This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

Watering a lawn with flood irrigation in Phoenix, Arizona in the 1980s


As someone who grew up in Minnesota, one of the most bizarre things that I did when I moved to Phoenix was to water a lawn with flood irrigation. It's still being used nowadays, although it's not as common as it once was. If you've used it, you're probably saying, "no big deal, it's been a common thing in Phoenix for many years". If you haven't used it, or even seen it, I gotta start by telling you that there's a valve in the middle of the yard. Yeah, my friends back home had no idea what I was talking about. I'll see if I can explain it.

When I rented the tiny converted garage in Tempe, Arizona, while I was going to ASU, I noticed that everything was dead. The grass was dead, the trees were dead. So one day I went out with the hose and watered a bit. I got a call from my landlord, who had noticed the spike in his water bill, and he said that it would be fine if I wanted to take care of the landscaping, but I should instead use irrigation, as it was much cheaper.

Not all properties are set up for flood irrigation. You can recognize them by the large "berm" along the edge of a yard. You can see it in the pic up there along the driveway. And of course the yards are sunk down a bit, because the water has to sit there, like a little lake. It's kinda pretty to see, even though it usually smells bad.

There was (and still is) a lateral that ran along the edge of the road where I lived. Back in the 1980s it was open, but nowadays it's been covered up. Most of the laterals are covered up. You can see open laterals along stretches of Central Avenue between Bethany Home Road and the canal. By the way, a lot of people call the laterals "canals" - and I know what they mean. But they're not really canals, they're "mini-canals". Along Central Avenue the open laterals are scenic, but where I lived in Tempe they were hardly that - they were just mostly muddy, and attracting insects (including mosquitos) and the occasional dead animal.

It all started with a sign-up sheet, which was on a board that just happened to be right in front of where I lived. You would request water, by signing your name, and a few days later SRP (Salt River Project) would print out when it was time for you to take your water. Of course everyone would get a different time (everyone can't be taking water at the same time) and often it was in the wee hours of the morning. I didn't mind, I was a student up studying (or with insomnia) and I just found it to be an interesting part of my new life in Arizona.

It was pretty primitive. At your exact time you would stick a big metal sheet into the lateral and the water would redirect onto your property. Of course you'd need to open up the valve at the bottom on your yard. People in Minnesota just couldn't believe this when I described it to them! Then the water would start to bubble up and fill the yard. Despite the smell, it was pretty to see. Of course you always had to be carrying a shovel, because if any of the berms failed the water would flow out. This happened quite often when I was doing irrigation, and I would get help my my neighbor a couple of doors down who would help look for leaking areas, and we would rush over to plug up the hole with more mud. It was great muddy fun!

Every once in a while someone wouldn't take their water and it would cause a crisis for the whole neighborhood. My neighbor kept an eye on things, and sometimes we would take the excess water, and sometimes he'd come over and ask me if I would, which I did.

Like so many things that I saw in Phoenix, from palm trees to cactus, this absolutely blew me away. And it told me that I wasn't in Minnesota anymore. And the strangest thing was seeing people who just took it all for granted, with a yawn. Perfectly normal!



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