The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

City Insight: Phoenix

Phoenix AZ aerial
A directional sign for pilots points the way to town, built by Boy Scouts in the 1950s, during the ascendancy of Phoenix into a megacity propelled by aviation. Below the sign is the Salt River Sportsman’s Club shooting range. CLUI photo

THE MAIN AIRPORT IN PHOENIX Arizona is called Sky Harbor, and indeed this landlocked city’s harbor is the sky. With the Salt River on its south side, and Honeywell’s engine plant on the north side, the airport, like the city of Phoenix itself, resides at the fulcrum between water and aviation.

Phoenix is now the 5th largest city in the USA, having surpassed Philadelphia in 2004, according to most estimates.* Probably nearly most of the four million people who live in the sprawling mat of contiguous communities in the Valley of Fire (1.5 million in Phoenix, and the rest in places like Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, and Glendale), know the creation myth of Phoenix.

The largest prehistoric settlement in what is now the USA was located here, in the Salt River Valley. Over the course of several hundred years, the Hohokam Indians built a network of canals, as much as 500 miles of them, to irrigate their croplands of corn, beans and squash. Numbering over 50,000 (some say 100,000), this civilization disappeared abruptly in the 15th century. Possibly due to floods, or droughts.

When the American settlers arrived in the 1860s, they found the remains of these canals, and began digging them out, and building more, enabling agriculture to take hold again in this most arid place. Early boosters imagined a great civilization rising up on the ashes of another, like a Phoenix. And they were right.

Phoenix AZ aerial
Located on the Salt River, just below the confluence of the Verde River, the Granite Reef Dam is the main distribution point for the water that supplies Phoenix. Several canals intersect or originate here, upstream of the city. CLUI photo

Just Add Water, and Stir Vigorously
Agriculture (largely cotton and citrus) consumed the water and fueled the economy of the city, and the precursors of the metropolitan region around it, for its first several decades. This was made possible by an extensive canal network, which was at first built on those abandoned by the Indians. But the Salt River was intermittent, unreliable, and often dry, and the groundwater was being depleted. When the Bureau of Reclamation was created by the federal government in 1902, the people of Phoenix, who numbered around 6,000 at that time, took full advantage of this new entity, with its mandate to build water infrastructure in the west.

The Salt River Project was initiated in 1903, and construction began immediately on the tallest masonry dam in the world, to store the water of the Salt River in the mountains upstream, east of the city. Completed in 1911, the Roosevelt Dam is still the principal component in the city’s water supply, and its reservoir is the largest lake wholly in Arizona. Over the next couple of decades, three more dams and reservoirs were added to the river to increase its capacity, Apache Lake, Canyon Lake, and Saguaro Lake, each with hydroelectric facilities in their dams to produce electricity. In later years three dams were added to the Verde River, a tributary of the Salt River.

The canal system grew as the city and available water grew. Seven major canals totaling over 120 miles are now operated by the Salt River Project, and feed the southern portion of the city with water from the River. The northern part of the city is supplied by another entity, the Central Arizona Project (CAP). This was a Bureau of Reclamation project, conceived in the 1960’s, to bring Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, via a canal 336 miles in length, through the hottest desert in the nation. The canal was completed in the mid 1990’s, at a price of nearly $4 billion, half paid by the federal government, and half being paid back by its operators, and the people of Arizona who buy its water.

The Central Arizona Project (CAP) begins at Lake Havasu, near the transplanted London Bridge, and zigzags for 190 miles as an open canal, to Phoenix, aided by four pumping stations along the way. This section, called the Hayden Rhodes Aqueduct, terminates at the eastern end of the city. In northern Phoenix, some of the water is discharged from the canal into the Union Hills Water Treatment Plant, then is added to the water supply of the city. The rest goes on to the Salt River, east of the city, at the Granite Reef Dam. From there it plunges under the river, emerging on the other side for its 145 mile journey to Tucson and its suburbs.

The other part of the Salt River Project that has to be mentioned is its electrical generation. Like Los Angeles’ DWP, the Salt River Project (SRP) handles both Water and Power. Started in 1937, its Power District is operated by the state, and owns all or portions of ten major power plants, including the largest nuclear plant in the nation, at Palo Verde, west of Phoenix. SRP is now the nation’s third largest public power utility.

Phoenix AZ aerial
Scottsdale airport opened in 1942 as Thunderbird Field II, a basic pilot training for the Army Air Corps. It shut down at the end of the war, after graduating 5,500 pilots. It was purchased in 1953 by the Seventh Day Adventists, who used it as a missionary pilot training field. The City of Scottsdale purchased it in 1966, and it is now the busiest corporate jet facility in the state. CLUI photo

Phoenix Lifts its Wings from the Fields and Flies into Aerospace
With more than 300 sunny days a year (360 clear enough for uninstrumented flight), and plenty of water and power, Phoenix transitioned from an agricultural center to an aviation center during World War II, a condition that shaped its future. Three main air bases were built: Williams Field, in Chandler, south of the city, which was an advanced flying school; Falcon Field, on the east side, in Mesa, where thousands of British Royal Air Forces trained during the war; and Luke, on the west side, which was the largest fighter training base during the war. These and the dozen additional airfields in the valley, became the loci of the modern growth of the city.

Today, Luke is still one of the largest fighter bases in the nation, with over 8,000 people training at the 2.7 million acre Barry Goldwater Range in the southwestern corner of the state. The Luke community in the valley, military families and retirees, and civilians working for the base, number as many as 100,000.

