LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — You’ve heard of “water wars” before, but did you know Arizona actually amassed troops along the Colorado River in 1934 in a dispute with California and the federal government?
And while the war was averted, Arizona took the extraordinary step of creating a makeshift navy to defend its water rights.
The reason for the conflict? Parker Dam.
The bad blood between Arizona and California over river water has resurfaced nearly 90 years after the standoff. California water officials recently called out Arizona to “live within its available Colorado River water supplies” — and respect California’s senior rights to river water.
Arizona historian John Larsen Southard said the 1934 incident stands out in history. “It’s the last occurrence in American history when one state took up arms against another no matter how unlikely it was that the arms would ever be fired,” he told Arizona radio station KJZZ in a 2013 interview.
The Arizona Navy
A nicknamed coined in media accounts caught on when Arizona Gov. Benjamin Baker Moeur heard it, and the Arizona Navy was born. Of course, Arizona is landlocked, but that only added to the navy’s fame.
It started as an expedition by a small force — six soldiers from the Arizona National Guard. But when the soldiers confirmed that construction on Parker Dam had begun without Arizona’s consent, the state’s response grew substantially.
Arizona Attorney General Arthur La Prade said the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District had no right to build on Arizona’s territory.
On Nov. 10, 1934, Arizona Gov. Benjamin Moeur declared martial law and dispatched 100 National Guard troops from the 158th Infantry Regiment, according to historical accounts.
A report from The Associated Press indicates Moeur fired off a telegram to President Franklin Roosevelt:
“I therefore found it necessary to issue a proclamation establishing martial law on the Arizona side of the river at that point and directing the National Guard to use such means as may be necessary to prevent an invasion of the sovereignty and territory of the State of Arizona.”
He also ordered some of the troops to board boats. And so was born the Arizona Navy. The boats were sent to inspect work that had progressed. Historical accounts report that the boats became tangled in cables from the dam’s construction.
“While Arizona’s short-lived two-boat naval force (or is it farce?) makes for a good story, Governor Benjamin B. Moeur’s deployment of the Arizona National Guard was a far more effective display of power,” Southard wrote in a 2013 Facebook post.
The National Guardsmen were rescued — to Arizona’s great humiliation, according to the AP account — by Californians working on the dam.
Photos showed soldiers who appeared to be armed with rifles on the boat.
The deployment and the publicity that followed held up construction and U.S. Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes postponed work on the dam until Congress could give its formal approval. Construction resumed in early 1935.
The boats that were used belonged to Nellie T. Bush and her family, known in Colorado River history as operators of steamboats. She was tagged with the rank of “admiral” of the Arizona navy by observers of the day.
A passage on Bush’s biography as a member of the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame describes her role:
“Active in the state debate over water rights, she served as a member of the Arizona Colorado River Water Commission, forerunner of the state Interstate Stream Commission. Later she served as a member of the Colorado River Basin States Committee, a seven state policy group which helped to advance many basin projects. In the 1930s, she was named the ‘Admiral of Arizona’s Navy’ by Gov. Benjamin B. Moeur after the Arizona National Guard used her boats in a fight with California over Colorado River water rights. Of course, the entire navy consisted of the two boats operated by the Bushes.”