Earl Zarbin: Author and water enthusiast

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Earl Zarbin

Editor’s note: Earl Zarbin, a retired newspaper reporter and editor, began his career at The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson and later worked for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. Zarbin has written six Arizona history books, four about water: Roosevelt Dam: A History to 1911 (1984); The Salt River Project: Four Steps Forward, 1902-1910 (1986); Two Sides of the River: Salt River Valley Canals, 1867-1902 (1997); and Let the Record Show…Gila River Indian Reservation Rights and the Central Arizona Project (2004). Following retirement from the newspaper business, he worked for Central Arizona Project as a writer, tour guide, and presenter. Zarbin passed away March 9 at the age of 95.
The story below is built around a recorded interview.

Life doesn’t always go according to plan. When Earl Zarbin was 19 years old and in the U.S. Army, he decided he was going to be a fiction writer. Later, at age 22, he departed his Chicago birthplace to move to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona, arriving in January 1951.        

“And, of course I’m a total failure as a fiction writer,” he laughs.

But Zarbin didn’t give up his dream of fiction or writing. While attending the university, he went to work for The Arizona Daily Star in its library. A few months later, he became a reporter. He wrote mostly obituaries, but it was a start. Several months later he became the night police reporter, which included producing a daily weather story, and it was heavy rains that changed his direction in life.

“When it rained in Tucson, people went nuts,” Zarbin recalls. “In July and August 1954, not only did it rain, but we had such an excess of water that we had, for the first time since I’d been to Tucson, water running in the Santa Cruz River.”

Zarbin contacted the U.S. Weather Bureau to find out how much water was flowing in the river. He was given the amount in cubic feet per second (CFS).

“I had no idea how much water is in a cubic foot and unless you can put it in terms that people are going to understand, why even write it. So, I took whatever the number was and converted it to gallons.  And that is what started me on water,” Zarbin says.

He arrived in Phoenix in 1958 and through the years wrote many weather stories for The Arizona Republic. But he didn’t entirely abandon his dreams of writing fiction. He started writing a satire, but says, “My fiction was just terrible.” In an effort to improve, he started researching the history of the Salt River Valley in old newspapers. He typed notes as he read, resulting in 4,600 single-spaced pages.

 “Well, despite my research, my fiction didn’t improve, and that’s the way it was,” Zarbin says. 

But he thought that what he had learned about Salt River Valley water history, albeit nonfiction, should be shared, and started writing his first book.

“My first book, about Roosevelt Dam, wasn’t published until I was age fifty-five.”

Zarbin ultimately authored six books; four are about Arizona water. After retiring from The Arizona Republic at the end of 1988, his interest in water didn’t wane. He spent 15 years as a year-around, part-time contract worker for Central Arizona Project, first as a writer, then leading tours and giving presentations sharing his knowledge about water in Arizona.

“Without (water) you can’t live. That’s number one. But it’s just, for a newspaper person, when you understand that without water, you just don’t have the civilization. It’s gotta be of interest to you,” he says. 

Read Earl Zarbin’s Oral History Transcript