Though Falcon Field shut down after the war, and was converted to a civilian airfield, it now hosts a business district with a number of aerospace and military company facilities, including ATK (one of the nation’s largest ordnance manufacturers), Lockheed Martin, MD Helicopters, SDI, Talley Defense Systems, and a large Boeing military helicopter plant.

Williams Field continued to be one of the Air Force’s busiest pilot training bases until 1993, when it was closed by BRAC. It has transitioned into an aviation research and technical center, with modification and maintenance operations for military aircraft by Boeing, and pilot testing and training technology companies. On site is the Air Force’s Humane Effectiveness Directorate, Mesa Research Site, which studies the impact and interaction of military technologies on pilots, and uses the human resources of nearby Luke Air Force Base, as well as the corporate aviation resources in the region.

There are ten additional active airfields in the valley that had their roots in WWII, as training or auxiliary military fields. Among them is Goodyear airport. 20 miles west of Phoenix, it was owned by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’s Aircraft Division, and was used by the Navy during WWII to build flight decks, and as an aircraft storage, logistics, and training site. After the war, and up to the 1960’s, it became one of the largest military aircraft storage sites in the nation, with as many as 5,000 aircraft on site at one time. After the Korean War, the planes slowly were sold, scrapped, or moved to AMARC, near Tucson, a region that is the national center of aircraft boneyards, and purgatories. The Navy sold the airport to the city of Phoenix in 1968, one of three airports now owned by the city (the others are Sky Harbor and Deer Valley). Commercial aircraft are still stored here, and a Goodyear blimp is often parked here as well.

The clear weather and open skies around the city, which attracted the military to the region in the first place, continues to make the valley one of the busiest places for flight training. At Goodyear is Oxford Aviation, an English company that trains pilots for numerous Asian and Middle Eastern airlines (including Iraq Airways, and Kuwait Airways), and some European airlines. Lufthansa Airlines operates a training center there. Chandler Municipal Airfield has several flight training schools, including one that specializes in aerobatics. Though it only serves small airplanes, the Deer Valley airport, north of the city, is the busiest general aviation airport in the nation, with over 400,000 take offs and landings per year.

Some of the other fields have been integrated into the suburban development, as fly-in communities, where residents have garages linked to roadways on one side of the home, and hangars linked to airstrips on the other. Others have been abandoned, and have given way to sprawl.

Phoenix AZ aerial
Chandler as high tech and space center: Motorola Space and Systems division, right, and satellite earth station, left, with Orbital Launch Systems, upper right, and Intel campus above that. CLUI photo

In Chandler, at the southern end of the sprawl, is another product of the legacy of aerospace in the valley. Motorola operates a satellite control station and communication R&D center, where Iridium, one of the first commercial satellite phone systems, was deployed. This multifaceted spaceport is down the road from Orbital Launch Systems Group, the rocket division of Orbital, a leading satellite and missile defense company. And next to that is one of the high tech company and computer chip maker Intel’s largest corporate campuses, where a $3 billion chip plant is nearing completion, which will bring the total Intel employees working in Chandler well past the 10,000 mark. Immediately west of the Intel campus are the remains of Chandler Memorial Field, one of the auxiliary fields for Williams Air Force Base, which became a training airport for McDonnell Douglas Helicopters, and now is home to a small collection of decaying, flightless aircraft.

But Sky Harbor airport remains an illustrative crux. It was bought by the city before WWII, and was located in an agricultural area, miles from the city center. Its early nickname was “The Farm.” During WWII, it became a defense plant, when the aviation parts company Garrett Corp., from Glendale, California, built a new aircraft parts factory here to meet military demands, and to be out of range of coastal attack.

After the war, the plant expanded with orders for Navy aircraft engines and controls. The airport grew as well, serving the city’s explosive population boom: Phoenix’s population in 1941 was around 65,000. After the war, it was 100,000. In 1960, 439,000. The plant continued to make parts, and after a series of consolidations, by 1999, when it was the aircraft engine company Allied Signal, it changed its name to Honeywell, when it became that company. Today, Sky Harbor sits in the middle of the metro area, and is among the ten busiest airports in the nation. Honeywell is the state’s largest private employer (after Wal-Mart, of course).

Phoenix AZ aerial
Lake Tempe is a segment of the river channel, inundated for recreational use. Two inflatable dams on either end hold in the water. CLUI photo

The river that gave birth to the city, the Salt River, lies, uselessly, next to the sky harbor. For its run through the city, it is mostly a desiccated, dribbling swath of sediment that flails chaotically through an otherwise ordered grid. The channel has been dug up, and continues to be the primary source of construction aggregate for the valley. In Tempe, a bizarre recreational park has used inflatable dams to create a long, narrow lake in the river channel. Other than that, the river is a dry wash until, after passing the main parts of the city, and the airport, it gets an injection from the city’s largest sewage treatment plant, which is also expanding. Then the river merges with the Gila and the Agua Fria rivers, and passes out into the western desert. 

Phoenix AZ aerial
Phoenix’s Harbor of the Sky: On the left is the dry Salt River, on the right is Honeywell Aerospace. CLUI photo

*The shrinking city of Philadelphia held the number 5 spot for around 15 years, after being bumped out of the number 4 spot by Houston in the 1980s. Of course, Phoenix’s ascendence up the list is based on a number, based on political lines, and the fact that the city limit encloses 515 square miles (and growing), several times larger than Philadelphia’s area. Philadelphia’s metro area is more populous than Phoenix’s, for the time being.