Dams' role in flux for urban West

Shaun McKinnon
The Arizona Republic
June 17, 2002 12:00:00

You can talk about the climate, the citrus, the copper. You can wax rhapsodic about the plentiful land and even air-conditioning. But the truth is, Phoenix would still be a dusty, sparsely populated cow town if it weren't for an unglamorous government agency dreamed up more than a century ago by a one-armed river runner.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was born 100 years ago today with a narrowly defined mission: Water the arid West. Find a way to tame the wild rivers and make the deserts blossom. In other words: Just dam it.

And from the dams the bureau built sprang metropolitan Phoenix: Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River, one of the agency's first undertakings, gave the Valley its first sure water supply and a way to survive the region's unpredictable dry spells. Hoover and Glen Canyon dams on the Colorado River provided the expanding region a place to store even more water and the Central Arizona Project furnished the means to deliver it.

Yet as the bureau celebrates its centennial tonight at Hoover Dam, the agency faces serious questions about its role in the new, more urban West. Many of the original dams and canals were built to serve farmers and, critics charge, are now inefficient and wasteful. Environmentalists accuse the bureau of destroying ecosystems by damming rivers like the Colorado. Some groups want much of what the bureau did undone, beginning with the dismantling of Glen Canyon Dam.

Bureau officials insist they have kept up with changing needs, working with cities to adapt agricultural water projects. They also point to the drought that grips the intermountain West and say the network of reclamation projects is protecting many areas, including Phoenix, from severe water restrictions.

They acknowledge that their mission has evolved from simply building dams and canals to managing a valuable natural resource, a job that may now include knocking down a dam or two.

"It is a different world," said Robert Johnson, the bureau's Lower Colorado regional director. "We have to balance a lot of different interests. In many ways, it's probably as challenging as the historic role of building projects. It takes a different set of skills, but nonetheless it's a very important role."

Phoenix was emerging from a disastrous drought when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Newlands Reclamation Act on June 17, 1902. Many settlers left the Valley after suffering through several dry years that ruined crops and stripped the land of its topsoil. The rivers simply couldn't support traditional farming.

John Wesley Powell, the famed Colorado River explorer, foresaw such trouble and proposed a series of land management reforms that took into account the fickle waters of the West. The one idea that survived was the U.S. Reclamation Service, which was charged with building dams to store water for dry years and control flooding in wet ones.

Roosevelt among 1st

One of the first dams proposed was Roosevelt, about 70 miles northeast of central Phoenix on the Salt River. It created what was, for a while, the largest artificial reservoir in the country. It was also the first dam to serve so many purposes: storing water, controlling floods and generating power.

"I really think the seminal moment in the history of the Valley of the Sun is the building of Roosevelt Dam," said Grady Gammage Jr., a Phoenix attorney and author who sits on the board that manages the Central Arizona Project.

"There's been lots of stuff that's happened since then, a lot of other dams built, and the CAP, but if Roosevelt Dam hadn't been built as one of the very first of the federal reclamation projects, we wouldn't have a city like this. We wouldn't have the storage capacity to support this kind of a population."

Major milestones

Three other milestones in the bureau's history further influenced the development of the Valley and the West:

 Construction of Hoover Dam, which created storage space for nearly 30 million acre-feet of water, or about twice the annual flow of the Colorado River.

 Construction of Glen Canyon Dam, upstream from Hoover, which generates enormous amounts of power for the Southwest.

 Construction of the Central Arizona Project, the 336-mile canal that moves water from Parker Dam to Phoenix and Tucson. Without that water, the Valley would have reached its growth limits by now.

"It's hard to imagine the Phoenix metropolitan area without reclamation projects," said Larry Dozier, the CAP's deputy general manager and a 16-year bureau veteran. "Here we are in the midst of one of the worst droughts in history and central Arizona hardly notices."

Protesters to gather

But not everyone will be celebrating the agency's work tonight. Activists from more than 80 environmental groups have planned a counterevent to protest what they believe is a legacy of ecological neglect at best and wholesale destruction at worst.

The focus of the protest is Glen Canyon Dam, which conservationists say has wrecked the ecosystem of the lower Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Most of the groups involved support a Sierra Club proposal to drain Lake Powell and decommission the dam.

"The Canyon is an Arizona icon, yet a lot of people don't realize its ecosystem is on the brink of collapse," said Lisa Force, Arizona program director for the group Living Rivers. "It's just so ironic that the bureau is spending tremendous time and money celebrating its own existence while the Grand Canyon and rivers all over the West are suffering from bureau mismanagement."

Construction of Glen Canyon Dam halted the natural flow of sediment down the river and lowered the water temperature significantly. As a result, environmentalists say, many wildlife species have been pushed toward extinction. Four of eight native fish species, for example, no longer live in the Canyon.

Force said dismantling Glen Canyon Dam is not as radical an idea as many people believe it is. The lost water storage could be made up in part by taking more water directly from the river, eliminating losses to evaporation from Lake Powell's surface. She and others also dispute the importance of Glen Canyon's power supply, insisting other sources could easily fill in the gaps.

"We do not expect or even want the bureau to go out and rip out all their dams," Force said. "We recognize some of those dams are vital for power and water. We're suggesting they put responsible management in place, and that begins with water conservation all over the basin."

Johnson, the bureau's regional director, said the changes sought by the environmental groups reflect increasing awareness of such issues throughout the West. But the bureau has to balance changes with the needs of those who hold legitimate water rights.

"Change will occur," he said, "but it will occur slowly and incrementally." For example, he said, both Salt River Project and the CAP are gradually shifting agricultural water to urban uses, while in California, officials are working with farmers to reduce waste.

Gammage doesn't believe the environmental groups will succeed in bringing down Glen Canyon Dam. "There is a legitimate need for that storage," he said. "It isn't just 'dam it because we can.' "

Even Force of Living Rivers admits that gaining widespread public support for the idea won't be easy. But the message she and others are trying to deliver isn't that far removed from the one John Wesley Powell preached when he proposed a reclamation agency in the first place.

"People have to learn that we live in a desert, that this is the arid West," Force said. "We have this false sense that the fed government has conquered nature and has drought and flooding under control. But no matter how many reservoirs we build, no matter how many dams we build, we can never make more water."


Friend of Lake Powell
Colorado Showdown
Twisted Facts
Unsure Waters
New Fish Species
Train Wreck
PWC Rally
Antelope Point
Better Place
Cleanup Day
Lake Protest
History of FLP
Lake Powell Facts
Climate Flip Flop
Drain Lake Powell?
No One Knew
Wildlife Habitat
Power Generation
Navajo Impact