The Salt River Project (SRP) is a major utility that providesboth electrical power and water to a combined count of a littleover a million customers in the Phoenix, Arizona, region. SRPmanages 131miles of Bureau of Reclamation–owned major canalsand more than 1,000miles of laterals. This infrastructure—whichtraverses heavily populated urban areas—provides an unexpectedresource for public relations. SRP has cooperated with the Cityof Phoenix, Scottsdale Public Art, and other partners to turn itsinfrastructure into a place for recreation, education, and historicalcommemoration. Its Arizona Falls hydropower station doublesas a historical interpretation site, and the quarter-mile ScottsdaleWaterfront hosts a major yearly arts festival called Canal Convergence.In this interview, JimDuncan, SRP’s manager of fieldconsulting services, speaks with Municipal Water Leader about the genesis of these projects and how they help SRP tell its story tothe broader community.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Jim Duncan: I’ve been at SRP since 1983, when I started in the economic development group. In 1989, I moved tothe water side of SRP, where I started working with our operations, maintenance, and construction groups, which dealt specifically with our canals and water distribution system. I did that for 3–4years and then moved into the water engineering group. My primary function there was to be the interface between local municipalities and SRP as we explored the different ways the canal banks could be used for public recreation, or as we call it, canal multiple use. I was in that position until last year, when through a reorganization, we formed a group that handles canal multiple use as well as irrigation system inspections and right-of-way issues.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you give us an overall introduction to SRP’s canal system?
Jim Duncan: The canal system comprises 131 miles of major canal and another 1,100 miles of laterals, including open ditches and pipes. We have seven major canals, which vary in size and right of way. All of them are sizable and have bank widths up to 50 feet, easily supporting public recreationon the canal system. This canal system provides water to approximately a quarter of a million acres of property in the Phoenix metro area.
Municipal Water Leader: How old are those canals?
Jim Duncan: The oldest canal is the Tempe Canal, which was built in 1871. The canal system is owned by Reclamation and managed by SRP. Most of the canals were built over the same grade lines that had originally been dug by ancient indigenous populations. In the 1800s, when settlers begin coming into the Salt River Valley area, various enterprising settlers discovered those ancient canals and started redigging and enlarging them. In the early 1900s, landowners in this valley pledged their property as collateral to the federal government for the construction of the Roosevelt Dam, because the existing canal system lacked any storage structures and was dependent entirely upon natural flow, which wasn’t adequate to sustain the farming interest. The Reclamation Act and the construction of Roosevelt Dam created the reservoir system, which since that time has developed into multiple reservoirs.
Municipal Water Leader: Does SRP’s canal system play any role in flood control?
Jim Duncan: The SRP canal system is not a flood control system; it is a water delivery system. During heavy rain, some flood water does find its way into the canal system, mostly from localized street flow. We continue working hard with the cities to make sure that whatever flood water enters our system is taken back out into their storm systems.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about the Arizona Falls facility?
Jim Duncan: Arizona Falls is a low-head hydroelectric generating station on the canal. It was the first hydroelectric station in the city of Phoenix. When the Arizona Canal was originally dug in the late 1800s, the builders encountered a granite shelf that ran through the valley. At that point, they did not have blasting equipment, so they simply left a 20-foot high waterfall in the canal system. By the turn of the century, it had been turned into a hydroelectric station within the city of Phoenix. Later, it became part of Reclamation’s canal system, and SRP took it over and operated it through the 1950s. At that point, it had reached the end of its useful life. The equipment was removed and the area was fenced off. The waterfall was no longer visible; it had been encased inbox culverts and old concrete structures. People didn’t know that it was there. It wasn’t until 2000 that SRP decided to reintroduce low-head hydro at that location and set about rebuilding a modern generating station
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the design and construction of that new hydro station.
Jim Duncan: SRP made the decision to reintroduce low-head hydro at the same time that the City of Phoenix was exploring the option of celebrating certain locations along the canal system that had some historical or social significance. Arizona Falls was one of those. Across the street was the location of the old Ingleside Inn, which was socially significant in the early 20th century. People used to gather at the falls prior to the first hydro unit being built. The City of Phoenix wanted to celebrate that in some fashion, but it wasn’t quite sure how and had a limited budget.
At first, everybody thought that there would be a conflict between SRP’s desire to build infrastructure and the city’s desire to take an artistic approach to celebrating the location’s historic significance. But by joining forces,we were able to create a better project than either of us could have done on our own. Had SRP taken a purely technical approach, the hydro station would have been just as efficient as it is today, but it wouldn’t have been a place to go to celebrate history. The city, meanwhile, had limited funds, so it wouldn’t have been able to do very much. SRP’s engineers and the City of Phoenix, along with an artist and an architect, formed a team to design a site that could use working infrastructure as a venue for education and to celebrate the history of the city of Phoenix. Considering all the structural work SRP had to do, the incremental cost of doing a little bit extra to celebrate the history of the area was easily manageable. The city dedicated its funding to dothe more artistic elements of the project. There was a lot of involvement from the neighborhood and the general public. One of the site’s features is a checkerboard floor adjacent to the generating room, which is called the dance floor. Research into old newspapers indicated that at one time, people had constructed an old wood dance floor on the bank of the canal. That was part of the social fabric of the area.
Today, Arizona Falls is not just operating infrastructure, and it’s not just a simple interpretive site. It has art integrated with working infrastructure. It has become a favorite spot. SRP uses it routinely for tours, meetings, and media interviews. We host everything from grade school kids to professional groups there, using it as a venue for education.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about how it works as a public relations tool?
Jim Duncan: It’s extremely useful. It’s one of the more photographed SRP facilities. It is located right in a residential area. We can talk onsite about almost everything that SRP does. We can talk about canal operations, SRP’s renewable portfolio, and sustainable generation. In fact, in addition to being a hydropower station, there are solar panels on the roof. Considering its art elements, it is also a good place for discussions about how the canal brought life to the valley.
