It was like a gourmet restaurant that served only cheeseburgers, or a big amusement park that only had a merry-go-round. Yes, Roosevelt Lake had lost its luster.
The lake, located 76 miles northeast of Phoenix just below the confluence of the Salt River and Tonto Creek, was a sad visual reminder of the near-10-year drought the Valley has experienced. Created in 1911 by a dam, the lake was to be a 543 billion gallon reservoir that would provide water to the Valley and electricity through turbines by the dam, as well as give boaters, fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts a little pool of paradise.
The drought changed that.
In 2002, the lake’s water level had dropped to 13 percent capacity. Such a low level cut drastically into recreational opportunities and made it appear the Valley soon would not be able to count on the reservoir for water.
While a couple of years considered "wet" in a drought gave the lake more water, as recently as Dec. 27 Roosevelt Lake was at 31 percent capacity.
Then the rains came, and came, and came and came. Our wet winter has caused problems throughout the state, but it has filled the hungry belly of Roosevelt Lake. Currently, the lake is at 87 percent capacity.
"It looks like a new lake," said Bob Morrison, who helps man the Roosevelt Lake Visitor Center. "Everything has changed quickly."
It isn’t that the lake is deeper. Rather, since the recent rains, it covers more surface area, meaning it is bigger. Right now, it covers more than 19,000 surface acres. To put that in perspective, consider that Saguaro Lake covers 1,200 acres.
As the lake receded during the drought, boating access shrank. Half of its boat ramps were unusable because they no longer were near water. In fact, the boat ramp on the north end of the lake was nearly a mile from the water less than a year ago.
Today, it is usable — but you can’t access it due to water running across the road that leads to it. There are five boat ramps open on the lake, which has 112 miles of shoreline.
"More area to boat on and fish and more area to enjoy," Morrison said.
Campers are big beneficiaries of the lake returning to normal. Five campgrounds are situated on the lake. As it receded, three campgrounds essentially were closed because, like some of the boat ramps, they no longer were near the lake. Last weekend, the campgrounds were nearly full.
While campers, boaters and jet skiers have benefitted greatly from the rise of Roosevelt Lake’s water level, as well as the Valley in need of water, perhaps the biggest winners will be fishermen — in time.
The lake’s water level grew due to runoff, which includes water as well as soil, and plant and tree debris. That means there will be a spike in plant growth in the lake. That translates into plenty of fish food.
Arizona Game and Fish Department experts say there should be a fish explosion in the lake, known for its big largemouth bass. When the lake receded, the fertile dry beds quickly were populated by brush and trees. Those now are in the water and will provide places fish such as bass love to hang out.
As a result, Roosevelt Lake actually could become one of the best places to fish not only in the state — but the country.
Other recreational activities at the lake include tours of the dam and of Native American cliff dwellings just south of the dam.
• Where: 76 miles northeast of the Valley. The west shore of the lake, which is a rectangle and runs mostly north-south, runs along state highways 188 and 88.
• How to get there: There are three ways to get there from the Valley. The shortest and most challenging is via the Apache Trail (Highway 88). It runs for 31 miles northeast out of Apache Junction, most of it is a dirt road (without guard rails) that meanders on a side of the Superstition Mountains along the Salt River. Another route is to take the Beeline Highway (89) north toward Payson and turn right at Highway 188 toward Pumpkin Center and go 30 miles to the lake. The last is to take U.S. 60 to Globe and go left on Highway 88 and head 35 miles to the lake.
• What: A reservoir providing opportunities for boating, jet skiing, fishing and camping.
• Contact: The Tonto Basin Ranger district at (928) 467-3200