Roosevelt Lake was, and is, the granddaddy of all Arizona reservoirs, the first project built under the Federal Reclamation Act. Now, after nearly a century of existence, the lake is approaching a new milestone in its own history: For the first time, it is expected to fill to almost 100 percent capacity.
This achievement is no small feat, especially considering that just a year or so ago, drought conditions had dried up the lake to only 9 percent of its capacity. Then, even the most optimistic predictions about lake weren't that positive. In July 2004, Dallas Reigle, a Salt River Project hydrologist, stuck his neck out and cautiously predicted that, under the right conditions, Roosevelt Lake could possibly hit 25-30 percent of capacity by January 2005. He added: "After eight years of drought conditions, that's not too bad. This irrigation system created by a bunch of farmers 100 years ago continues to do its job."
The unexpected current record levels come as a result of snowmelt and winter-rain runoff that has filled the waterway well above its former high-water mark (96 percent full at press time). This is welcome news for the hundreds of thousands of outdoor enthusiasts who show up at Roosevelt each year to fish, sail, water ski, jet ski or splash around in the man-made oversize swimming pool.
On any given summer weekend, an estimated 40 percent of the visitors come from the Tucson area and other parts of Southern Arizona, according to unofficial tallies by both the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
"A couple of summers ago, we were looking at the possibility that the lake could dwindle to a large mud puddle," said Charlie Ester, a Salt River Project hydrologist. "Now, because of a wet winter beyond anyone's expectations, the lake is at its highest point in its history."
Hays Gilstrap, chairman of the Game and Fish Commission says, "From deer and quail to largemouth bass, life is good in Arizona when we have water like this." That's especially true for the bass population and the thousands of anglers who show up at Rosey looking for lunkers in all the right places.
"Current lake levels signal an epic era of water-based recreation in the SRP lake chain," says Rory Aikens, Game and Fish information officer. "New water levels at Roosevelt (as well as at Apache, Canyon, Saguaro, Bartlett and Horseshoe lakes) will usher in a new chapter for outdoor recreation and ecotourism in the state. With about 8,000 acres of newly submerged brush on the lake bottom, Roosevelt is expected to go through what geologists call the 'new lake syndrome,' bringing productivity that can rival any water in the nation. We expect that Roosevelt Lake for the next several years will be one of the West's top bass lakes, if not the best in the nation."
Even before the water level's most recent rise, professional anglers extolled the virtues of Roosevelt Lake.
"You can always catch fish here," said tournament bass angler John Murray. "No matter what time or year, bass are always willing to bite in these waters." Three-time Bassmasters Classic qualifier Greg Hines, who began his competitive fishing career more than 35 years ago, noted, "If you don't catch fish at Roosevelt, you're not trying hard enough." Hines contends that for consistency of available strikes and numbers of fish, Roosevelt is one of the best bass waters in the country, and the influx of water will only make it better.
Not only will there be more and bigger bass to chase; all species will benefit from the nutrient-enriched waters--and anyone and anything associated with Arizona angling should also profit.
"My phone is ringing off the hook, and I'm booked solid for weeks," says professional fishing guide Art Chamberlain, who has taken clients in search of fish at Roosevelt for the past 24 years. "I believe this place will be the best bass lake west of the Mississippi for the next several years, and it could also be the best darn crappie lake in the entire United States. Before the rains and snowmelt brought the water levels up, Game and Fish had estimated there were 10 million crappie in these waters, and I think that number might even be conservative. Now ... they've got so many new places to spawn and hide that crappie fishing here is going to be nothing short of amazing."
Fisheries scientist Jim Warnecke has just about seen it all in his more than 30 years at Game and Fish, two-thirds of that time working SRP lakes. "I've seen all the ups and downs, times and events good and bad, but this has been the best year in the last three decades at Roosevelt, because water levels have covered all kinds of vegetation and structure that have never been flooded before. The incoming nutrient flow has fertilized our garden, and the fish crop is going to be tremendous. All species of fish will have a lot more space to grow, and they're going to grow faster with a higher survival rate."
A near-capacity water playground is the latest bonus for a site where the federal government has spent $425 million to heighten and improve one of the last stone masonry dams ever built. In addition to raising the dam's cap by 77 feet, the huge project included a 3,000-foot-long suspension bridge that now eases traffic on the west side of the lake, as well as wider and longer boat launch ramps, and hundreds of solar-powered campsites and picnic benches. "There's so much interest in this lake now, we're being overwhelmed," said Gary Smith, Tonto National Forest district ranger.
"One year doesn't turn around a decade of drought," says Warnecke. "In the reservoirs and other recreational facilities we manage, our aquifers have been recharged this spring, but it takes a soaking of several years to make up for all the dry ones. Nonetheless, the water is up; the fish are biting, and now is the time to take advantage of nature's largesse."