A tale of two rivers: The desert empire and the mountain
- Colorado Justice Greg Hobbs,
at Bishop's Lodge 1997
"It would be quite a remote period before (the Upper Colorado Basin) would be developed - 50 or 100 or possibly 200 years."
- Delph Carpenter,
testifying in 1925 on the
Boulder Canyon Project Act Bill
We are so easily sidetracked, I thought, when the Sierra Club fired its shot across the bow of the Western water establishment last November. We build big impressive systems, developing ideas for transportation, communications, food production, impounding water behind huge dams, what have you. Then, just when we are to the point where a system is in place but needs a lot of fine-tuning and maintenance, either we all get bored and forgetful, or some faction that didn't like the system from the start lures us away, and we abandon what has been built and go charging off after some new idea.
Take, for example, the proposal to drain Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam. It seems serious enough. The Sierra Club is working with a Salt Lake City organization, the Glen Canyon Institute, to formulate and carry out a 30-month citizens' study as "the first step in the ultimate draining of Lake Powell, the restoration of Glen Canyon, and the preservation of the Grand Canyon and the Sea of Cortez estuaries."
In announcing the board's resolution last November, Sierra Club President Adam Werbach said, "It's the job of the Sierra Club to show what being green really means, and it takes broad visionary strokes. This is that type of stroke."
I'm reminded of the old engineering school adage: "When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember that you set out to drain the swamp." Glen Canyon looms so large in our minds and emotions that it almost obliterates the rest of the Colorado River. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that draining Lake Powell is just alligator mitigation - an attempt to deal with a bunch of relatively small problems. It may be a good idea, and it may be a way of switching one perceived mess for another mess while increasing the cultural friction that generates memberships.
Whether the draining happens or not, it should not be done all in a rush, out of revenge or out of an attempt to solve problems that loom large to us because we aren't thinking about the larger ones behind them. We should start by recognizing the Glen Canyon Dam is a physical manifestation of an historic agreement - the Colorado River Compact - among the seven states that make up the Colorado River Basin.
Finally, we should not assume that the compact that gave rise to Glen Canyon Dam is necessarily in conflict with what many of us see as the hopeful, progressive ideas that crystallized in the 1960s, just as the water was rising behind the dam. Before we go tearing away at the dam and the compact, we should look at their roots. We may still decide to demolish both, but at least then we will know what we are doing, and not be surprised by the consequences of our act.
The compact defined
In November 1922, representatives from seven Western states met at a resort called Bishop's Lodge near Santa Fe to complete an interstate treaty determining how the waters of the Colorado River Basin would be divided among those states. The Colorado River Compact divided the water by splitting the river. It gave half of the river and half of the water to the four states along the Upper Colorado River (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and half to the three states along the Lower Colorado River (Arizona, California and Nevada).
Some treaties - especially the ones that don't work - are imposed arbitrarily on a landscape and a people. The Colorado River Compact falls into a happier category. It fits the landscape, at least, like a glove.
The ancestral Colorado River rose along with the "New Rockies' out of the slow grind and crush of the North American plates in the Laramide Orogeny millions of years ago. Like the present-day streams draining the west slopes of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, the ancestral Colorado only flowed out into the basin-and-range region west of the Rockies. There it ended in a large lake much like today's Great Salt Lake somewhere in what we call southeastern Utah and northern Arizona, blocked there by the northern edge of the Colorado Plateau - an immense uplift created by the buckling of tectonic plates.
In the same geologic time, another river - ancestor to today's Lower Colorado River - was draining the southern slope of that uplifting plateau, running through subtropical deserts down into the tectonic crack now called the Gulf of California, or Gulf of Cortez. That southern river gradually ate back into the plateau until, around 5.5 million years ago, it eroded a channel through the plateau and "captured" the terminal lake containing the flow of the Upper Colorado River.
At that point, the two rivers began the geological labors associated with becoming a single river system by removing the convex hump of the plateau in their middle section. Today, that monumental task is well under way, as the canyons of the Colorado River attest. A massive amount of the plateau has been reduced to debris and conveyed down to the Gulf of California. The emerging river has cut a mile down into the plateau, while wind and water have been taking off layers from the top and widening the gaps between the many canyons' rims. This construction process has been aided several times this past million years by immense glacial runoffs. If this were to continue long enough, the Grand Canyon and the plateau would eventually disappear. But in recent time the river has been modest in size, and the energy with which it saws at the plateau has slowed.
