Irrigation, A Sketch of Its History and Practice in Various Countries

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BY PATRICK HAMILTON, Commissioner of Immigration for Arizona Territory

The following papers, with one exception, first appeared in the Arizona "Gazette," and, at the request of many farmers and fruit-growers, they are now presented in pamphlet form. The subject of irrigation has not received that attention from the residents of the "dry belt" which its magnitude demands. Yet there is no industrial question of greater importance to the people of Western America; for upon an intelligent mastery of the true principles underlying the control and application of water to the thirsty soil must rest the future growth and prosperity of that region. This is especially true of Arizona, whose grand agricultural possibilities are gradually becoming known and appreciated.

In this sketch I have aimed to present, in a condensed form, all available facts, with the hope that it may serve to dispel some of the dense ignorance that prevails in Arizona on this subject. For much of the data in these papers, I am indebted to Powell's "Lands of Arid Regions ;" the Reports of the State Engineers of California and Colorado; N.S.W., and the proceedings of the Riverside Irrigation Convention.


Phoenix, Arizona, April 25, 1886


Arizona is one of the oldest of irrigated countries. When the Spaniards explored the regions now embraced within this Territory and New Mexico, they found this system of agriculture practiced by the Pueblo and other semi-civilized Indian tribes. But the traces of irrigating canals in the valleys of the principal streams, would show that this method of cultivation was carried on here centuries before Europeans set foot on the Western Hemisphere.

The Pimas are the earliest irrigators in the territory of whom we have any authentic account. When Coronado led his expedition through Arizona, in 1540, these people were found farming the lands of the Gila valley by the aid of primitive irrigating ditches, just as they do to-day. The communal system of land and water prevailed amongst them as it does now; and the centuries which have since come and gone have brought no changes to the Pima nation. They still till the soil and gather the harvest as their forefathers did, and as their descendents will, no doubt, continue to do, until the last of the race shall have been gathered to the happy hunting grounds.

The Mission Fathers were the first to introduce a more perfect system of irrigation in the region now known as the Arizona. The neophytes who gathered around their religious establishments in the valley of the Santa Cruz, were instructed by the pious padres in the arts of tillage, and taught to build ditches and raise crops on the rich bottom lands of that stream. For years the settlements on the Santa Cruz represented the efforts of agricultural effort in Arizona; and it was not until the Americans established themselves in the valleys of the Salt and Gila Rivers that this method of farming was practiced to any extent in the territory. Since that time, now nearly eighteen years ago, the irrigable area has been steadily enlarged, and within the past year several important canal enterprises have been inaugurated.

The agricultural resources of the country, so long neglected, are attracting the attention of people abroad, and the question of water supply is of the first importance to the new-comer. And in passing, it maybe remarked that our knowledge of this matter, is most vague, indefinite, and altogether unreliable. It is nearly impossible to secure data in which any reliance can be placed. Men who for years have practiced irrigation in this Territory seem to be incapable of giving intelligent answers to any question relating to the business. They know they have plenty of water and the privilege of using it when they please, but beyond this they have not cared to enquire. As a consequence, the facts relating to the irrigation problem in Arizona are difficult to obtain. The information presented falls for short of what the writer sought; but repeated enquiries to farming settlements, in different parts of the Territory, have failed to elicit a response.


The Salt River Valley has the largest and most costly irrigating works which Arizona can show. The names of the leading waterways, and the length of each is as follows:

Arizona Canal 40 miles
Grand Canal 22 "
Maricopa Canal 14 "
Salt River Valley Canal 18 "
San Francisco Canal 9 "
Tempe Canal, length (estimated) 18 "
Mesa Canal 9 "
Utah Canal 6 "
Farmer's Canal 5 "
Total Length of Canals 151 miles.

There are a number of smaller ditches scattered over the valley not included in the above, which may increase the total length to one hundred and sixty miles.

The cost of these canals is hard to determine. Aside from the first outlay for construction, there is to be considered the yearly repairs for breakage of dams, enlargement of ditch, etc. The figures on some canals could not be obtained.

