By J.J. McCormack

An artist's inspiration, a sportsman's paradise, a mountain gem and Prescott's playground.  Take your pick of the assorted descriptions writers have bestowed on Watson Lake in the 84 years since the turquoise body of water began lapping at the sloping walls of the Granite Dells.  The same romantic prose was ascribed to Willow Lake when it appeared west of the Dells 21 years after Watson.


Both scenic lakes have provided ample fodder for writers and photographers throughout their separate, but related histories, with most early journalistic attention focusing on their unique beauty and the recreational amenities the two lakes afforded Prescott residents and visitors.  The fact that the lakes were engineered for a singular purpose - providing irrigation water for grazing and farm land in Chino Valley - got scant notice in the local press.  "A New Play Ground Developed for Prescott by the Big Dam" heralds a headline in Yavapai Magazine in 1915, the first year Watson Lake graced the local landscape. 

The article announcing the speedy rise of Watson Lake behind the newly completed Granite Creek Dam focuses on the beauty and the recreational promise of the expanding reservoir.  "One of the greatest sports for Prescott and its visitors from now on will certainly be boating on Lake Watson.  The surroundings are incomparably romantic", states the magazine article, which is accompanied by three black and white photographs showcasing the "many rocky promontories" breaking the shoreline, and the "spires of granite" that wall the lake.  The article does note the lake's purpose - storage for irrigation. It and other post-Granite Creek Dam newspaper and magazine articles offer few glimpses of the origins of Willow and Watson lakes. 

Perhaps the most detailed historical account available was written by longtime Chino Valley Irrigation District Board member Helen Wells.  The two lakes and the dams that harness them have been something of a labor of love for Wells for nearly three decades.  A former CVID secretary, Wells, a small farm owner and horsewoman was elected to the three-member CVID board in 1982.  She often hosted meetings at a dress shop she operated on her farm. Wells, who harbors a deep pride in the gritty, hard-working and thrifty irrigation district board members and shareholders, authored the irrigation district's history some 10 years ago at the request of attorneys seeking to secure insurance for the district.  "I read old minutes. I talked to old-timers that are still here and knew a lot.  I read files," she said.  Efforts to insure the district failed. 

Wells' history proved useful in negotiations paving the way for the City of Prescott to purchase Willow and Watson Lakes real estate and retain water rights from the CVID.  The proposed $15 million purchase will be put to Prescott voters on May 19.  Wells, who would just as soon see CVID retain control of the lakes but deferred to the majority of shareholders in negotiations, noted in an interview the historical significance of the CVID.  "It's unique. There are lots of other irrigation districts, but they don't have dams," she said. 

The CVID's dams and irrigation water rights originated with the vast Chino Valley area land holdings of the Arizona Land and Irrigation Co.  The company purchased the land from the railroads after the turn of the century and later applied for water rights on Granite, Lynx and Willow Creeks.  The land and accompanying water rights were promoted and sold as farm land. In 1914, the same year Granite Creek Dam was built, the Arizona Land and Irrigation Co. became the Hassayampa Alfalfa Farms.  Watson Lake was named after Sen. James Watson of Indiana, a principal investor in the Arizona Land and Irrigation Co.  The irrigation district's name changed to Chino Mutual Water Users Association after Granite Creek Dam was built and again in 1925, - to CVID. The district incorporated a year later. 

Wells' history provides Granite Creek Dam storage, spillway and gate-valve specifications, as well as other insights, such as the fact that a helicopter had to be employed several years ago to install a new 36-inch hand-operated gate valve because the dam is accessible, even today, only by boat or on foot.  Watson Lake furnished irrigation water to CVID shareholder properties via 40 miles of earthen canals for the first time in 1916, and has been providing water for alfalfa and other cash crops on an annual basis since. 

Willow Lake was created in 1935, behind Willow Creek Dam, to augment Watson Lake storage for the CVID.  Whereas Watson is fed by Granite Creek, Willow harnesses Willow Creek inflows.  The Willow Creek Dam is accessible by car, thanks to the construction by the CVID of a road in 1984.  Although boating historically has been allowed on Watson Lake when water levels allow, Willow Lake has been posted off limits since about the mid-1970s, when vandalism, illegal dumping and liability risks forced the CVID to prohibit public use.  Trespassing and vandalism have been ongoing problems at both lakes, at a substantial cost in time and money to the irrigation district, Wells said.  She and family members have spent many weekend hours at the lakes over the years cleaning up garbage, pursuing vandals, fixing fences, replacing signs and inspecting damage to the dams.  "I always have baling and barbed wired in my truck," she said.  Lack of rain and snow in recent years coupled with irrigation draws by the CVID have dried up Willow and Watson lakes.  In the past, it was CVID policy to leave some water in the lakes year-round.  "It would evaporate and we thought why are we doing that?" 

An abundance of precipitation this year has started filling Watson Lake.  If spring brings continued wet weather, Willow Lake won't be far behind. 

J.J.McCormack is the City of Prescott Communications Director.

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (dam126p). Reuse only by permission.

This Acker Book Store postcard from the 1920s shows Lake Watson and the dam at Granite Dells.