There's a certain amount of mess involved with such a project, and that dirt and rock have all been moved downstream on what might best be described as a big, seasonally erratic conveyor belt below the Plateau canyons.
As much as the river has done thus far, it is still accurate to describe the Colorado as two rivers working diligently in a vast and desolately beautiful construction zone to become one. There are still two river basins. The upper section is a temperate zone mountain-and-valley river we call the Upper Basin. The lower section, which emerges from the canyons of the Colorado Plateau and which we call the Lower Basin, is a subtropical desert river, "an American Nile."
Here comes everybody
That was the situation when a swarming population of Europeans invaded the region surrounding the Colorado. They were not the first humans in the Western reaches of the continent, but they came in unprecedented numbers - and with culture, custom and technology unprecedented in such migrations. Although they all called themselves "Americans," they were divided in economically brutal and often overtly violent conflict over the kind of a West they wanted to build.
Following the relatively recent abandonment of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, historians have been trying to sort out what happened west of the Mississippi in the 18th and 19th centuries. For the Colorado River Basin, it makes most sense to see the American advent as a usually civil war (I am not counting the conquest of the Native American peoples here) between a mass of people successfully advancing a revolution, or a pro-development agenda, and a kaleidoscopically changing coalition attempting to assemble a counter-revolution around rural or agrarian ideas.
The revolution being advanced was the Industrial Revolution. It was a coming-together of economic ideas (corporate capitalism and individualism), the primacy of property rights, technological advances (steam power followed by electrical power and advances in applied chemistry and metallurgy), and new socio-political structures (bureaucracies and industrial cities).
Because of the twin barriers of geography and aridity, this attempt at industrial development, and the opposing attempt to craft a non-industrial way of life, came last to the Colorado River region. For example, my adopted town of Gunnison, Colo., on one of the Upper Colorado River's main tributaries, was not settled until the 1880s; the most recent town in our valley, the industrial ski village of Mount Crested Butte, was not incorporated until 1974.
Initially, at least, it went even slower in the desert regions of the Lower Colorado River. Hit-and-run industrial mining towns came and went, and stable agricultural settlements were precarious along the lower Colorado River, where irrigating was like trying to drink out of a fire hose that either ran in huge bursts or put out only a muddy trickle.
In my Upper River valley, the valley of the Gunnison River in western Colorado, both the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionaries arrived at the same time. A company of relatively serious agrarians came into the valley in the late 1870s, just as gold and silver were discovered up the valley above the subsequent mining camps of Crested Butte, Irwin and Gothic. The agrarians - high-minded, sober, religious but not driven by religion - settled "West Gunnison," while, about four blocks to the east, main-street "Gunnison" grew as a standard mining-region railhead.
Gunnison and West Gunnison soon enough grew over and through each other; what was unusual was having the dichotomy so distinct at the start. In most of the start-up places of the Colorado River region, the two cultural strains mixed from the start in tension and contention. Knots of agrarians and socialists and just-folk who lacked the genes for accumulation, shared mud streets and raw-wood walls with the mob of fortune-hunters wanting only to get in on a "ground floor" in time to high-grade it, get rich and move on. For many, it would have been hard to say which side of the war one came down on, so tangled is the human heart. As it is hard to say today.
Although the West, even today, looks rural and downhome in places, it's a mirage. We may pine now for the Old West and its simpler life, but we fool ourselves. As early as 1890, the West was not "agrarian." There were cows and crops in fields, and farmhouses and villages with trees along the streets. But already the farmers were industrial worker bees in the same job-for-wage sense as the miners upvalley, producing raw materials to send out on city-bound trains that brought back manufactured goods - with everything, including their debt, bought and sold at the cities' prices.
The industrial revolutionaries, and the counter-revolutionaries, whom we can roughly lump together as agrarians, brought into the West very different cultural baggage. But the rules were the same for everyone. The basic law for the distribution of land, water and natural resources of material value was "first come, first served." And as it became clear that there was a lot less water than land, the distribution of rights to water became pivotal.
Since water cannot be surveyed and corner-staked like land, its appropriation depended on "beneficial use' - anything a human wanted to do with a dollop of water so long as it involved diverting it out of the stream. "Consumptive beneficial use" used up the water. What you "beneficially consumed" was yours - so long as you kept using it; stop using it and you lost it. To use it better and thereby conserve it, or to use it instream was not "beneficial" and you lost your claim to it.