Municipal Water Leader: SRP also uses its canals for an event called Canal Convergence. Would you tell us about that?
Jim Duncan: Canal Convergence is an annual public art event orchestrated by Scottsdale Public Art. It occurs each November for 10 days. This past November, it attracted just shy of 300,000 people. A quarter-mile segment of the canal system in the downtown Scottsdale area is used to exhibit commissioned public art pieces from local, national, and international artists. These artworks are designed specifically for installation in and around the canal, not just on its banks but also in the water.
What the event is today is impressive, but understanding how we got to this point is really part of the story. This area in Scottsdale uses the canal banks at a higher rate than most. In fact, the City of Scottsdale spent a considerable amount of money to develop this area, which it calls the Scottsdale Waterfront. It is unlike any other quarter-mile segment of our canal system. In 2008, when all this development was occurring, SRP needed to perform routine canal maintenance, which required draining the canal. Although the city knew this work needed to be done, it was somewhat taken aback to learn that it was going to happen in January. That is when the demand for water is at its lowest, but it’s also the height of the tourist season. The city was concerned that draining the canal would detrimentally affect it. Much to the credit of Scottsdale Public Art, it stepped up and said that it actually thought this was an opportunity. SRP went out to do the work that we needed to do, and Scottsdale Public Art orchestrated a little bit of entertainment, including interpretive dancing and a strange mixture of art and infrastructure. SRP provided some educational material to help people understand what we do to maintain and operate the canal system. An event that had started to mitigate maintenance work caught on so quickly and aroused so much interest that it now has a budget of nearly amillion dollars and has gone from 2 to 10 days in length and from a few hundred participants to 300,000. It’s a wonderful opportunity for SRP to engage with the public on the banks of the canal. People come out to enjoy the entertainment and the artwork, but they are open to learning about where their water comes from and what it takes to manage the resource. That’s what SRP is interested in as a sponsor of this event.
Municipal Water Leader: Was it difficult to convince the SRP leadership to allow and sponsor an event like this?
Jim Duncan: It wasn’t easy. First of all, I should say that most of the budget that supports this event comes from the City of Scottsdale, Scottsdale Public Art, and private donations. Although SRP supports the event both financially and with in-kind services, the majority of the funding comes from other sources. It’s important to understand that the utility industry is not much of a risk-taking industry. We like things that are tried and true. This was a huge departure for SRP. We had never allowed anyone to introduce something into the canal for an event. Although we laugh about it today,the first art that we allowed were large, simple styrofoam shapes, 10–12 feet in size, that looked like tools. They were all strung together, draped over a bridge, and laid in the bottom of the dry canal. When we refilled the canal, the shapes would float to the surface and then be removed. We had to go through serious discussions at SRP, not just with our executive management but with our board of directors, to convince everybody that this was compatible with SRP’s charge of delivering water. We chuckle about that because in 2019, the featured art piece was a 200-foot-long, stainless steel water serpent that shot flames 30 feet into the air and used pyrotechnics. We’ve clearly crossed the threshold of understanding just how much can be done in the canal while still meeting our core responsibilities of delivering water. Everything we allow the artists to do has been thoroughly vetted to make sure that it does not compromise water quality or safety. We’ve come a long way in a few years.
Municipal Water Leader: What advice would you have for another water provider that is thinking about using its infrastructure for a festival like this?
Jim Duncan: My advice is simply that the initial reaction is always going to be about liability, but that our experience has been that liability can be worked out through agreements,and that the payback is fantastic in terms of public relations and educational opportunities. When these things are first talked about, everybody immediately brings up the liability issue. That can always be worked out. It was worked out here. Scottsdale Public Art executed an agreement for each of these events indemnifying both Reclamation and SRP. It assumes the entire responsibility for the safety and compatibility of the artwork that it does. It takes little effort on SRP’s part to make sure that the artwork placed in the canal does not in any way compromise our ability to maintain and operate the canal. The benefits we derive from this 10-day festival are immense. It is a valuable educational event. Of the 300,000 people who come, thousands engage with our content experts. It is a fantastic opportunity to help people learn and appreciate the value of bringing water to the Phoenix area. Most people, even those who drive over the canals every day, don’t know what these canals are or where the water comes from. The other thing to mention is that, while SRP is the largest provider of water and power to the Phoenix metro region, most people only pay a power bill to SRP. We deliver raw water primarily to the cities in our service area, and those cities treat and deliver potable water and bill the customers. That means that many customers don’t realize that SRP plays a role in delivering water. They also don’t know about the efforts SRP takes to manage the watershed, to measure the snowpack, to take care of the forests, and to bring that water down through its rivers and reservoirs. The more their knowledge expands, the greater their appreciation is. That leads to better efforts at water conservation and an understanding of SRP’s roles.
Municipal Water Leader: Are there any other ways in which SRP’s canals are used by the community?
Jim Duncan: SRP has exerted considerable effort working with municipalities to allow the canal banks to be used for nonmotorized recreation, including walking, jogging, and bicycling. Per federal regulation, the canal banks are opento the public for those activities. We take it a step further inworking closely with the cities to allow them to design and build bike paths, public art, lighting, and landscaping. These improvements serve primarily to allow people to recreate and bicycle off the streets. The public art and interpretive elements built into these miles of multiuse paths also serve to educate people about where their water comes from.Our 131 miles of major canal support over 85 miles of fully developed bike trails, all of which are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and feature $12 million of commissioned public art. People use the canal banks toget from point A to point B, but they also provide a way for them to rediscover the connection to the canals that our agrarian predecessors understood perfectly.