It was undoubtedly the most dramatic press conference I ever attended in my 44 years of working in the news business.
We got the telephone call a little after 5 p.m. on Monday, Sept.14, 1981. “This is Congressman Rudd’s office calling,” the businesslike voice of a woman said she was calling to inform us that there would be a press conference held the next morning at approximately 8:15 a.m. at the Fountain Park in Fountain Hills. Arizona.
She added that Interior Secretary James Watt would have a major announcement about the Central Arizona Project. We thought that he would be telling us that a decision had been reached on the controversial Orme Dam.
Watt was a controversial selection for his secretary position by President Ronald Reagan. His decisions in his first months of service in the position had drawn major criticism from environmentalists.
The Fort McDowell tribe and environmental groups were not encouraged about their chances of eliminating Orme Dam and Reservoir from the Central Arizona Project’s overall water storage plan.
The massive water storage and transfer project was widely accepted as a positive thing for Arizona. It would bring Colorado River water to Central Arizona for use in farming and drinking water for municipalities such as Tucson and Phoenix. Even Fountain Hills would benefit because its share would guarantee we would have enough of a water supply to complete the future development of our community.
In the mid-1960s, a plan was announced that showed where the water storage facilities would be upon the project’s completion. One of the storage facilities shown was Orme Reservoir. It would be created by building a dam at the confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers. Early sales material created by McCulloch Properties showed the proposed lake’s proximity to Fountain Hills which opened for general lot sales in early 1972. Many people bought property in Fountain Hills thinking they would be looking out to the east from their property and seeing a large lake.
Fort McDowell residents began their anti-Orme Dam protest campaign when the tribe learned that two-thirds of the land that they were promised when the reservation was established in 1903 would be flooded. The tribe would get the concessions from marinas, restaurants and other recreational facilities that would be built around the lake.
A group of tribal officials visited Washington, D.C., to protest the planned construction of Orme Dam. They were told the project plan had been completed and the Interior Department had invested more than $10 million on a study to determine if Orme ought to rise above the confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers, southeast of Fountain Hills.
Opinions were changing in Fountain Hills about the dam. A further study showed the lake would fluctuate in size much more than previously thought, leaving large expanses of mud flats. Also, the lake would cover bald eagle nesting spots along the Verde River.
It was a pleasant morning, especially for mid-September, when the Watt entourage was scheduled to arrive. At exactly 8:13 a.m. we saw six Huey helicopters approaching from the west. It was almost a surreal sight, seeing the Vietnam-era helicopters passing low over the McDowell Mountains.
It reminded me of the start of the M*A*S*H television show.
Watt was the first to step out of one of the helicopters. He was dressed in a checkered shirt, blue jeans, western boots and a western-style hat that he took off and waved to the crowd. He also had a bola tie instead of the traditional tie you would expect to see on a presidential cabinet member.
A crowd of some 200 were there to greet Watt. Republican Club member Mary Rairigh got a committee together on the weekend to call as many people as they could inviting everyone to come to the park on Tuesday morning.
Her husband, Richard, was president of the Fountain Hills Republican Club. He introduced Watt who introduced the men who accompanied him.
They were U.S. Representatives John Rhodes and Eldon Rudd; Robert Broadbent, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation; Gary Carruthers, assistant secretary for water resources; and Ken Smith, assistant secretary of Indian affairs.
During his week in Arizona, Watt met with tribal leaders from Fort McDowell where opposition was intensifying.
Watt told the crowd, “A preferred alternative will be made known next month by the Central Arizona Water Control Study group. The environmentalists and Indians have said they will sue to stop it. If Orme is dropped, the majority of the Arizona Congressional delegation will be enraged after supporting the project. There are no easy answers,” Watt said.
But in his short time of serving as the Interior Secretary, he proved he could make a decision, no matter how difficult or controversial. Watt did decide in favor of Fort McDowell and that led the tribe to begin economic development endeavors including the highly profitable casino and farm. The decision was made to increase the height of Waddell Dam and size of Lake Pleasant, northeast of Phoenix.
As Watt was leaving, one resident commented, “After all I’ve read, I was expecting to see some kind of ogre. Instead, I found him to be quite a pleasant man, when he shook my hand.”
I said I would include a listing and stories about politicians who have visited Fountain Hills as part of this column. But the column on James Watt got too wordy so I will include them in my next column.