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Jack's Biography


Everyone’s life story is also a history of the times. That’s especially true of Jack Pfister, who played a role in so many of Arizona’s pivotal issues. The story of Jack’s life is a crash course in state history.  He had high-profile positions, including chief executive of Salt River Project, president of the Arizona Board of Regents, and adviser to governors. Just as significant were the many times he kept a low profile or worked behind the scenes.

As I did the research for his biography – Water, Power, and Persuasion: How Jack Pfister Shaped Modern Arizona – I was continually surprised by the breadth of Jack’s influence. I kept turning up one more issue he’d worked on, from promoting tolerance to preserving the state archives, and one more person he’d mentored, from students to mayors.  I interviewed eighty-plus people to capture the extent of Jack’s impact, but the number could easily have been twice as many.

This website is a portal into a life tightly woven into Arizona history. It’s also a case study in public service, compassion, and the power of finding common ground.


Foreword By Bruce Babbitt

Former Governor of Arizona and U.S. Secretary of the Interior

Arizona water management was a chaotic jumble of mismatched and unworkable parts when Jack Pfister was named General Manager of Salt River Project in 1976. The structure was poised to collapse.

Jack played a key role in rebuilding and modernizing how the state handles water. In the process, he emerged as Arizona’s foremost public citizen.

The state’s water challenge became a crisis in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter withdrew federal support for Orme Dam, the principal flood-control feature of the Central Arizona Project, then under construction. And by that time, the Arizona Supreme Court, never a voice of clarity on water issues, had arrived on the scene with a series of decisions upending our antiquated groundwater laws.

Then, in 1978, a three-year cycle of rainstorms began to overwhelm the storage dams on the Salt River above Phoenix. Flood crests poured through Central Phoenix again and again, cutting the city in two.

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Introduction: The Change Agent

Stewart Mountain Dam was about to burst. It was February 1980 and two huge storms had clobbered Arizona. A third was on the way. If that storm hit full force, water would rise to the top of the aging dam forty-one miles upstream from Phoenix, and it would crumble. Water would roar through the city and its suburbs: up to three million gallons a second. It would pour into businesses, homes, and the Capitol complex. And two hundred thousand people would have to be evacuated.

Arizonans “must be prepared for the unthinkable,” the governor warned in a late-night press conference on February 15.

No one knew the risks better than Jack Pfister. As the top executive of Salt River Project, he headed the utility that operated the string of dams around Phoenix. He knew the structures were designed for water storage, not flood control.

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"A Note on Sources" from Jack's Biography

Written by Kathleen Ingly

Much of this story of Jack Pfister’s life is drawn from news articles, Salt River Project publications, organizational newsletters, government reports, and more than eighty interviews. Jack’s life was so varied and so crammed with complex and technical issues that virtually every paragraph could have been footnoted at least once.  As explained in the endnotes, I’ve chosen for the sake of readability to keep notes largely limited to identifying the source of quotations.

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About the Author

Kathleen Ingley

As a journalist and free-lance writer Kathleen Ingley has specialized in Arizona’s pivotal issues, including the state budget, water and energy. She was a reporter and editorial writer at the Arizona Republic, where her work included award-winning series on state trust land, the potential of solar energy, the threat of invasive plants, the increasing impact of the urban heat island and the challenge of growth (“An Acre an Hour: the Price of Sprawl”). She was business editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and assistant editor of the San Francisco Business Journal. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s from the University of California at Berkeley. She served in the Peace Corps in Senegal.