Teddy Roosevelt being unavailable, Salt River Project has brought in a worthy pinch-hitter for its centennial.
His name is Edmund Morris, the soft-spoken writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his biography “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.”
A subsequent volume, “Theodore Rex,” was released in 2001.
Morris will be the featured speaker for today’s centennial gala at the Arizona Biltmore resort, two days ahead of SRP’s actual birthday.
Bringing Roosevelt’s pre-eminent biographer to town for SRP’s big party makes perfect sense. It was Roosevelt who helped wire the federal government to promote the growth of the West, and Morris has unusual insight into what made the boisterous 26th president tick.
Morris got a bird’s-eye view of one of Roosevelt’s most tangible legacies when SRP took him and his wife, Sylvia, on a helicopter tour of its dam system Tuesday morning.
That system exists because in 1902, during his first full year in the White House, Roosevelt signed the Newlands Reclamation Act, which freed federal funds to build dams in the arid West.
Among the first dams built under its auspices was the one that bears Roosevelt’s name, now towering 357 feet above the Salt River bottom across a gorge northeast of the Valley.
Behind that dam right now, frankly, is a sad sight. But it’s a sight that testifies as to why the dam was needed to begin with if we were ever to overcome the river’s devastating cycles of flood and drought.
Behind the dam, Roosevelt Lake is slowly dying.
It rose a bit over the weekend, from 13 percent to 14 percent capacity, but without significant moisture in the watershed this month and next, history might soon be made in the form of a lake bed you can walk across.
Before reaching Roosevelt Lake, however, chopper pilot Lance Stewart flew up the now-anemic Verde River to Bartlett Lake, which is at roughly a third of capacity, and over Horseshoe Lake, which has been dust-dry behind its earthen dam for months.
In the Mazatzal Mountains, Stewart pointed out signs of deep drought, including myriads of hardy evergreens wilting on the rocky hillsides.
It was just such a dry spell as the one we’re now having, in 1898-1904, that drove the Valley economy to its knees and impelled Arizona lobbyists to push Roosevelt to sign the Reclamation Act.
The young new president complied eagerly.
“It was his first big conservation effort,” Morris said. Roosevelt wrested the legislation from a conservative Congress and “made it his own. It really was the foundation for all the great conservation reforms in his second term.”
Roosevelt’s aim, Morris said, was to increase the population of the West.
“He was by no means just into impressive scenery. He wanted settlements,” Morris said.
Today, many — even many who live here — cringe at the thought of the Valley supporting 3 million water-guzzling, car-washing, lawn-soaking people.
But Roosevelt wouldn’t.
A desert home like ours, Morris said, is exactly what Roosevelt had in mind.