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How do you get 336 miles of trail built along a canal system? The answer relies largely on the cooperation and partnerships between municipal, county and tribal agencies that the Central Arizona Project canal runs through.

arrowFrom the Fall 2012 issue of the American Trails Magazine

arrow Read more about the CAP Canal Trail in the National Recreation Trails Database


Central Arizona Project Canal Trail: a pathway for water and people


photo of canal and mountains

A scenic section of the trail showing the vast capacity of the canal

The Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal is one of the key lifelines for the counties located in central Arizona. Built by the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), this 336-mile long system of open canal, pipelines, siphons, tunnels, and pumping plants brings valuable Colorado River water to municipal, agricultural, and Tribal lands located in the heart of Arizona.

For many years the counties of Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima were pumping groundwater to sustain existing farms and new housing developments that were occurring in their areas. Because the groundwater was being removed faster than nature could replenish it there were signs of ground subsidence and fissures that were becoming detrimental to homes, agricultural fields and other industries in these counties.

Something had to be done to resolve these issues, so in 1973 the construction of the CAP canal began. Twenty years later, at a cost of nearly 3.6 billion dollars, construction was completed from the Colorado River near Lake Havasu to south of Tucson, Arizona. Once completed, the CAP system provided that needed alternative to groundwater pumping by becoming the largest single renewable water resource provider in the state.


photo of hikers along houses and fence

Residential neighborhoods adjoin the trail and canal in urban areas

In addition to a reliable supply of Colorado River water, the CAP canal system affords another potential benefit to the state of Arizona. This benefit is a long distance, non-motorized, multi-use recreational trail corridor.

The trail was considered before any feature of the canal was built and was included in the environmental study that looked at the potential impact the CAP system would have on the environment and wildlife.

This study, not only ensured compliance with state and federal regulations to protect native fish, wildlife, and plants, but it also considered the opportunity for a recreational trail to be constructed along the entire 336 mile length of the canal. Once completed, the CAP trail would be the second longest trail in Arizona behind the Arizona Trail.

Photo from the air of canal slicing through neighborhoods

The canal crosses many jurisdictions

Now that that the opportunity for the trail exist, how do you get 336 miles of trail built? The answer to that question relies largely on the cooperation and partnerships between municipal, county and tribal agencies that the CAP canal runs through.

In fact, there are over 30 different agencies that have some role in assuring that the trail is constructed. Essentially, each agency becomes a sponsor for the portion of trail that runs through their jurisdiction. To be a sponsor, each agency enters into a separate recreation agreement with Reclamation that makes that agency responsible for constructing and maintaining the trail in their respective areas.

The key to the agreement however, is that the construction and maintenance responsibility doesn’t have to fall fully on the shoulder of the agency. There are provisions in the agreement that allow the agency to enter into third party agreements with businesses, home-owner-associations, or contractors for the initial construction and long-term maintenance of the trail. These specific provisions are key to the success of each partnership since many agencies don’t have the funding or man power to dedicate toward developing the trail on their own. Once the partnership and recreation agreement is in place however, the development of the trail can begin.

Unlike other canal systems in the Phoenix Arizona area that allow recreational trails on their existing operation and maintenance roads, the CAP canal operation and maintenance roads are closed to the public due to safety concerns. The main reasons for the closure is that the CAP canal is approximately 80 feet wide, almost 17 feet deep and can move up to 3200 cubic feet of water per second.

photo of canal and mountains

Major bridge carries cyclists and pedestrians over a freeway that crosses the canal

Although the actual canal is fenced off, the project’s security fence on the downstream, right side of the canal through La Paz, Maricopa and Pinal counties was inset approximately 20 feet from the CAP property line. This particular area outside the security fence was established specifically for the multi-use, non-motorized trail.

In Pima County, an area on the downstream, left side of the canal was established for the trail instead. In all cases, the partnership developed with each agency becomes critical to the final look and feel of the trail. Although there was approximately 20 feet established for the trail on CAP property, the agencies are encouraged to request additional setbacks from adjacent developers. This extra setback allows for drainage and landscaping improvements to be placed on private property, as well as, better transitions to existing developments. The increased setbacks also allows for a wider trail corridor, thus eliminating a tunnel effect between the security fence and the wall of the development.

photo of canal trail and fences

Typical fences along the canal trail

To date, strong partnerships have been forged in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima Counties, as well as the cities of Scottsdale and Phoenix. As a result, there is approximately 90 miles worth of trails that have been formally improved or are being worked on right now. There is another 100 miles or so that is currently used but has not been formally improved.

Grade separated crossings under major arterial roadways/state freeways and a bike/pedestrian bridge over Interstate 17 are recent examples of successful partnership projects. It has been good communication and strong partnerships with these agencies that have been keys to the success in getting portions of the CAP trail built to date.

In June of 2003, the CAP trail was designated as a National Recreation Trail. This designation really aided in getting agencies to identify the trail in their planning documents like their General Plan, Comprehensive Plan, Open Space and Trails Plans, Resource Management Plans, etc. By having the trail identified in those plans, it has been easier for each agency to enter into the recreation agreement with Reclamation and stipulate the additional setbacks from future developments. Without these plans in place, partnerships tend to breakdown and the opportunity to construct the trail in a relatively inexpensive way is lost.

Today the CAP trail continues to move forward, additional partnerships are in the works and the ability to walk, bike or ride from Lake Havasu to Tucson is becoming more of a reality every day.

For more information:

For more information about the CAP trail please visit CAP’s website at and click on the Lands tab located at the top of the page.

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