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  • Project Aquarius: Atomic Energy and Arizona’s Search for Useable Water, 1964–1970
  • Douglas C. Towne (bio)

Arizona is in constant need of water, and throughout its modern history, Arizonans have come up with a number of different ways to procure that water. Some of these schemes have been implemented, while others were much less viable and are now piling up in the dustbin of history. In the late 1960s, one such project emerged in the state. Called Project Aquarius, this far-fetched scheme for capturing groundwater reached its zenith in 1969 when this zodiac sign was heard blaring from transistor radios and eight-track stereos across the nation. America’s youth were celebrating the coming of a new era characterized by peace, love, harmony, and understanding as foretold in the Fifth Dimension’s chart-topping song, “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” As the country was grooving to this tune, a small cadre of scientists and politicians in Arizona was focused on a little-publicized endeavor with far-ranging implications: developing water supplies for the state with the use of atomic bombs.

Atomic detonations would not create water, but their effects would allegedly fracture rock, creating catch basins that would [End Page 183] capture vast amounts of surface run-off and recharge it to ground-water. This process would supposedly add “2-to-3 million acre-feet of water to the Arizona supply. . . . roughly equivalent to the potential of the Central Arizona Project,” according to a 1968 Phoenix Gazette article subtitled “Nuclear Well Digger.” A nuclear explosion was tentatively scheduled for water development purposes in Arizona in 1970–1971. The detonation was planned for the Wilkins Dam Site along Clear Creek about twenty-five miles south of Winslow.1 How did this bizarre scenario come to be?

Peaceful Project Plowshare

This madcap tale began in 1957 when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) created Project Plowshare. The goal was to find peaceful purposes for the enormous power of nuclear explosions. Harnessing the atomic bomb for economic prosperity, however, would require both scientific and political success. The creators and proponents of Project Plowshare envisioned grand schemes, perhaps influenced by Dr. Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb (roughly a thousand times more powerful than an atomic bomb). In 1959, Teller wrote, “Nuclear explosions can be used to blast harbors in otherwise inaccessible coasts, to engage in the great art of what I want to call geographical engineering—to reshape the land to your pleasure and indeed to break up the rocks and make them yield up their riches. If your mountain is not in the right place, just drop us a card.” A scientific genius, Teller was also the inspiration behind the crazed title character in the 1964 black comedy film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.2

Project Plowshare proposed to transform the Earth into a gigantic sandbox, which, with the casual detonation of atomic bombs, could be manipulated in seconds for humanity’s benefit. A gentler, non-military lingo was used to soften the harsh image associated with nuclear explosions: “bombs” became “devices,” “fallout” became “debris,” “ground zero” became the “detonation point,” and “yield” became “energy release.” Nuclear excavation would only be economically viable for massive earthmoving jobs, and the [End Page 184] USAEC proposed several huge projects. Some of the most extreme ideas included using atomic detonations to create harbors along rugged coastlines in Australia and Alaska (the latter in the shape of a polar bear), to demolish part of a mountain range in southern California to create a road cut, and to excavate canals in Mississippi and across southern Panama. The latter project was envisioned as a forty-six-mile sea-level canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It would require approximately 310 nuclear detonations. Congress authorized a $17.5 million study to explore the feasibility of this new Panama Canal, either by conventional or nuclear excavation. The author of a 1958 article in Time jumped on the nuclear excavation bandwagon: “Chemical explosives, comparatively puny, have shaped the modern world, dug its canals and harbors, won its coal and ore, but until recently...


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