Arizona Canal (estimated) cost $400,000
Grand Canal " 40,000
Maricopa Canal " 25,000
Salt River Valley Canal " 40,000
San Francisco Canal " 20,000
Tempe Canal (estimated) " 50,000
Mesa canal (estimated) " 40,000
Utah Canal (estimated) " 15,000
Farmer's Canal (estimated) " 6,000
Total $636,000

It is quite likely that these figures are much too low, and that the actual cost of the irrigation ditches in the valley will not fall short of $800,000. The carrying capacity of the several canals, as nearly as can ascertained, is as follows:

Arizona Canal 40,000 inches
Grand Canal 10,000
Salt River and Maricopa Canals 6,000
San Francisco Canal 4,000
Tempe Canal 6,000
Mesa Canal 4,000
Utah Canal 2,000
Farmer's Canal 500
Total 72,560 inches

Of this volume of water little more than 25,000 inches is now being carried upon the land and utilized. The area reclaimed in the valley by the various canals now constructed, is not easily ascertained, but the following approximate estimate will not vary materially, from the actual figures:

Arizona Canal 85,000 acres
Grand Canal 20,000
Maricopa Canal 12,000
Salt River Valley Canal 15,000
San Francisco Canal 6,000
Tempe Canal 15,000
Mesa Canal 10,000
Utah Canal 4,000
Farmer's Canal 1,000
Total 168,000 acres

This is something like the area enclosed, and which could be watered by the present canals. It may be that some of these ditches have not a carrying capacity at present, sufficient to irrigate the acreage they enclose, but all the land which naturally lies under them, will, no doubt, yet to be reclaimed by their waters. Of this large acreage, it is believed that not over 40,000 or less than one-fourth of the whole, is under cultivation. Of the 400,000 acres of surveyed land in the Salt River Valley, it is believed that 250,000 are susceptible of irrigation. When people learn to use water with that care and economy that is practiced in scarcity makes it precious, there is hardly a doubt that this immense tract will be made productive. At present, but little more than three fifths of it is enclosed by canals, and less than one-sixth is under cultivation.

The Pueblo Viejo Valley, on the upper Gila, is one of the richest tracts of agricultural land in the Territory. The following ditches have constructed in that valley:

San Jose; seven miles long reclaims 2,000 acres cost $5,000.
Montexuma; thirty miles long reclaims 5,000 acres cost $8,000.
Sun Flower; three miles long reclaims 500 acres cost $2,500.
Central eight miles long reclaims 5,000 acres cost $7,000.
Smithville five miles long reclaims 3,000 acres cost $4,000.
Nevada ; three miles long reclaims 500 acres.
McMurrin four miles long reclaims 600 acres.

These ditches are on the south side of the Gila. On the north side of the river there are six, aggregating twenty-three miles in length and reclaiming about 3,000 acres. Their total cost was near $12,000.

This shows the total length of irrigating ditches in the Pueblo Viejo to be sixty-six miles.

Cost of Same ................................... $43,000
Land Reclaimed ......................... 19,600 acres

Of this area, not more than 12,000 acres are now under cultivation. The capacity of several canals was not given. The total acreage of arrable land in the valley is nearly 40,000; so that less than half of it is enclosed.

The largest body of arrable land in Yavapai County was found in the Verde Valley. There are, besides, a number of small valleys in the different parts of the country, where irrigation is practiced, but the area under cultivation is small, owing to the limited water supply. Hon. John Davis, an old resident of the Verde, sends the following about irrigation in that locality:

Nine canals have been constructed, aggregating about 30 miles in length, and costing about $20,000. These canals supply water to 2,500 acres - their united capacity being about 1,500 miner's inches.

