By Marc Reisner
When John McPhee, in
Encounters with the Archdruid, rides down the Colorado River with
Floyd Dominy, the bullheaded Commissioner of Reclamation during the
1950s and 1960s, and David Brower, Dominy plunges into the Lava
Falls rapid with a cigar clenched between his
Doused by the maelstrom, the cigar,
minutes later, glows again: McPhee's sly allusion to Dominy's
dominance of the tempestuous river.
when I rode a raft through the Grand Canyon with the latest of
Dominy's successors, Dan Beard, I snapped a photo of the cigarless
commissioner as we hit Debendorff Rapids. When I got the film
developed, Beard was invisible, for a great mound of frigid water
from the bottom of "Lake Dominy" (-Powell" was Dominy's idea)
covered him like an African hut. I remember Beard's reaction when
he emerged from the dissipating wave. A look of cardiac shock
metamorphosed into the widest grin I ever saw, from which erupted a
whoop even that noisy avalanche of snowmelt couldn't overwhelm. As
Beard sat there shivering, the grin never left his face. He had
come not to humble nature, but to be humbled
Like McPhee - like all writers - I take
metaphorical license. Dominy hoped to control the Colorado River
much more than he did, and Beard may never free it as much as he
The demolition of Glen Canyon Dam
(which, in fairness to Beard, he would never propose) seems as
unthinkable now as Dominy's mad-for-dams obsessions, two giant
river plugs at Marble Gorge and Bridge Canyon. That said, the
differences between these two - who as commissioners would oversee
a fourth of the West's water - are almost comically
Floyd Dominy's proudest monument is the
great dam that drowned Glen Canyon, an ethereally beautiful stretch
of river he described as "useless to anyone." He fought ferociously
for Marble Gorge and Bridge Canyon, the Grand Canyon dams
immortalized by the Sierra Club ads, whose ultimate purpose would
have been to sell enough peak-hour electricity to finance a
Martian-style aqueduct from the Columbia drainage into the
Colorado, which he called a "river of deficit."
He held secret meetings with Los Angeles' water
kleptocracy to map this and even grander diversion plans, and, in
Zeus-like fits induced by prodigious draughts of bourbon and cigar
smoke, bellowed about the "waste" of Alaskan water flowing seaward
instead of southward.
Dominy drove Reclamation,
in McPhee's phrase, like a fast bus. Some of his passengers admired
and others hated him, but both camps were scared half to death.
Dominy was Patton with MacArthur's ego doing Mulholland's work,
which he considered the Lord's.
Dan Beard, who is
51, never spent a day at Reclamation before he was appointed
commissioner, while Dominy came up through the ranks,
extraordinarily fast. Before his appointment, Beard spent seven
years working for George Miller, D-Calif., the deposed chairman of
the House Committee on Natural Resources. In Dominy habitat -
California's San Joaquin Valley, Colorado's Grand Valley, the
subsidized cottonlands of Arizona - Miller is as popular as Salman
Rushdie in Iran. Pugnacious and as big as a defensive end, the
congressman says he takes that as a great
Beard, who is less combative than
Miller but an avowed environmentalist and (he actually admits this)
a liberal Democrat, says he hopes he doesn't have to build any big
dams, but wouldn't mind taking some smaller dams down - especially
those that have ruined salmon
Interviewed last fall on his Virginia
farm, Dominy, who is 84, said, "Now I'm sure people can survive
without salmon, but I don't think people can survive without beans
and potatoes and lettuce ... I think the (salmon-blocking dams
were) worth it. I think that there's substitutes for eating salmon.
You can eat cake."
Unlike the famously
autocratic Dominy, Beard is a lower-case democrat. When a Dominy
loyalist in the Bureau suggests that his new boss is an
environmentalist kook - and several reportedly have - Beard's
typical response is an innocent "Why do you say that?" followed by
a bout of Socratic debate.
