Floyd E. Dominy doesn't seem to hear the question from a college student right away. "Floyd Elgin Dominy, larger than life," as Marc Reisner called him in Cadillac Desert. Maybe the former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is listening instead to the hum of the nearby turbines. Maybe the shine of his eyes matches the cold, clear water of the Gunnison River as it spews forth from the powerplant at the foot of Morrow Point Dam in southwestern Colorado. Maybe, just maybe, Dominy is finally washed up.
At 88, after 29 years away from the scenes
of his greatest triumphs, Dominy is revisiting Morrow Point, a dam
he saw authorized, but never saw completed. Today, this narrow
defile in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River is the site of one
of the most beautiful dams ever built - if you think dams can be
Morrow Point is an engineer's dream:
a slender, elegant, double-arch dam. It is paper-thin, 12 feet
thick at its crest and only 50 feet at its base, which rests
hundreds of feet below the surface of the water. One arch, down at
the base of the dam, bellies out low into Blue Mesa Reservoir,
while another spreads its wings like some great waterbird
buttressed forever by the narrow granite walls.
Single-arch dams like Glen Canyon, further down the Colorado River,
squat like giant concrete plugs, defying the river by sheer weight
and mass. Delicate Morrow Point Dam always looks like it is about
to take flight.
When he was his questioner's
age, during the Depression, Dominy was building small earthen dams
for ranchers in eastern Wyoming. He did what he had to do, like so
many during those hard times. He joined the Bureau of Reclamation
in 1946, and soon he was running the powerful agency, lasting until
1969, when President Nixon sent an underling named James Watt to
"ask" Dominy to resign.
Dominy had presided over
the Southwest's most important water and power projects, all parts
of the Colorado River System: Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal
dams on the Gunnison River; Navajo Dam on the San Juan; Flaming
Gorge Dam on the Green; Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado. When I was
a boy, growing up in Denver as a "Bureau brat," I thought Dominy
was a little above God.
And now, at 88, Dominy
is back in Colorado to keynote an annual Colorado Water Workshop.
Even after decades away from the Bureau and the West, he shows his
utter mastery of his old kingdom, right down to perfect recall of
the river miles along the Colorado from dam to dam. Dominy is still
Dominy, an independent cuss from the beginning. No apologies. No
retreats. No surrender.
After his talk, a
questioner asks Dominy about Marc Reisner's scathing portrait. "I
gave Reisner access to me and to my files. In return, he savaged
me. That's all I have to say."
asks about today's Bureau. "What Bureau?" he
Another questions Reisner's contention
that Dominy's pride brought him down, his refusal to face
much-needed reforms in the abuse of federally subsidized water by
"That's a sore
point with me to this day," he says. "Congress never faced up to
revising the law, so we ended up watering private-land developers
instead of subsistence farmers."
student from the University of Colorado asks Dominy his toughest
question. She has the kind of beauty that Reisner says made Dominy
"a fool for lust." She asks Dominy to comment on the last of the
great dinosaurs from his age, the controversial $700 million
Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP), slated for execution just a few
miles from Gunnison. Dominy stares hard at her, taking his time.
She stands her ground in the vast silence and deep space that
separates a woman of our times from a man of
Finally, he says to her, "You're not going
to trap me. I got the big Animas-La Plata authorized in 1968. What
has happened to that poor project since then defies description."
Later, over lunch, I ask
Dominy what he meant, and he says how pained he was that current
Reclamation Commissioner Eluid Martinez "was the one with the
knife" at recent congressional hearings on A-LP. I ask what he
thinks of scaled-down versions of A-LP, and he replies with a
disgusted gesture that he must have repeated recently, when
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, over-ruling and
humiliating his own Reclamation commissioner, put a skin-and-bones
version of A-LP back on the
"I was a one-man Bureau
of Reclamation," Dominy tells me. "I stood up to whoever got in my
way - including Stewart Udall" (then the secretary of the
What are we to make of Floyd Dominy?
Reisner says that Dominy's legacy was a reputation and an attitude.
His arrogant indifference to conservation concerns ruined the
Bureau of Reclamation. That was also my judgment until I spent a
few days with him. Now I am more inclined toward the portrait of
Dominy in John McPhee's book, Encounters with the Archdruid, where
Dominy says, "Dave Brower hates my guts. Why? Because I got guts."
In pursuit of Dominy, I have driven my students
hundreds of miles west from Colorado Springs to Gunnison - and
finally to Morrow Point Dam. I want them to see where the Colorado
Front Range's water comes from, and I want them to encounter the
self-described "waterboy of the West," before this giant of a man
passes from the scene. Their assignment is a paper: "Floyd Dominy:
Hero or Villain?"
Many think that today's young
people are indifferent to such lofty questions. I don't agree. One
student turns straight to the source, who is standing there like a
white-haired oracle in the brilliant sunshine at the foot of Morrow
Point Dam, surrounded by admiring employees from the Bureau, such
as plant manager Gary McDermott. McDermott has spent his
professional life here, tending Dominy's legacy, producing the
hydro-power that electrifies so much of the
"Mr. Dominy, are
you a hero or a villain?"
Dominy suddenly snaps
out of his reverie and pounces on the student's question. "If I'm
not a hero, you wouldn't be here!'
But he is not
toying with his prey. He knows this is a sincere question, and he
knows he is lucky to be here to answer
"You have to be the man
you are," he continues. "Washington, D.C., is Sin City. I turned my
back on it years ago. But out here on the river, where it counts,
you won't hear any weasel words from Floyd Dominy."
Tom Wolf is visiting
associate professor of Southwest studies at Colorado College in
Colorado Springs. His book, Ice Crusaders, will appear this winter
from Roberts Rinehart Press.