SRP reservoirs at 93 percent capacity and rising - East Valley Tribune: News

SRP reservoirs at 93 percent capacity and rising

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Posted: Sunday, March 9, 2008 11:04 pm | Updated: 10:58 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Stored behind Salt River Project's six dams is the water that quenches our thirst, irrigates our crops and lights up our homes. This also is the water squandered by leaky faucets and air conditioners running full blast when no one is home.',800,600);"> INTERACTIVE: Take a tour of the reservoirs

In times of drought, such as the one parching the state since the mid-1990s, SRP relies on these reservoirs, located to the Valley's northeast, to meet demand.

And during wet winters, such as this one, the utility rejoices as rain and melted snow fill those lakes: Roosevelt, Apache, Canyon and Saguaro on the Salt River; Horseshoe and Bartlett on the Verde River.

Whether this winter will be an end to the drought or an aberration won't be known for at least another year.

SRP recently gave the Tribune a helicopter tour of the reservoir system, and from the air evidence of the recent rains is everywhere.

Months ago, on the morning of Nov. 30, the system was less than half-full - at 49 percent capacity. But after a series of well-timed storms, SRP now boasts of 93 percent capacity and rising.

"We can take a collective sigh of relief for the next couple years, because we don't have to think our water supply is running out, like we might've been thinking six months ago," said Charlie Ester, SRP's manager of water resources operations.

Approaching Bartlett Lake, there is a steady stream of water in the usually dry Verde River. Bartlett and Horseshoe are at capacity, so runoff entering the Verde watershed, which extends northward to the outskirts of Flagstaff, is passed along until it enters the Salt River and flows through the Valley.

There were proposals, decades ago, to build other dams on the Verde, so as not to waste precious water. But neither the Orme nor Cliff dams came to fruition, and SRP decided, instead, to raise Roosevelt Dam by 77 feet.

At Bartlett, and through the system, the water looks chocolate-brown. While SRP is thrilled to see the reservoir at capacity, lapping at the rocky shore, some boaters are less than thrilled because its sandy beaches are submerged.

Horseshoe Lake, less than 10 miles upriver, features the only earthen dam in the reservoir system, and the newest, completed in 1946. Water pours from its spillway gates, prompting SRP spokesman Jeff Lane to remark, "Everything going in is coming out."

Usually, Horseshoe is empty, Lane explains, as SRP prefers to use it for flood control. Not this year.

The helicopter heads southeast, climbing to 5,200 feet. While crossing the Mazatzal Mountains, the faintest dusting of snow is visible on Mount Ord and the Four Peaks. Far in the distance is the Mogollon Rim.

Water is running in Tonto Creek, and a pickup truck gingerly drives through a shallow crossing. Following the creek downstream, Roosevelt Lake grows larger and larger.

Roosevelt is, by far, SRP's largest reservoir, with enough capacity to swallow the other five lakes nearly three times over. When full, Roosevelt covers almost 21,500 acres - and on 500 of those acres are trees that have never been touched by the lake.

State wildlife experts and fishermen share in SRP's joy because of "new lake syndrome." When a reservoir rises to an unprecedented level, it submerges vegetation - and that submerged flora produces nutrients for fish.

"We're expecting the best fishing in Arizona in the past 25 years - and it may be unparalleled," said Rory Aikens, spokesman for the state Game and Fish Department.

Downriver, three hawks swoop over Apache Lake. The "green-up," or explosion of vegetation on the ground caused by the precipitation, will be good for Arizona's wildlife, as well, Aikens said.

A few hundred yards from Horse Mesa Dam, which creates Apache, the helicopter hovers near the cream-colored cliffs. Tucked inside a shallow cave is a mud-and-stone dwelling built by the Salado people, who inhabited the Tonto Basin about 700 years ago.

Contrasting old with new, Horse Mesa houses the reservoir system's largest hydroelectric generating units, capable of producing 129,000 kilowatts, enough to power about 29,000 homes. [*CORRECTION: A previous version incorrectly said it would be enough to power a typical residence for more than nine years.]

The flight down the Salt River continues, past saguaro-studded mountains and over Canyon and Saguaro lakes.

Granite Reef Diversion Dam, north of the Las Sendas neighborhood of Mesa, represents the moment where potential turns kinetic, where runoff and stored water begins flowing down canals. Minutes beyond is SRP's hangar at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Despite the filled lakes, one wet season does not a dry spell break, warned Ester. "We need another wet winter in a row to be able to lay this current drought to rest."

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