Beard has the
reputation of being relentlessly patient when pursuing a goal. He
now runs an institution that, he readily admits, he "kicked around
for years," a confederacy of engineers who couldn't wait for the
next chance to build another dam. Dams have little or no place in
Beard's vision. What he wants is to make the Bureau
conservation-minded and, even worse,
"I came to Reclamation with one
purpose," he says: "To make us more environmentally sensitive and
responsive to the needs of the contemporary West. Any worthwhile
project we have under way I want to complete as fast as possible.
Beyond that, the Bureau's future isn't in dams. The era of dams is
over. I say that to my employees every chance I get."
The American West has changed tumultuously
during the Bureau's 92-year existence, change the Bureau has done a
heroic job of ignoring until recently. By inclination and by law,
its constituency remains overwhelmingly agricultural while the
West's population has become overwhelmingly urban. The Bureau sells
water and power to farmers for a fraction of what it costs the
taxpayers to deliver it - for a dollar an acre-foot in some project
regions, like the Umatilla Basin of eastern Oregon. By contrast,
urban users typically pay $400 to $800 an acre-foot. Even if you
discount the higher cost of urban infrastructure, the disparity is
Meanwhile, according to some project
authorizations, the fish and wildlife have no legal right to water
and no legitimate status as beneficiaries. And, though conserving
water diverted for agriculture is the simplest and cheapest way to
offer more to cities and nature, most older Reclamation contracts
fix the subsidized price for 40 years or longer. In many cases, it
is much cheaper to waste Reclamation water than to save
Two years before the Bureau came into
existence, Los Angeles had a population of 102,479. The
metropolitan region is now two-thirds as populous as
Las Vegas was artesian springs and a lone
Mormon trading post in 1902; today it gains almost 5,000 people a
When the Reclamation program was getting
under way, the Columbia River was stirred by 15 million salmon and
the Central Valley's skies were darkened by 80 million migratory
waterfowl. Their numbers have declined catastrophically, mainly
because of federal dams that blocked and diverted the rivers and
dried up most of California's wetlands.
convinced that Reclamation can supply more water to overspilling
urban regions and disappearing natural areas with minimal harm to
agriculture - without building dams. Not building dams may be the
easiest piece of the puzzle. In the 1930s, Hoover Dam was
completed, power plant and all, for less than $49 million; today,
the environmental impact statement could cost almost that much, and
might be large enough to serve as the dam. Inflation, diminishing
returns, and environmentalism have made new dams almost impossible
to build. In a number of cases, economics favors tearing dams down.
Conjunctive use (falling back on groundwater pumping during drought
years) and wastewater programs, as well as off-stream storage
(pumping water to created storage basins) hold some promise.
However, the likeliest new water sources are conservation, crop
shifts, or farmland retirement.
challenge facing state and federal water leaders," Beard said
recently, "is how we can effectuate transfers from agriculture to
urban and environmental uses in a politically acceptable fashion. I
don't have any specifics on how we can guide these transfers. I
just know they will happen. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego,
Tucson - urban regions in the desert West will not run out of
water. If ag interests say, "Sorry, but we need to keep using all
this water to raise hay and alfalfa," well, that's just not going
to happen. As some sage said, water does run uphill to power and
Beard is short on specifics because, in
a region where frontier thinking still prevails, redistributing
water is, to many, a sacrilegious idea. As Mark Twain noted, in the
West, "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over." Also,
water transfers are sanctioned mainly through state law, and every
state has written different laws.
come closest to treating water as a free-market commodity, like
pizza or pickles, but transfers to the Denver area have desolated
some small agricultural regions and created a bit of a backlash.
(Much the same has occurred in Arizona.) Some states recognize
instream uses as beneficial, while others don't; some prescribe
minimal flows while others refuse.
for new uses should come from conservation or crop shifts, with
minimal loss of planted acreage. (Edward Abbey would have taken
issue with that; his fondest wish was to re-desertify the West.)