It is hard to imagine a more destructive bias. John Wesley Powell - the first counter-revolutionary to infiltrate the developers' power structure, circa 1890 - argued vigorously against the separation of water from the land. But the developers successfully resisted. To cite one terrible example, in the mining regions they took the water out of the streams and turned it against the earth, using high-pressure hydraulics to reduce whole hills to gravel to get out the gold.
As the West filled, however, and ever larger ditches led ever more water ever farther from its streams of origin, the consequences of appropriation and privatization grew more complex and alarming. So alarming that some developers were forced to try to rein in their fellows.
The "greatest good" was L.A.
Take the Owens Valley incident. In 1902, Congress had created the Bureau of Reclamation, ostensibly to get down on the ground with small farmers and help bring the agrarian dream into being. But the Bureau was, from the first, full of an idealistic breed called American Progressives, for whom "the greatest good for the greatest number" was an intuitive belief. It was also full of engineers who were captivated by visions of formerly unimaginable things that new construction materials and financial resources were making possible. But for a while - five years, to be precise - the Bureau did what its enabling legislation said it was supposed to: It worked on irrigation projects that were a little too ambitious for a group of local farmers.
One of the first projects the Bureau explored was an irrigation development in the Owens River Valley, a small, closed basin on the east side of the California Sierras. But Los Angeles was also looking at that valley. It was 240 miles away and downhill all the way.
The movie Chinatown missed the point of this drama. It wasn't the relatively quiet fuss involving urban corruption and incest that the movie portrayed. This was the biggest flare-up in America's frontier war since Shay's Rebellion. And when President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in, he resolved it in favor of the industrial revolutionaries and their urban vision in Southern California. He acknowledged some validity to the plaints of "a few" Owens Valley farmers, and their desire for a small-scale irrigation system, but he came down on the side of "the infinitely greater interest to be served by putting the water in Los Angeles."
"There it is," Los Angeles Water and Power manager William Mulholland had said, in dedicating the Owens Valley Aqueduct, "take it." And elsewhere in the Colorado River region, developers and agrarians alike shuddered. Powerful as the river was, it was clearly not so big as the dreams coalescing around it. It looked as if Los Angeles and other California dreamers would not just "take it," but would take it all. And the law of the land and river would let them, thanks to legal precedents being set elsewhere in the West at about the same time.
The most serious threat to the non-California part of the Colorado River Basin was the Laramie River case between Colorado and Wyoming. Both states distributed their water through prior appropriation and beneficial use; in other words, first come-first served, and get it out of the stream or it's not yours. In its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court treated the Laramie as though it were a single legal river, even though it crossed state lines. Whichever appropriator in whichever state got to the water first would own the water. If Wyoming irrigators diverted the entire river first, it was theirs.
It was the handwriting on the wall: If the six other states in the Colorado River region wanted a share of the river's water, then they had better negotiate some "equitable apportionment" before Southern California spread the whole river out to dry in its unlimited desert reaches.
They were encouraged to move in that direction by a case that occurred outside the Colorado Basin, when Kansas sued Colorado over the diminishing flow of the Arkansas River. The Supreme Court refused to choose between the appropriations laws of Colorado (all legal uses had to be out-of-stream) and the riparian laws of Kansas (only in-stream uses were legal, the common law in humid regions). Instead it ordered the states to negotiate an "equitable apportionment" of the river's waters between the two states.
That decision indicated a possible solution to the threat from California: an interstate agreement to limit California's ability to consume the entire river.
The road to a treaty
Which brings us, finally, to the Colorado River Compact: not, as has been said more than once this year in commemorating it, at "the beginning of the development of the Colorado River," but at the beginning of the end of the Industrial Revolution's unchallenged conquest of the West. It was the compact that first put up a barrier to the intense development of the entire West.
It is not so simple as saying that a line was drawn, with the industrial revolutionaries on one side and the agrarians on the other. If anything, it was one set of industrial revolutionaries, mostly but not entirely in the Upper Basin, who had not yet had their main chance at riches, drawing a line against their down-river competitors. The Upper Basin competitors couldn't win if they played by the dominant rules, so, almost against their wills, they had to change the rules. They had to modify the doctrine of prior appropriations. They had to say that "take it" wasn't always the best rule for the West. It must have been a hard swallow, but they got it down.
Their leader was Delph Carpenter, a Colorado lawyer involved in the slow passage - from 1911 to 1922 - of Colorado vs. Wyoming (the Laramie River case) through the courts. He was probably one of those whose heart was torn by the American Industrial Revolution; he was a native son of Greeley, Colo., which had begun as an intelligent agrarian community. But as it grew, Greeley gave in to the industrialization of agriculture imposed by the transportation and finance networks overlaid on the West.
