Untold Arizona: Laguna Dam — The Origin Of Yuma's Agricultural Power

By Bret Jaspers
Published: Monday, February 12, 2018 - 10:22am
Updated: Tuesday, February 13, 2018 - 9:40am

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To commemorate Arizona’s birthday, we dispatched our reporters far and wide to bring you stories from the region you've probably never heard before. Hear more from our Untold Arizona series.

Jim Cuming is a retired farmer, third generation. His grandfather Edward immigrated to the United States from Ireland, by way of Canada. Edward Cuming got 160 acres in the Yuma Valley from the federal government.

The land was as undeveloped as a dry riverbed, Jim Cuming said. In order to survive and develop the farm, his grandfather had to make a living.

“And this Laguna Dam project opened up. So they moved up to the dam and he worked on the dam there as a carpenter," Cuming said.

Cuming’s grandfather helped build the dam that made it possible to irrigate his own farmland.

We all know Hoover Dam, and you might know about the Imperial or other dams that manage the Colorado River. But the very first completed dam on the Colorado was the Laguna Dam. It diverted water to farm fields in the Yuma Valley and set the table for large-scale farming in southwest Arizona.

The Cuming farm and so many others have thrived due to the Laguna Dam and later Colorado River projects.

“It’s created a tremendous amount of wealth in the community and the state and the nation,” said Cuming, who’s also president of the Yuma County Water Users’ Association. “I mean, we send produce now all over the United States, Canada, even ship it overseas.”

The Reclamation Service — now known as the Bureau of Reclamation — built the Laguna Dam for $2 million. In January 2018, workers at the Laguna Dam were repairing the original concrete from over a 100 years ago.

Doug Cox with the Imperial Irrigation District manages the dam. “Because this is historical, we have to maintain it,” he said.

TOP: "Dragon's teeth" slow the flow of water passing through the Laguna Dam. LEFT: Doug Cox of the Imperial Irrigation District manages the Laguna Dam. RIGHT: Yuma produces a large percentage of the country's winter vegetables. (Photos by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)

The Laguna has gates along the California side that are now sealed up. Back when the dam was still used for large-scale irrigation, operators would release the water out of those gates. It would then flow along a canal to an area north of Yuma. The water crossed back under the Colorado River through a siphon before canals carried it to the the Yuma Valley and the city of Yuma.

Despite its usefulness in irrigating crops, the Laguna Dam is small and not built to store water. Crops could still be wrecked by floods.

“This is not a storage dam. It’s a diversion dam,” Cox stressed.

Colorado River flooding didn’t get fully under control until the Hoover Dam started storing water in 1935. These days, the Laguna Dam doesn’t do much more than divert overflow after a big rain.

The Yuma siphon is still in operation, although the water comes down from the All-American Canal. That canal takes diverted Colorado River water west from the newer Imperial Dam to California’s Imperial Valley.

Yes, there are more dazzling structures in place today. But the Laguna was the first step in harnessing the Colorado River to create both safety and prosperity.

It was also built at a time when the West was undergoing a dramatic change.

“I think the Laguna Dam is reflective of having the West become domesticated, more and more,” said Tina Clark, a historian for the city of Yuma.

Construction wrapped up on the Laguna Dam in 1909 — the same year the Yuma Territorial Prison closed. Coincidentally, Clark owns a restored church in Yuma, built in 1909.

Construction wrapped up on the Laguna Dam in 1909. (Photos courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation)

“The domestication really came with the churches, and bringing your wife, and becoming a farmer,” she said. She sees the period as “the Wild West pioneers — the miners, the guys that came alone — versus the guys that brought their wives.”

The farming life Jim Cuming’s grandparents to the Yuma Valley. Dams, starting with the Laguna, allowed his family farm to thrive there. At least until the river got under control.

“It made it real tough. And that’s why the Bureau of Reclamation created these places and it’s been a godsend down here,” he said.

It’s hard to argue with him when you visit Yuma at harvest-time, passing acres of winter vegetables in fields as green as the surrounding hills are dry.

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