No data in regard to the condition of irrigation in Pinal, Apache, Pima, or Yuma Counties, has been received. There are number of canals in the Valley of Gila near Florence, and fully 10,000 acres are under cultivation in that neighborhood. On the Little Colorado and its tributaries, in Apache County, it is estimated there are close on to 18,000 acres reclaimed, most of which is under cultivation. In Pima County there is said to be 4,000 acres under the plow, and in the valley of the San Pedro, Cochise County, about the same number. In Yuma County there is said to be 2,000 acres cultivated. Estimating the cost per acre for reclamation in those counties at $4, which is a low figure, the outlay for canals is each would be as follows: Pinal, $40,000; Apache, $72,000; Pima, $16,000; Cochise, $16,000; Yuma, $8,000. This would make the total cost of the irrigating works already constructed in Arizona, over $1,000,000. The total length of all these waterways cannot be much less than 400 miles.


The "duty" of water in Arizona may be considered an unknown quantity. There is but little data relating to the question worthy of any consideration. The loose and unreliable system of measurements which prevail, make any definite calculation almost impossible. The practice, which very generally exists, of taking water at pleasure in such quantity may be desired, makes the irrigator altogether indifferent to the matter of measuring it. While all the larger canals employ a zanjero, whose duty is to make an equitable distribution according to the "right" of each cultivator, yet, so loosely is the business conducted, that very often one man receives much more than he is entitled to, while other another receives much less. Throughout the irrigated valleys of Territory, water is measured by the miner's inch, generally with a four-inch pressure. It has been shown how inaccurate is this standard, and how variable are the results from it.

Taking the Salt River Valley as an example of the system of artificial cultivation which prevails in the Territory, we find that all the principal canals are owned and managed by incorporated companies. With the exception of the Arizona Canals, all those ditches were constructed by the co-operative efforts of the owners of the land, which has been reclaimed by their waters. Some furnished teams and tools, other gave their labor, while a few contributed a money consideration. Stock was issued to each, according to the amount of money or labor he gave to the construction. This was the origin of the system of "water rights" which prevails throughout the Territory. The first cost of each "right" or share, was the amount of money or value of labor which the owner contributed to the building of the work, but there has been a rapid increase in value. In all of these canals, each share of stock represents a quantity of water suppose to be sufficient for the irrigation of a quarter of section of land. This "right" is generally 80 miner's inches. The owner of a share of stock has privilege of drawing from the canal, each season, the quantity of water which it represents by paying therefor a certain price per inch. If he does not wish to use the water himself, he can sell his privilege, for the season, to whom he pleases. And, again, if this share of stock entitles him to purchase 80 inches, and he finds that 60 inches is that all he requires, he can sell his right to the remaining 20 inches to whoever applies for it. If the outcome from the sale of water is not sufficient for the maintenance of the canal and the pay of officers, an assessment is levied upon the stockholders to meet the deficiency; and if there should be a revenue from sale of water to parties not holding shares, a dividend is declared. This is the plan that governs in the Salt River Valley, the Maricopa, and the Grand Canals.

The quantity used per acre under these canals, varies from one-half to three-eighths of an inch, during the irrigating season, Experienced irrigators find the latter quantity abundant to produce a crop. Here, as in all other irrigated regions, it is found that continuous flooding for a number of years, increases the duty of water. Several farmers, south of Phoenix, do not use more than one-quarter of an inch per acre for the production of a crop, and some get along with much less. In the vineyard of Mr. John Montgomery, water is found at a depth of 12 feet below the surfaces; the roots of the plants have penetrated to the moisture, and he has not irrigated his vines for two years. In the Tempe Canal, which is controlled by a private company, each share-owner takes as much as he requires, and as often as he requires it - there being no measurement and no limit, except the supply in the river. Yet, under this wasteful system, it is found that 60 to 80 inches is enough to produce a crop of 160 acres.