It was Carpenter who suggested, to a conference of governors, that the seven states of the Colorado Basin negotiate an interstate treaty for "equitable apportionment" of the Colorado River. He pointed out to California's governor that this was even in California's interest. California was relatively rich and powerful, but it still needed outside capital. If California wanted federal funding for the massive structures necessary to control the Lower Colorado River, it would have to make a deal with the other states in the basin. Besides, he predicted, even the biggest Upper Basin state, Colorado, would never be able to consume more than 5 percent of the river's water. And since California was downstream of all the Upper Basin states, it would inevitably get their water.
The governors cautiously agreed to discuss a treaty, and each appointed a commissioner to represent it. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover represented the United States, chairing what came to be known as the Compact Commission. The first meeting was held in Washington, D.C., in January 1922, with subsequent meetings in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Grand Junction (Colorado), Denver, Cheyenne and, finally, Santa Fe. The future of much of the river might have been predicted from the locations of those meetings - only the Grand Junction meeting was in the river's natural basin. The rest took place in Colorado River Basin states, but outside of the river's watershed.
The meetings took place in what Carpenter called "semi-executive session," with each commissioner entitled to one legal or engineering advisor. The press was excluded. The commission began with fruitless efforts to divide the river based on the amount of irrigable land. But these power-suited guys were not gathering in the emerging cities of the West to dicker over farmland, and that effort went nowhere.
Dam as natural divide
The breakthrough came from Carpenter, who suggested something unprecedented: look to the natural geography of the region, and divide the water between the two obvious and distinct "regions of settlement" above and below the canyons.
Chairman Hoover agreed, and he drafted a memo worth quoting from:
"The drainage area falls into two basins naturally, from a geographical, hydrographical, and an economic point of view. They (the two basins) are separated by over 500 miles of barren canyon, which serves as the neck of the funnel, into which the drainage area comprised in the Upper Basin pours its waters, and these waters again spread over the lands of the Lower Basin ... The climate of the two basins is different; that of the Upper Basin being, generally speaking, temperate, while that of the Lower Basin ranges from semitropical to tropical. The growing seasons, the crops, and the quantity of water consumed per acre are therefore different."
Carpenter's "broad visionary stroke" was what the commission agreed upon. The Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) would each be entitled to consumptive use of no more than half of the river's water; the states in each basin would then allocate their half of the water among themselves.
California asked for some more definite quantity of water to work with than "half the river," so an effort was made to quantify the amount. Around the turn of the century the United States Geological Survey (USGS) had begun measuring the river's flow near the Lee's Ferry access in northeastern Arizona, just above its descent into the Grand Canyon, but below most of the river's major tributaries. The USGS "long-term" measurements (two decades) indicated that the river was averaging 17 million to 18 million acre-feet of water a year at Lee's Ferry. So the Commission based the division on 15 million acre-feet, leaving what appeared to be a healthy margin for low-flow years and other demands (i.e., from Mexico, which held the bottom 90 miles of the river and which they knew might eventually obtain a claim on the river). The Upper Basin was thus charged with assuring that an average of 7.5 million acre-feet flowed past the Lee's Ferry gauge every year.
It was also necessary to take other legitimate but complicating claims into account. For example, they acknowledged the possibility of future claims from the Indian nations - since the Supreme Court had already declared in 1908 (Winters vs. United States) that the reservation of lands for the "civilizing" of the Indians implied the reservation of sufficient water to accomplish that purpose.
At the eighth meeting of the Commission in Santa Fe in November 1922, six states signed the compact. The Upper Basin states were happy because Los Angeles, the thousand-pound gorilla, had been caged by the compact. But the compact put Arizona and Nevada in with the gorilla. Nevada was little more than a hangover from mining booms. Arizona, harboring its own California dreams, found itself in the cage with the gorilla and refused to sign something that might let Southern California appropriate all of the Lower Colorado River share.
California and the Bureau were eager to begin reconstructing the river, so to get around Arizona's boycott, California got a rider added to the Boulder Canyon Project Act (Hoover Dam was initially called Boulder Dam) that finally passed Congress in 1928, saying that six out of seven states were enough to make the Compact binding. In return, California had to agree to limit its claim on the Lower River's 7.5 million acre-feet to 4.4 MAF (with 2.8 MAF for Arizona, and 0.3 MAF for Nevada). More than half of the Lower River for California - but less than all of it.
