Exploring the history of Phoenix, Arizona, just for fun. Advertising-free, supported by my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

How flooding created, and almost ruined, Phoenix, Arizona

If you've lived in the Phoenix, Arizona area for a few years, like me, you know that every summer there are torrential thunderstorms and every spring the snow melts in the mountains northeast of the valley. What this all means is that Phoenix floods.

When I was attending ASU, I saw some incredible flooding. Several of the bridges on the Salt River were knocked down. At the time, they were called the “100-year flood” and the “500-year flood”. And that's when I first started getting suspicious about how easy it was to deny that a desert city like Phoenix had any flooding problems. I was typical of most people, being a newcomer, I imagined that I was seeing something unusual. You know, something that only happened every 100, or 500 years.

The important thing to remember is that Phoenix wouldn't be where it is without the huge amount of water it receives from the Salt River Watershed. Take a look at a map. Phoenix isn't out in the middle of the desert, it's at the bottom of a massive floodplain. The Hohokam knew that, as did the Phoenix pioneers. They built canals and dams.  The water didn't have to piped in from hundreds of miles away, it came right through the valley. The trick, of course, was to get the water as it rushed by, bring it over to crops, and try to avoided getting washed away by floods.

1891 flood, Phoenix, Arizona.

I'm not much of a “it's a conspiracy, man” kind of person, but, well, you can imagine that Phoenix didn't exactly want to advertise that the valley had a problem with flooding. If you do some research on the 1891 flood, you will find that there was a lot of pressure by local investors to discourage the newspapers from reporting on it. Which the local newspaper did, by the way, to their credit.

Laughing off yearly catastrophic flooding as “unusual events” must have driven the old-timers crazy. They had seen Cave Creek Wash flood since territorial times. Of course, who's going to listen to old-timers when the real estate investors are denying the flooding? And really, if you're new to Phoenix it's hard to imagine that a desert city suffers from too much water! Sounds pretty crazy, right?

Of course, eventually Maricopa County had to start dealing with the flood problem. They built dams to hold back the water, they installed storm drains. The original Crosscut Canal was disbanded in 1913 and turned into a storm drain, and still is. A massive diversion channel that runs north of the Arizona Canal, and which was completed in 1994, carries flood waters away to the Agua Fria River.

The Maricopa County Flood Control District was created in 1959. And the better they do their job, the more people wonder "why would Phoenix need to spend money on flood control?" Thank you MCFCD!

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  1. Thanx Brad -very informative.
    BTW - why doesn't flood rhyme with brood, but instead mud?

  2. Very informative. ..it definitely makes sense. I don't remember monster floods from the 60s....but I won't forget the ones from the 70s & 80s.....

  3. Very informative. ..it definitely makes sense. I don't remember monster floods from the 60s....but I won't forget the ones from the 70s & 80s.....

    1. Hi Craig thanks! My memories of the floods are from the 1980s, but I'm sure every generation has their memories!