There is an extravagant use in water in the Pueblo Viejo Valley. In that locality water is divided into "irrigating streams," each "stream" containing one hundred any forty-four miner's inches, under a four-inch pressure. This body of water is used to irrigate eighty acres during the season. This is perhaps, the most wasteful use of the fluid that any portion of the arid region can show. In the Verde Valley, the duty of water is three-fours of an inch to the acre. It is acknowledged that crops could be raised with much less, but as there is an abundance in the stream, each man takes as much as he pleases. The quantity of water used per acre in the farming settlements of Pinal, Coshise, Apache, and Pima will range from one-half to one inch. Wherever irrigation is practiced in the Territory there is waste and extravagance in the use of water. Ignorance and inexperience in the application of it is, in most cases, the main cause. Where the careful cultivator and experienced irrigator finds three-eighths of an inch per acre entirely sufficient, his neighbor, farming the same character of soil and raising the same kind of crops, will not be satisfied with the less than an inch to the acre.


The cost of water to the Arizona irrigator is another difficult matter to determine. Water "rights" for the irrigation of a quarter section of land in the Salt River Valley vary from $500 in the Grand, to $1,000 in the Arizona Canals. Having secured a "right," the cultivator has then to pay as much, yearly for the water he requires. In the Grand Canal the price is $2.00 per inch, in the Maricopa about the same, and in the Salt River Valley Canal $1.75 per inch. Under the rules adopted by the Arizona Canal Company, the farmer is taxed at the rate of $1.25 per acre, for every acre he cultivates yearly. It will be seen that this system is radically different from that which prevails not only in Arizona but in nearly all of the irrigated regions of the West. Under the plan adopted by this company, the water is wedded to the land, neither can be sold separately; while in all the other incorporated canals in the valley the reserve prevails, and water shares pass from hand to hand like any other commercial paper. The danger of the latter policy lies in the opportunity it presents for the control of the stock by unscrupulous speculators.

The Arizona Canal Co. issues no stock to purchases of water, and consequently they have no voice in its management or control; while in all other companies shareholders have a vote and a voice in the regulation of their affairs. Water owners in the Tempe Canal, which is not incorporated, pay nothing, directly for the use of the water, but are liable to an assessment each year for maintenance of works and pay of officers.

The waters of the canal which supplies Mesa City, are rented to the farmers at the rate of $30 per share per year-a share being sufficient to irrigate thirty acres-making the cost one dollar an acre. In the distribution of water from the irrigating canals of the Territory there is but one feature worthy of any commendation. That is the policy which has been adopted by the Grand, Maricopa, and Salt River Valley Canals of selling water to those entitled to purchase, in such quantities as the irrigator finds sufficient for the production of a crop. With a correct system of measurements and a careful supervision of works, this method is a good one. It encourages the consumer to be economical in the use of water, knowing that he can sell what portion of his "right" he does not use, to some one who wants it. It is the only just and sensible policy seems short-sighted. The less water required to cultivate a tract of land, the more water rights the company will be able to dispose of, and the larger the area that will be reclaimed.


Arizona being one of the oldest irrigated regions of the western continent, a stranger would naturally expect to find here a well-matured legal code regulating the control and distribution of its waters. In this he would be disappointed. The water question is in as unsettled a condition here as in California; and while the Territory has thus far escaped the flood of litigation which has swept over the Golden State, an increase of population and a greater demand for water gives warning that it may not be so fortunate in the future. Our bill of rights declare that "all streams, lakes, and ponds are public property," and that no one has the right to appropriate them exclusively to his own private use. The territorial statues declare that all rivers, creeks, and streams of running water "are applicable to the purposes of irrigation and mining;" and the further declaration is made that "all the inhabitants of the Territory who own or possess irrigable lands shall have the right to construct public or private >acequias the gist of the Territorial law relating to irrigation. It merely recognizes the right of appropriation, but makes no provision for the proper regulation of the same. Neither does it make any provision for the control, distribution, measurement, or sale of the precious fluid. Individuals or corporations may appropriate and control large quantities of water, but there is no legal supervision over their acts, nor any safeguards thrown around the consumer. There is nothing to prevent criminal waste, nor is there any check to corporate extortion. And yet there is nothing which should be guarded more carefully or poised more dearly. Arizona's mineral wealth has been called "the jewel of her sovereignty," but her rivers and streams are the arteries through which courses her very life blood.