With the Boulder Canyon Project through Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation and Southern California's Metropolitan Water District began their great works on the river. There is certainly more to be said about the development of the Lower River these past 75 years, but I'm not going to say it here. The story of the Desert Empire and its plumbing system has dominated past discourse over the river, and would, if we let it, tie us up in the details of water development.
So at the 75th anniversary of the Compact, we will practice "cultural triage': we will concede the Lower River to the Industrial Revolution, to those who would turn everything into cities, factories and high density, and regroup around the other river, the Upper Colorado River, and its role in the ongoing saga of the fragile, incipient, but increasingly necessary counter-revolution.
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity,
heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and
sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit,
the fruit rots to make earth ...
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance
from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the
monster's feet there are left the mountains.
* Robinson Jeffers
"Shine, Perishing Republic'
Slow start for the Upper Basin
The Colorado River below the canyons has been a recognizable kind of landscape for five or six thousand years now, going back to the Nile and Euphrates. In a desert region with a river running through it, you can add water to sunblasted earth, stir - and voila! Food in unprecedented quantities - food enough to supply an army of accountants and managers and soldiers to protect the farmers, keep the neighbors in line and keep the society organized - civilization, in short.
But an inland mountain river, like the Colorado above the canyons, was different. These kinds of places have always been home to those on the fringe of civilization: the Scots of the British Isles, the Israelites in the desert, the Appalachian people in their "hollows."
At once spectacular and intimate, mountain valleys like those through which the secondary and tertiary streams of the Upper Colorado flow seem made to fit the Jeffersonian dream. But his is not an easy dream. Long winters made general agriculture possible only up to around 6,500 feet altitude; hay and grass farming was possible above that to about 8,500 feet. Higher yet, it was pasturage only - or urban-industrial sports like mineral-mining, timber-mining and neo-Paleolithic indulgences like hunting, fishing and playing around outdoors.
Moreover, the counter-revolutionaries in search of a rural way of life retreated into the mountain valleys after 1880 to find the spreading networks of the Big Business-Big Government industrial juggernaut already in place. There were cut-and-run factories for mining and rough-milling everything from gold to grass to trees, railroads to haul it all off to the city for the real value-added work, and by the early 1900s great blocks of undistributed land put into forest preserves by Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot and - so it appeared from down on the ground - held for development by corporations like Weyerhaeuser, that could work on an urban-industrial scale.
With some exceptions, the Upper Basin slumbered from the compact signing in 1922 through the Great Depression. Roosevelt's New Deal barely touched the Upper Basin, and even World War II bypassed it. Then in 1948, the four Upper Basin states finally met to divvy up their half of the Colorado River. The Bureau of Reclamation was pushing them to get going on river development; inflated with hubristic momentum after the conquest of the Lower Colorado and the Columbia, the Bureau had hit the ground running in 1946 with a Colorado River report. Subtitled "A Natural Menace Becomes a National Resource," it proposed 134 water developments for the Colorado River - 100 of them for the Upper River.
A couple of things were different, however. A treaty during World War II had ceded 1.5 MAF a year of water to Mexico. More ominously, the river had been running less water than it was "committed to" by the compact. In 1934, it had dropped below 10 MAF, and the best light the Bureau could put on the four-decade average was somewhere between 15 and 16 MAF. Other estimates put the average at less than 14 MAF, and a four-century tree-ring study has since put the average at around 13.9 MAF a year.
In the first major acknowledgment of reality, the Upper Basin states decided not to divide up the 7.5 MAF the compact "gave" them. After giving the northeastern corner of Arizona 50,000 AF, they allotted themselves the following percentages of whatever water precipitation the Lower Basin and Mexico made available: Colorado, 51.75 percent; New Mexico, 11.25 percent; Utah, 23 percent; Wyoming, 14 percent.
Only a few months after the Upper Colorado River Compact was signed, the Bureau put the "Colorado River Storage Project and Participating Projects' proposal on the table. CRSP was the Bureau's bid to outdo its Lower Basin Boulder Canyon Project: an integrated set of dozens of large and small water projects to develop every acre of irrigable land in the Upper River region, and to water all the growing cities in the Upper Basin states outside the natural basin. (The Upper Basin itself, as distinct from the Upper Basin states, lacks large cities.)
