[env-trinity] Sacramento Bee 7/7/10
bwl3 at comcast.net
Wed Jul 7 09:41:40 PDT 2010
The false promise of Hoover Dam
By Michael Hiltzik (L.A.Times)
The most striking sight greeting visitors to the Colorado River gorge known
as Black Canyon used to be the great wedge of alabaster concrete spanning
the canyon wall to wall.
But in recent years Hoover Dam, that enduring symbol of mankind's ingenuity,
has been upstaged by another sight signifying nature's power to resist even
the most determined effort to bring it under control: a broad white band
stretching along the edge of Lake Mead like a bathtub ring, marking how far
the reservoir has fallen below its maximum level.
The nearly decade-long drought in the Colorado River Basin, which has
lowered Lake Mead by about 120 feet from its high-water mark, reminds us
that the promises made for Hoover Dam were always unrealistic. Delegates
from the seven state capitals who met in 1922 to apportion the river's
bounty (under the supervision of then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover)
were led to believe that the river, once dammed, would provide all the water
their states could conceivably need to fulfill their dreams of irrigation,
industrial development and urban growth.
To the federal officials anxious to get the dam project approved, this was a
necessary subterfuge, for without it the states would never reach agreement
and the dam would not be built. But today we must confront the consequences
of that founding fiction. Hoover Dam truly made the West, but it has also
confined it in the straitjacket of an ever-intensifying water shortage.
Promises based on the seemingly magical power of new technologies are almost
always excessive (witness the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico). This year, as
we celebrate the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's
dedication of "the greatest dam in the world" on Sept. 30, 1935, we should
also recognize the dam's equivocal legacy to the West, and to the nation.
Connoisseurs of irony will note that on that day, under a blistering sun and
before 10,000 spectators and 20 million radio listeners, FDR claimed as a
symbol of the New Deal a public work conceived, designed and launched by his
Indeed, during the 1932 presidential campaign, candidate Roosevelt had
savagely attacked Hoover, his GOP opponent, for excessive deficit spending
on projects like the dam. Once ensconced in the White House, however, he
quickly came to appreciate the totemic power of great public works and their
effectiveness at representing the benefits that could be bestowed on the
citizens by a visionary administration.
In his dedication speech Roosevelt proclaimed that the federal government
and the seven states of the Colorado River Basin had jointly ensured that
millions of current and future residents in the West would enjoy "a just,
safe and permanent system of water rights." He promised an end to the
river's ancient cycle of drought and floods and a bountiful irrigation
supply. He called the dam "a splendid symbol" that had turned the unruly
Colorado into "a great national possession."
The nation took him at his word. Since that dedication year, the population
of California and the six other states of the basin has swelled by some 45
million people. Much of this growth has been fueled by the dam and its
precious bounties of water and electrical power.
The promise of abundant water and power took the brakes off the growth of
Los Angeles, San Diego and many other western cities; it encouraged farmers
to complacently plant the most water-thirsty crops; and it gave us city
dwellers the impression that we can water our lawns every day without
worrying about waste and runoff.
Yet the world Hoover Dam made is now facing the era of limits. For decades
California was able to use Colorado River water formally apportioned to
Arizona and Nevada, because those states weren't developed enough to use
their full allocations. That condition ended in the mid-1990s, at which
point California had to give up nearly 20 percent of its Colorado River
Thus far we've managed a "soft landing" from that shock by crafting
intricate reallocations of water among the state's agricultural, urban and
ecological interests. But the balancing act is only getting harder, as a
long drought shrinks our water-supply cushion and population growth
continues almost unabated. Up to now, solutions to our water needs have been
worked out in a crisis atmosphere. In the future, they'll take place against
a political background too.
In the Central Valley, farmers are already marching to demand the
construction of more dams to provide more water for irrigation, as if one
can just create abundance out of thin air. Environmentalists' efforts to
discharge water from reservoirs to preserve riparian and marine habitats
draw the ridicule of conservative television pundits. Private companies have
moved into the water business, figuring that where there's scarcity there
There isn't enough water in the Colorado to serve all the demands we place
on the river, and there never was. This was evident to some people, like the
great Western explorer John Wesley Powell, who at an irrigation congress in
1893 announced, "Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and
litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply
Powell was driven from the hall by a chorus of boos and catcalls. But time
has proved him right. It was thought that Hoover Dam would put an end to 50
years of conflict over the water of the Colorado. It has not. We still
delude ourselves into thinking that it will; only a few years ago, in 2003,
then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton came out to the dam to sign 24
agreements transferring water rights among various claimants - Indian
tribes, irrigation districts, Western cities, the government of Mexico. And
she proclaimed, "With these agreements, conflict on the river is stilled."
The truth is that conflict on the river will never be stilled, because there
will always be more demand for the water than there is water.
We should not regret the building of Hoover Dam, which Roosevelt hailed
three-quarters of a century ago as a "great achievement of American
resourcefulness, skill and determination." It was a bold enterprise for a
nation grappling with doubts about its place in the world at a time of
crisis. Dealing with the problems of resources and growth bequeathed us in
part by that remarkable Depression-era effort will require every bit as much
boldness and resourcefulness, or more.
Byron Leydecker, JcT
Chair, Friends of Trinity River
PO Box 2327
Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327
415 383 4810 land/fax
415 519 4810 mobile
bwl3 at comcast.net
bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
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