Priority of appropriation has been recognized by our Territorial courts, but where rights are so vaguely defined and appropriation so unrestricted, there must be a lack of that feeling of security which should attach to the possession of water as well as to land, in a land where irrigation is a necessity. The greatest evil that can befall such a country is an insecure and undetermined title to water. In arid regions like Arizona, the values are entirely in the water, without it the soil must always remain a desert. People seeking homes here realize this fact, and desire, first of all, to know that the supply is abundant, and that the titles are secure. Is it not that of primary importance to every one who has the interest of the Territory at heart to have this matter adjusted on a basis just and equitable to all?

The necessity for wholesome legislative control over the wholesale appropriation of water is apparent to everyone. Large quantities are being claimed by corporations, and in a short time every inch, available for agriculture, will be appropriated. The possession of the water by those companies, virtually, gives them control of the land. Now, while such reclamation enterprises are of great benefit to the Territory, and worthy of all legitimate encouragement, it is yet the duty of the people of Arizona to see that it's public waters are not controlled by monopolies.

The large canals now being constructed in the valleys of the Gila, as well as the Arizona Canal, in the Salt River Valley, are speculative enterprises, out of which their projectors expect to take money. This is proper and entirely legitimate, and those who have engaged in such ventures deserve to be well remunerated. But while favoring every public enterprise of this character, it is the duty of the people to see to it that such corporations do not misuse the powers which the control of large quantities of water naturally gives them. The primary principle that water is a gift from Nature, and as necessary to man's existence as the air he breathes, should not be lost sight of. For the construction of irrigation works and the bringing of water to the cultivator, there should be given a fair and liberal compensation. This is a proposition that will not be disputed. Neither can the right of the people to prevent unjust and extortionate charges, be denied. If there is no check upon the actions of large canal companies, the harmer and fruitgrower must rely entirely their sense of justice. The people of California and Colorado, realizing this danger, have made legal provisions which effectually prevent extortion by water companies.

The loose system of measurements should be done away with, and wastage should be prevented. In a country like ours where every inch of water is precious, reckless waste ought to be made a criminal offence. The present system of claiming thousands of inches of water, which are not used, is untenable both in law and equity. No individual or corporation has a right to any more water than he or they actually use. This is the only true policy, and is recognized in all irrigating countries where the waters are under legislative control.

The waters of all rivers and streams in the Territory which are utilized for irrigation, should be accurately measured, and the quantity available at all seasons should be known. This will not only be of great benefit to the irrigator, but do away with the present system of unchecked appropriation. When the volume of water in a stream was known, and the share of each appropriator definitely determined, it would assure to the farmer a certainty that the water company would be able to deliver the quantity he contracted for.

Irrigation to Arizona is what the life blood is to man, or the piston rod to the stream engine. The just and equitable control and distribution of the poor waters of the Territory assure to our fertile valleys a large and permanent population and a prosperous future. It is a vital question to our people, and one which heretofore has received but little consideration. Yet it is not too much to say that the corner stone of Arizona's prosperity rests upon it. How important, then, is it to the general welfare that our irrigation system should be upon a secure foundation of equity and justice preserving for all their rights in one of the most precious gifts of Nature, and doing no wrong to vested interests.

It for those directly interested, and with the light of experience to guide them, to decide how this important problem shall be solved. It is a matter of deserving more thought and attention than has yet been bestowed upon it. Its satisfactory solution is only a matter of time; but it would be well if the people of these valleys would consider the question from a broader and more liberal standpoint than that of mere self-interest. It is admitted that law of some kind is a necessity, but what particular laws a people should have on any particular subject, is for the people themselves to decide. In conclusion, it maybe said that these papers have been collated and published with the hope that they may prove of some benefit to the Arizona farmer. If the data contained therein shall help him to a better understanding of the irrigation question, and if a knowledge of the laws and regulations governing it in other countries shall assist him to deal intelligently with it here at home, the effort will not have been in vain.

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