These projects were all to be paid for by power revenues from "cash register dams," built for both storage and power generation on the main tributaries of the Upper River: Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River, Echo Park Dam below the junction of the Green and Yampa rivers, two Curecanti Dams on the Gunnison (now the three dams of the Aspinall Unit), and the keystone of the whole project, Glen Canyon Dam just above the Lee's Ferry division point - the Upper River's equivalent of Hoover Dam.
At that point in the evolution of the American West, the cultural environment in the Upper River basin was California dreaming. An Upper River water establishment was in place: A set of Los Angeles clones - Denver, Albuquerque-Santa Fe, Salt Lake City - had water boards ready to invest heavily in out-of-basin diversions, and every watershed had its "water conservancy district" dedicated to conserving water by getting it out of local streams before someone lower down got it first. The Upper River water establishment wanted what the Lower River had; it had just needed more time to get there.
The Upper Basin champion who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s to implement the Upper Basin's desires was Colorado Rep. Wayne Aspinall, a Grand Junction schoolteacher who learned the Washington system and worked his way - as honestly and capably as is possible in that power center - into the chairmanship of the House Interior Committee, which oversaw all Department of Interior activities.
For two decades, Aspinall made sure that nobody got anything that didn't also involve something for the Upper River - first, passage of a Colorado River Storage Project Act (1956), then the funding on the big dams and larger diversion projects and planning work on the vast array of little Rube Goldberg-like water diversion projects.
But it was evident from the first introduction of a CRSP bill that the cultural environment was on the verge of a "climate change," at least at the national level. A coalition led by David Brower of the Sierra Club drew a hard line at the Echo Park Dam in the first CRSP bill, which was to flood 63 miles of beautiful valley and canyon country along the Green River and 44 miles on the Yampa. This coalition mounted the first effective national assault on the pieties of Western development.
The Bureau - accustomed to trumping John Muir-type aesthetic appeals with statistical cost-benefit analyses demonstrating "the greatest good for the greatest number' - now found itself up against opponents who knew how to get the public's ear and eye, and who had learned how to expose its blue-sky assumptions about costs and benefits. Brower's frontal assault on the Bureau's cobbled figures for Echo Park, coupled with Wallace Stegner's beautiful Echo Park coffee-table book, the first great piece of environmental propaganda, sent the CRSP back to the drawing boards without Echo Park.
Aspinall was eventually able to pass a CRSP bill, but it took seven years - and he had to do it in spite of the Bureau, which not even the big-man arrogance of its chief, Floyd Dominy, could restore to the confident impetus it had before being sliced and diced by Brower in the Echo Park hearings.
It is worth noting that the Western water establishment split over the CRSP. California liked using that million acre-feet of "surplus water" from the Upper River, and rather than giving the Upper River support in the spirit of the Compact, "the Desert Empire" joined Brower and company in trying to eliminate the CRSP.
To get Echo Park Dam out of the CRSP bill, the preservationists had to go along with the big dam in the little-known Glen Canyon. Brower - who is Dominy's equal in everything, including ego - has always taken personal responsibility for that "loss' on himself; and since Brower is again a force in the Sierra Club, as a board member, this history probably figures in the current proposal to drain Lake Powell.
The great "cash register dams' of the CRSP got built in the 1960s: Flaming Gorge on the upper Green, three dams in the Aspinall unit on the Gunnison - and Glen Canyon. A number of the "Participating Projects' also got built: the San Juan-Chama out-of-basin diversion into Albuquerque, the Central Utah Project out of the Green Basin into the Wasatch Front, and some more modest in-basin irrigation projects.
The dam opponents move in
The construction of those "big pieces' of the CRSP concluded an era. As the big lake behind Glen Canyon began to fill in 1963, the Upper River region itself began filling up with an unusually concentrated and focused cast of counter-revolutionaries. The same old developers were still there - miners looking for the overlooked ore body, forest products companies looking for the last old-growth, and land speculators feeding on the tourism boom and anticipating the vacation-home rush.
But for this moment, there were more people arriving in flight from the empire than advancing its interests - and they were coming with a "last stand" attitude. They were a breed that the industrial revolutionaries and agrarian counter-revolutionaries alike would be calling "hippie environmentalists' by 1970, although many of them were serious middle-aged and elderly people, troubled by the course of the urban-industrial empire.
