A County Called ‘The Peace’

Tracing the development of growth of La Paz County

If the history of Arizona’s growth can be ascribed to any one factor, then the notion of “access to water” can probably claim top billing. As clichéd as it might sound, water is the lifeblood of the state—for its livelihood, its recreation, its very existence. And Arizona’s La Paz County offers an excellent case in point.

Set on the state’s southwestern border with California along the Colorado River, La Paz—which is Spanish for “The Peace”—happens to be Arizona’s second least-populous county. Its 2010 census disclosed that a mere 20,000 people inhabit roughly 4,500 square miles of rugged desert. Rich with scrub flora and cactus, La Paz’s vast, arid acreage drops down to the more verdant bottomland flanking the river.

With Parker, Arizona, as its county seat, the culture of La Paz is small-town America at its most strikingly diminutive. A drive through Parker (pop. circa 3,000) offers a view of western America that’s been depicted in countless movies and TV shows: the quintessential main drag, State Rte. 95 is a gently curving, roughly mile-long shot along a stretch of boulevard leading to the river. It’s dotted with chain motor hotels and river recreation outfitters, coffee shops and small cafes.

Somewhat inauspiciously, Parker came to life in 1871, when the U.S. government opened a post office on a well-trodden trail, largely to serve the Mohave and Chemehuevis—and later the Navajo and Hopi—tribespeople living on what is designated as the Colorado River Indian Tribe Reservation. In fact, Parker sits entirely within that reservation’s boundaries, and the tribal headquarters are in its downtown.

Channeling irrigation

Thus began Parker’s (and the entire county’s) hardscrabble fight to survive—and, as with so many other Arizona communities, water was the key. Early farming of that dusty, cracked-earth acreage required an intricate maze of irrigation channels, and any accurate record of Parker’s development illustrates that its first few decades involved some herculean efforts to bring water from the Colorado River to the otherwise parched landmass.

One key to Parker and La Paz County’s survival occurred in 1928, when the Parker Dam was completed. The dam ensured better water control of the river, and created a lake approximately 700 feet wide and 16 miles long called Lake Moovalya, a Native American term that means “blue water.”

By 1936, more than 5,000 acres of river bottomland were under irrigation. And a few years later, when Headgate Rock Dam was constructed and water flowed more readily into the irrigation channels, the acreage being cultivated roughly doubled. By 1955, 38,000 acres had been cleared and irrigated for farming of alfalfa, desert durum wheat, cotton and onions.

Also significant, in 1937, a highway bridge was completed across the Colorado River connecting Arizona to California. (Previous access was only available by ferrying across the river.) Both of these man-made constructs changed the character of Parker, transforming it from a service center for agricultural and mining workers to one of providing supplies and services to tourists, fishermen, hunters and boat enthusiasts.

River life

Today, one of La Paz County’s chief areas of focus is on serving the growing needs of its tourists. The area offers residents and visitors a tremendous combination of water and desert recreational activities. But, with the Colorado River looming so close by, water recreation surely is king.

The river and its boundless activities draw 1.5 million visitors annually, a statistic that certainly augurs well for the future of the area. The 17-mile-long stretch of the Colorado called the Parker Strip, for example, offers some of the nation’s best water for skiing, boating, jet skiing, wave-running, and swimming, as well as excellent fishing.

Off the water, a growing population of “desert rats” ply miles and miles of off-road trails dotted with old ore mines and ghost towns, and, in spring, beautiful displays of wildflowers.

For countless sightseers to the region, nothing beats the view from the top of Parker Dam, which, at 320 feet tall with 235 feet below the riverbed, happens to be the world’s deepest. For active hikers, a walk through Buckskin Mountain State Park walking trails or their native plant species area is always a popular pastime. Also available to explore are hundreds of miles of mountain-biking and road-cycling terrain.

Egg-zactly

Becker is quick to note that tourism isn’t the only means of improving La Paz County’s economic base. He emphasizes that one of the biggest wins for its economic health is their successful partnering with Rose Acre Farms.

In 2016, Rose Acre, the second-largest egg producer in the entire U.S., announced a major, phased expansion of its operations with a move into La Paz County. Rose Acre’s plans included its goal to become a 3-million-bird-layer farm, a pullet farm, a rail spur and a feed milling operation. The first phase of the project was undertaken at a cost of $80 million, and it added scores of jobs to the county’s rosters.

All in all, the economy and future for La Paz County are trending in the right direction, which, of course, makes living in the community an increasingly positive experience.

“I absolutely enjoy living in Parker,” says Dan Rountree. “At this point in our lives, my wife and I have no intention of living anywhere other than here. It’s a small town, but it’s the best.”

 

Story: Bruce Farr

Photos: Mark Lipczynski

 

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