanley, John. Arizona Explained: Parker Dam almost started war. Arizona Republic. AZCentral Archives. Posted 15 July 2013. Web. Accessed 22 January 2017.
  4. Ibid, Stanley.
  5. Harrison, Scott. The Parker Dam War. Los Angeles Times. Posted 21 August 2015. Web. Accessed 22 January 2107.
  6. Ibid, Harrison.
  7. Stanley, John. Arizona Explained: Parker Dam almost started war. Arizona Republic. AZCentral Archives. Posted 15 July 2013. Web. Accessed 22 January 2017.
  8. Rodriquez, Nadine Arroyo. Did You Know: Arizona Navy Deployed In 1934. KJZZ Radio. Posted 4 September 2014. Web. Accessed 22 January 2017
  9. Stanley, John. Arizona Explained: Parker Dam almost started war. Arizona Republic. AZCentral Archives. Posted 15 July 2013. Web. Accessed 22 January 2017.
  10. Ibid, Stanley.
  11. Harrison, Scott. The Parker Dam War. Los Angeles Times. Posted 21 August 2015. Web. Accessed 22 January 2107.
  12. Spencer, Monica. This Is The Single Craziest Thing You Never Knew Happened In Arizona. Only in Your State Website. Posted 10 May 2016. Accessed 22 January 2107.
  13. Rodriquez, Nadine Arroyo. Did You Know: Arizona Navy Deployed In 1934. KJZZ Radio. Posted 4 September 2014. Web. Accessed 22 January 2017

Photo Credit: From Los Angeles Times archives as displayed in “The Parker Dam War” by Scott Harrison.

Original photo caption:

March 1934: The “Julia B”, a Colorado River ferry, is seen during the so-called Parker Dam War. After several members of the Arizona National Guard used the vessel to scout the river, the ferry was dubbed the flagship of the Arizona Navy. This photo was published March 8, 1934 by the Los Angeles Times.

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