At the same time, new laws and court decisions were putting their ideals on a more even footing with urban-industrial money. Congress passed the first endangered species legislation in 1966, modifying and strengthening it in 1969 and 1973. This has turned a number of scarcely noticed (because scarce) fishes and birds into major obstacles to traditional water developments. The National Environmental Policy Act followed in 1969, with the creation in 1970 of the Environmental Protection Agency. The national Clean Water Act came in 1972, and that same year Congress passed the Colorado River Salinity Act to answer Mexican complaints about the deteriorating quality of water in the Basin.
The change also came from within the Upper Basin states themselves. In 1973, the Colorado Legislature enlarged the concept of "beneficial use" in a powerful way, passing the first "Instream Flow Appropriations' law. This law, incredibly for a Western state, empowered the Colorado Water Conservation Board (a state agency) to "appropriate minimum stream flows or natural lake levels ... to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree."
The strange notion that water might be beneficially used in the river is still being worked out down on the ground in the Upper River Basin. Some of its impetus is biocentric altruism, but it also reflects a growing economic shift away from the out-of-stream consumptive industrial and ag-industrial occupations to in-stream recreation-industrial activities - fishing, white-water boating and other economic uses that need the flowing water that incidentally benefits natural systems. Utah and Wyoming have since passed similar instream laws.
Colorado also pioneered, in 1974, some fairly radical land-use legislation, which gave county-level governments unprecedented authority to demand adequate impact mitigation from the developers of everything from subdivisions to major industrial projects. It was clear that a new age was dawning when these "1041 powers' (from Colorado House Bill 1041, 1974) were used by the Eagle County commissioners to stop a water diversion to Denver suburbs on the Front Range.
So, by the time the inland sea behind Glen Canyon Dam was full, the Upper River had become America's first solid base for an effective down-on-the-ground alternative to the Industrial Revolution. The water establishment was still dominant, but it was being eroded from above as well as below. In 1976, just two years after Wayne Aspinall lost his congressional seat, President Carter issued a "hit list" of Western water projects that shut down funding for nearly all remaining CRSP projects. And in 1990, the EPA just said no to the Denver metropolitan region's Two Forks Project for storing water diverted from the Upper Colorado River Basin.
So the mountain-river Upper Basin region today has gained some federal protection from the L.A.-like cities outside its watershed, but within the Upper Basin states. Added to those environmental laws is the compact itself and Lake Powell - an inland sea that holds close to twice the annual flow of the river, and that can meet the demands of the Lower Basin through even a lengthy series of dry years. Those walls provide more breathing room than the counter-revolution has ever had in America.
Do we need the compact - and the dam?
At the 75-year mark, it is time to ask if the compact has been - and still is - useful.
To some, it looks merely naive. The "river's joke' - an average flow well below the amount of water apportioned in the compact - was a bad enough mistake. There was also no mention of system losses - the evaporation of up to six feet of water a year from desert reservoirs, the use of water by natural riparian systems, the leakage through the "solid" rock of Glen Canyon, etc. This turns out to be a healthy tax: at least 2.2 MAF, 15 percent of the river's total flow, according to published Bureau figures, and, according to other organizations, so much more than that one wonders how any water ever gets to California. And there was no mention in the compact of what happens to the quality of water when it is run over the alkaloid soils of arid lands again and again.
The California dreamers of the Lower Colorado River do not want to talk about these things, preferring instead to fall back on the myth of "surplus water" so vaguely mentioned in the compact. California admits that it has been using unappropriated water that belongs to the Upper River - but only the million acre-feet or so for which it has written Bureau contracts. The state is virtuously trying to come up with a "4.4 Plan" for living within the 4.4 MAF of its legal entitlement. But it refuses to admit that the 4.4 MAF should also include its share of the river's system losses, or a share of Mexico's water; it wants these charged to the fiction of "surplus water" above the basic 16.5 MAF of apportioned water.
According to Bureau figures that include system losses, wildlife use, Mexican water and everything, actual consumptive use of the water today is almost three-fourths for the Lower River, one-fourth for the Upper (11-plus MAF to 3.9 MAF in 1985). It means the Colorado River's flow is being fully consumed. It also means that the people of the Upper Basin have the moral and legal base for taking the Lower Basin to court to "get back our water." Any further Upper Basin water development depends on suing the downstream bastards. There is considerable enthusiasm for this in the Upper River Basin states - but not necessarily in the Upper River Basin itself. And this is where discourse on "the spirit of the compact" gets interesting.
If you are just another industrial revolutionary still looking for your main chance, then you probably believe that the compact was just about "water problems," and you would go with the Upper Basin states in calling back "our water" from the Lower Basin states.
