On empty: SRP drains Canyon Lake - East Valley Tribune: News

On empty: SRP drains Canyon Lake

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Posted: Tuesday, December 25, 2007 8:55 pm | Updated: 5:44 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

 The shimmering vista of Canyon Lake is a fine reward for enduring the twisting and narrow Apache Trail northeast of Apache Junction. But make that journey now, and after rounding that last curve motorists can’t help but notice something is missing.

VIDEO: Learn more about the work being done at Canyon Lake

The shimmering vista of Canyon Lake is a fine reward for enduring the twisting and narrow Apache Trail northeast of Apache Junction. But make that journey now, and after rounding that last curve motorists can’t help but notice something is missing.

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That something is the lake.

Instead of acres of water, there is only a bed of silty mud. Starkly visible on the hillsides surrounding the reservoir is the high-water mark, a horizontal white stripe that’s 50 feet above what little lake remains.

Many visitors, surprised by the water level, immediately head for one of the reservoir’s hubs of activity: the Lakeside Restaurant and Cantina. In the parking lot there rests the popular Dolly Steamboat, beached like a whale.

“People are in shock,” restaurant owner Debi Justice said. “They ask, ‘What did they do with the water? Is the drought that bad?’”

Human hands created Canyon Lake. For the moment, those same hands have drained it.

Salt River Project, which provides electricity to the Valley from the Salt and Verde rivers, is performing maintenance on the dams that bookend the reservoir.

To do that work, the lake’s level had to be dropped more than 50 feet.

The draining — or drawdown, as SRP calls it — began in late September. Some time in the next few days, the floodgates at Horse Mesa Dam, upriver from Canyon, will be opened and the lake will be filled to the top.

For the people who make their living at the lake, it won’t be a moment too soon.

“The loss of business has been huge for us,” groaned Cindi Busboom, owner of the Dolly Steamboat.

It was two years ago that SRP informed the restaurant, steamboat and marina that the drawdown was coming.

“We were hoping they would change their minds,” marina operator Chuck Richards said.

That didn’t happen, so the businesses tried to make the best of the situation. Dolly, in a dry dock of sorts, is undergoing a massive renovation from pontoons to paint job.

The marina towed its scores of boats to what deep water remained. Once the lake rises, an overhaul costing more than $1 million will begin, with the result being 70 additional slips, a breakwater and more bathrooms.

Despite the hardship, the businesses expressed their gratitude that SRP treated them as partners rather than annoyances. The utility even hung two large informational posters in the restaurant to explain the drawdown isn’t due to drought.

Also at work during this time has been the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees recreation on the lake that is in the Tonto Forest. There were docks to repair and beaches to clear of large rocks, but deputy recreation staffer Anthony Miller said, “Our main job was getting all the debris off the bottom.”

And what debris there was.Twenty-two sunken boats, one still in its trailer. Two cars. A rusted four-wheeler that was left behind because it crumbled on contact. Anchors, folding chairs, cell phones, coolers, marine batteries, wedding rings and sunglasses.

In all, the Forest Service removed at least three trailer-trucks filled with junk, Miller said.

They left behind a sandy lake bed with few features. That’s a lousy fish habitat, so the Arizona Game and Fish Department created dozens of “Pisces pyramids” to use as homes.

The pyramids consist of three wooden palettes and are erected in a triangle shape. Discarded Christmas trees are lashed to the slats and then the habitats are attached to the bottom.

SRP’s work involves “a lot of manual labor,” as much as $2 million worth, principal engineer Roger Baker said.

On a recent Monday at Mormon Flat Dam’s massive spill gates, workers prepared to install dozens of bolts. Far beneath the water’s surface, a pair of divers worked in near zero visibility at the dam’s base.

Baker and SRP chose this time of year for the work because the Valley’s water demands are typically lower, recreation on the lake decreases and the weather is usually mild.

On that last point, though, nature didn’t cooperate. Earlier this month, consecutive rainy weekends resulted in the lower watershed’s third-wettest December in the utility’s long history.

“That did set us back a little bit, but our goal is to make sure (the lake) is filled by the end of January,” Baker said, “We may just start a little bit later.”

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