[env-trinity] High Country News 4/23/10
bwl3 at comcast.net
Mon Apr 26 10:58:58 PDT 2010
Floyd Dominy, the colossus of dams, dies at 100
High Country News-4/23/10
by Julianne Couch
Floyd Dominy, who made it his mission to improve nature by, among other
things, damming the Colorado River at Glen Canyon and creating the more
user-friendly Lake Powell, has died at the age of 100.
Some had hoped that Glen Canyon Dam would go first, draining Lake Powell and
restoring the river's ecosystem. But Dominy, who was commissioner for the
Bureau of Reclamation from 1959 to 1969, spoke of his pride in his
achievement during an interview a decade ago: "Glen Canyon Dam and the
creation of the most wonderful lake in the world, Lake Powell, is my
One week before Dominy passed away in Virginia at his Angus farm, I spoke to
him by telephone. I wanted to talk to the man I'd first learned about long
ago from reading John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid. I can think of
no better way to write a story than the way McPhee did: You put two enemies
in a rubber raft (along with a handful of unsuspecting strangers) and send
them all down a wild river together.
That's what McPhee did with Dominy and David Brower, the Sierra Club
president who considered the construction of Glen Canyon Dam his biggest
environmental policy failure. McPhee set the stage with both scenery and
character. His canvas was the Colorado River, with its mile-high rock walls
and hundreds of side canyons. And his characters were equally memorable:
Brower, the environmental leader, who saw what would be lost to the rising
waters; and Dominy, the determined dam-builder, who learned as a young man
in Nebraska that water in a river does no good at all if isn't made
available for people to use.
In the end, it seemed that Dominy and Brower had a blast, drinking beer and
occasionally bickering about whether remote stretches of the Colorado were
valuable because they were untouched, or wasted because they weren't being
I've never forgotten McPhee's description of Dominy, smoking cigars on the
raft trip and somehow able to keep his cigar lit as the raft passed through
a waterfall. Brower kept referring to the future Lake Powell as "Lake
Dominy." When I spoke to Dominy, I said I thought the trip sounded pretty
"It was boring!" he said. "Boring, how could it be anything else? You can't
see out from the bottom of a canyon."
Some might interpret that statement as an indication of the kind of
blindness to the need for natural processes that characterized the Bureau of
Reclamation during Dominy's day and for a long time afterward. Dominy argued
that if the West were going to be developed, the waters of the Colorado
River's cycle of flood and trickle would have to be managed. Others doubted
that intensively developing the West was a wise thing to do in the first
place; they thought that the region should be left unpredictable and fragile
-- that we should discourage settlement, rather than invite it. But Dominy
was convinced that nature could be improved; that it could, and should, be
manipulated and mastered in order to make life less difficult for human
That belief was planted during Dominy's hardscrabble childhood and no doubt
further developed during his early days as a county extension agent in
parched northeastern Wyoming. He told McPhee about that experience: "I
watched the people there -- I mean good folk, industrious, hard-working,
frugal -- compete with the rigors of nature against hopeless odds. They
would ruin their health and still fail."
Perhaps that prompted him to do some water management on his first farm in
Fairfax, Va., building ponds and stocking them with fish for the kids. He
and his wife decided to settle in Virginia because it was an easy commute to
his Washington, D.C., office, he said.
Dominy had a long career before retiring from the Department of Agriculture.
All that government service paid off in the form of a "very nice" 100th
birthday party on Capitol Hill, attended by members of Congress and others,
Dominy told me that he wasn't surprised that he achieved his 100th birthday,
because once he made it to 99, he could see it from there. He'd had colon
cancer when he was 97, he said, and "survived that just fine." He gave up
cigars years ago but said he was still fond of whiskey, to which he
partially attributed his longevity. Still, he acknowledged that he didn't
think he'd make it to 101.
"I'm collapsing," he said. Unlike the silt-filling reservoirs along the
Colorado River, a few days later, that's just what he did, leaving the world
a little less interesting in his wake.
Byron Leydecker, JcT
Chair, Friends of Trinity River
PO Box 2327
Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327
415 383 4810 land/fax (call first to fax)
415 519 4810 mobile
<mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net
<mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
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