But if you are carrying the fragile flame of the counter-revolution against the developers, then you may want to think about further negotiation in the spirit of the compact. Right now, about 0.7 MAF of the Upper River's water is bled off in out-of-basin exports to the Denver metro area, the Salt Lake metro area, the Santa Fe-Albuquerque area and other areas outside the natural boundaries of the Upper River Basin. That's about a fifth of the Upper River's consumptive use. And those cities want more; most of the agitation for getting "our" water back comes from the industrial urban clones of the Desert Empire in the Upper Basin states, but outside of the Upper Basin.
Those industrial urbs have developed a smug myth about the omnipotence of money, which is really about their power over the mountain and desert areas within the basin. "In the West," they say, "water doesn't flow downhill, it flows uphill toward money." To achieve this, however, ever larger quantities of money must flow out from our endlessly growing cities. A Denver metro county is prepared to spend a billion dollars in the Upper Gunnison Valley to take a relatively piddling quantity of water.
The more we learn about the two reconstructed rivers, however, the more it seems that a proper accounting of water and money might even advance the post-industrial agenda. In the mid-1980s, two University of Colorado economic scientists examined, valley by valley in the Upper River, agricultural productivity and farm income, the downriver salt-loading costs of upriver consumptive use, power-generation revenues and the like. They came up with compelling evidence that every acre-foot of Upper River water that flows downstream adds more wealth, by a factor of three or four times, to the region than if that water were consumptively consumed in the Upper Basin or diverted to Denver or Salt Lake or Albuquerque. (This study is in the World Resources Institute's Water and arid lands of the western United States.)
That money of course does not come back from California and Nevada and Arizona to the Upper Basin now, and most interpretations of both appropriations doctrine and the compact preclude that happening; that may indicate that the "Law of the River" needs modification, to open up opportunities for a real "cross-flow" of money and water.
But to get hung up in water marketing issues, to get involved in figuring how to make money flow toward water - this is like getting hung up in whether Lake Powell should be drained for the sake of the long-term canyon ecology or whether the canyon ecology should become adapted to long-term river management.
Instead of that argument, we should be confronting this window of opportunity for developing alternatives to a California fate. The odds are still daunting. Economically and socially, industrial culture thoroughly infiltrates and permeates the Upper Colorado region. And the current wave of refugees from California and other industrialized areas carry the germs they are fleeing. Nevertheless, there is hope in the presence of so many articulate and educated people for whom the Upper Basin is a refuge from America, coupled with a legal and moral environment that puts the Jeffersonian approach on a more or less equal footing with the increasingly rundown industrial revolution.
If an intelligent post-industrial society is going to be ecologically coherent, then the Upper Colorado River might be world enough for now, and the inland sea at the end of the river a virtue for the time being. I am not suggesting a "roll-the-rock" isolationist sensibility a la The Riders of the Purple Sage; I am only suggesting that we not unthinkingly throw away the clear-cut definition of regional space and independence the dam and river afford us now. We should at least ask: Is pulling down Glen Canyon Dam the most important thing we can do? Will it further, or hurt, our objectives? I would also ask that we take another look at the Colorado River Compact. We might find that it is more in step with our ideals than we think.
And what should we do - what would a society countering the excesses of the Industrial Revolution be like? It is too easy to drift into utopian mirages. I would suggest instead that we learn the following from the compact:
Preserve opportunity. The compact preserved the chance for other things to happen. Without it, the Upper Basin would have been forced to appropriate water as fast as possible. Development would have been even more reckless and destructive than it has been. Most probably, the surrounding cities would have rushed to drain the Colorado River before California could appropriate the water.
Make culture congruent with nature. Where the compact was organized around natural bounds and divisions, it helped us. Where it either ignored or did not understand natural limits, it failed us.
Forget the broad visionary strokes. Move in increments. Dave Wegner, one of the principal architects of the Glen Canyon Dam management plan adopted last year to restore and maintain the Grand Canyon, and who was treated shabbily by the Bureau of Reclamation, now dismisses those efforts as "Band-Aids." He has become a leader in the "pull-the-plug" on Lake Powell movement. But the biosphere works a lot more with Band-Aids than with "broad visionary strokes." And finally,
Look for strange bedfellows. Allies exist outside the standard corridors of power - strange endangered actors like the humpback chub, or rural county commissions driven to the wall by cities within their states but outside the Colorado River Basin.
Resistance to the industrialization of the Upper Basin started long before the 1960s. We may have allies we've never dreamt of. n