This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. This blog is not supported by advertising, it's supported by the generosity of my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

The difference between canals, laterals, and storm drains in Phoenix, Arizona


Although most people use the term "canal" for anything that carries water in the Phoenix area, there is a difference between canals, laterals, and storm drains. Yes, they all carry water, but they have different functions.

The canals of Phoenix can be compared to aqueducts in any major city. That is, how water is brought into the city from nearby lakes, rivers, reservoirs, that sort of thing. Phoenix has several canals, most of which are south of Phoenix, and since I'm mostly interested in the Phoenix metro area, I focus on the main three, which are: Grand Canal, the Arizona Canal, and the Crosscut Canal. The first two start waaay back on the Salt River, on the other side of the Pima/Maricopa Salt River Community, and end west of where I'm writing this, in Peoria west of the 101 Freeway, at the Agua Fria. The water travels from northeast to southwest, along the gentle slope of the Salt River Valley. The Arizona Canal is just north of me (I'm near Glendale Community College) and Grand Canal, which runs parallel to the Arizona Canal, is south of me. You cross over it on Central when you go past Central High School. The third one, the Cross-Cut, which is east of Papago Park, runs north and south connecting the Arizona Canal to Grand Canal (it does a "cross-cut"). There are, of course, other canals, like the Tempe Canal, but I won't get into those right now. Let's take a look now at laterals.

A lateral is kind of like a small canal. It brings water from the canals directly into neighborhoods. Most of them have been covered over since the 1960s, but you can still see an open lateral along Central between Northern and Bethany Home Road (it's on the west side of Central). Sometimes you'll see water in it, sometimes it's dry depending on if water is being delivered from the canal at that particular time. Yeah, old-timers call laterals "canals" and I don't correct them - I know what they mean. The canals always have water in them, unless they're being cleaned or repaired. The laterals have water only when water is being delivered to a neighborhood. Sometimes so much water is being delivered that you'll see it splashing up on street corners!

Another thing that is commonly called a canal is an open storm drain. You don't see too many of them nowadays, but they were fairly common up until just a couple of decades ago. The one that springs to my mind is the storm drain that's under the Crosscut Linear Park along 40th Street between Indian School Road and McDowell. That's where the original Crosscut Canal was, which was replaced in 1913 by the "new" one (which is still in use) and it was left as an open storm drain until the 1990s. Of course water flows in there after a rain, but you could see it back then, and now it's covered up.

27th Avenue and Thomas in 1949, also called Lateral 14 and Oleander Avenue.

And it gets even more interesting. Since the canals mostly ran east and west, and the laterals ran north and south, before street names were used way out in the country, like 27th Avenue, the street was just named after the lateral, in that case Lateral 14. So if you see a map from the 1940s, don't be surprised to see 27th Avenue also called Lateral 14. Of course people didn't actually drive on the lateral, the lateral always had a road next to it.

To me, the canals of Phoenix are pure magic. I've ridden my bike along them so many times I've lost count. I call them the gentle rivers of Phoenix.


Image at the top of this post: the Arizona Canal, which flows just north of me, and has since 1885. The photo is from 1899.