Water has always played a critical role in man's ability to survive in the desert. One of the earliest water sources in central Arizona territory was none other than Lake Pleasant. Today the Lake Pleasant Recreation Area plays a very important role in water storage and irrigation, just as it did back in the frontier days.
The Pleasant Dam
As far back as the 1890s, the Lake Pleasant region was bustling with the activity of miners and ranchers. A settler by the name of William B. Pratt built a small dam across the Agua Fria River to hold water for the miners in the area, but unfortunately a flood washed away his dam the following year.
In spite of this, the small town site of Pratt held on. Plans dating back to 1903 indicate a desire to build a dam in the area, known as Frog Tanks Dam.
By 1925, a group of local farmers headed up by William Beardsley was ready to move forward. They raised $3.3 million dollars to build the Lake Pleasant Dam by selling bonds to a group of investors in New York. The group recruited Carl Pleasant to design the dam which would finally control the Agua Fria River.
Dams were a hot ticket in Arizona during the early 20th century. Some of the major projects completed include the Granite Reef Dam in 1909, Roosevelt Dam in 1911, Gillespie Dam in 1921, Mormon Flat Dam in 1925, and Horse Mesa Dam in 1927.
The project took on the name Carl Pleasant Dam as construction began in 1926. Although it was not funded by the Government, this was not a two-bit project dreamed up by a bunch of farmers. The dam was a record-breaker by all accounts.
When completed in 1928, the Carl Pleasant Dam was the largest multiple arch concrete dam in the world. The massive structure stood 76 feet tall and 250 feet long with a crest length of 2,160 feet. The total storage capacity was 157,000 acre-feet of water. At last the river had been tamed, but the story doesn't end here!
The Transitional Years
The Carl Pleasant Dam underwent a retrofit in 1935 when steel ties were placed in the dam's buttresses to provide additional strength. In 1964 it was renamed the Waddell Dam.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Colorado River Basin Project Act. This piece of legislation was the beginning of the Central Arizona Project, arguably the largest and most complex engineering project in Arizona's history.
The Central Arizona Project (or CAP) is an elaborate system that brings water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson. It consists of 336 miles of concrete-lined canals, underground tunnels, piplelines, pump stations, and storage reservoirs.
The Central Arizona Project would dramatically change Lake Pleasant forever. For 45 years, Lake Pleasant held water to be used for irrigating crops and farmland. Now it would play a critical role as a water storage bank for Colorado River water brought down from Lake Havasu. The water would be piped into Phoenix as needed via a new 30 mile canal called the Beardsley Canal.
As work began on the Central Arizona Project in 1973, it became clear that Lake Pleasant's storage capcity would need to be increased. The solution was to build a new, larger dam one-half mile downstream of the old dam. The new dam received the very appropriate name of "New Waddell Dam."
The New Waddell Dam began construction in 1987 and was completed in August 1992 at a total cost of $625 million dollars. The new 440 foot tall dam is made of earth and has tripled the size of Lake Pleasant. With a storage capacity of 1.1 million acre-feet of water, Lake Pleasant is now the second largest body of water in Central Arizona after Roosevelt Lake. The lake reached its new full capacity for the first time in 2005.
So what happened to the original Waddell Dam? As a matter of fact, it's still there! The old dam now sits 100 feet below the surface of the water. A large section of the old dam was cut out using a diesel-powered, diamond-tipped saw so that water and boats could pass between the two when the level of the lake is low.
Lake Pleasant Today
Thanks to the explosive growth of Phoenix during the past several decades, Lake Pleasant has become a hotspot for recreational activities. Boating, fishing, and camping are all popular activities in the area.
In September 1993, the privately owned Pleasant Harbor Marina began operations at Lake Pleasant. Pleasant Harbor features 640 wet slips and 740 dry slips for boat storage. A second marina called Scorpion Bay opened in December 2008 after a lengthy legal battle with the Maricopa County Planning and Development Department.
Lake Pleasant Regional Park features 2 paved boat launch ramp areas, 450 picnic sites, 225 campsites, 14 group use areas, 4 overlooks, and 7 miles of trails. A visitor center provides a wealth of information about the park's activities and events.
The reason we are able to enjoy Lake Pleasant as a recreational paradise today is because of the foresight and hard work of all those who came before us. After all, it's more than just water - it's Arizona's history!