But conservation and crop shifts require incentives, which may not
exist. Under hoary appropriative rights doctrine, one
appropriator's conservation or lapse in use becomes the new supply
of the next in line.
California, among other
states, has amended its water code - repeatedly - so that a farmer
who conserves water retains the right to sell it. But the long,
tyrannical rule of unadulterated prior appropriation has left a
legacy of cynicism and disbelief. Several California farmers have
said flat-out that the state's code revisions don't amount to
anything "real," and they won't conserve water "just so L.A. can
Dan Beard's Hundred Steps approach to
water reform is to try to change things little by little and
project by project.
"The operation of each one is
slowly being revised," he says. - 'Feasibility" is the operative
word. Westwide revision isn't a political option. We've only seen
mega-legislation affecting the whole program, or a huge piece of
it, in 1902, 1924, 1939, and 1968 and 1992. Transfers will be
worked out by state legislatures, in city and county governments,
maybe even by Congress. But the Endangered Species Act and the
changing culture at Reclamation are moving us in different ways."
Even as the "wise users," buoyed by the new
Republican ride in Congress, aim to eviscerate the Endangered
Species Act, the law guides more and more water policy. According
to Beard, restoring the Columbia Basin salmon fishery - where 100
salmon runs could soon go extinct - or even restoring it somewhat
represents "the most complex natural resources problem in America
today. Nothing else approaches it."
With so many
petitions for new listings, however, the Bureau has to do
something, and not just on the Columbia. In California, it has
lately managed releases from Folsom Lake to help flush juvenile
salmon out to sea and maintain brackish water quality in the delta,
at the expense of flatwater recreation and carryover storage.
Meanwhile, on the Colorado River, the Bureau's biologists are
concocting plans to rescue the squawfish, whose Columbia River
cousins gorge on juvenile salmon detained by the reservoirs.
Diversions to nourish wildlife refuges where threatened waterfowl
roost are diversions taken from threatened salmon. In the modern
world of Western water, conflict and irony have no end, which was
exactly the case a century ago.
So far, Beard's
most prominent achievement as commissioner has been to reduce
Reclamation's staff from 7,500 to 6,500. More than 30,000 were
employed during the FDR-Truman heyday. Further reductions in staff
are likely, but he won't say where.
program," Beard says, "ought to dictate the size of our staff."
It's a good bet he will downsize departments staffed by a certain
type of engineer who, in the words of a new Reclamation
non-engineer, has "concrete for brains."
doesn't believe the 1994 election results will affect his
objectives much. "In water development, Reagan did what Carter set
out to do: not much. It was Bush who killed the Two Forks Dam. We
may see a serious effort to weaken the Endangered Species Act and
to limit landowner responsibility for protection. That shouldn't
interfere with our program to promote efficient water use."
Like Boris Yeltsin, who inherited a tottering
Soviet empire doomed by self-destruction and Gorbachev's early
reforms, Beard took over a dominion where a quiet revolution had
already occurred - one, as it happens, that he helped
The Central Valley Project Improvement
Act legislation, signed by George Bush over the wailing objections
of California's farm water lobby, was written mainly by the
subcommittee staffs of Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Rep. George
Miller, D-Calif., which is to say, by Beard.
most far-reaching compendium of reforms in Reclamation history, it
reserves up to 800,000 acre-feet for wildlife and fisheries; it
surcharges water deliveries to create a Restoration Fund worth
close to $50 million a year; it legalizes transfers of project
water statewide; it introduces tiered water pricing, shortens
contract terms, and does a host of things the irrigation lobby had
managed to thwart for decades.
The main reason
Bush signed the legislation was because Republican corporate
interests, including Jim Harvey, the chairman of Transamerica
Corporation, and the proletariat's investment guru, Charles Schwab,
laid siege to the White House switchboard, urging the President on.
As they did that, the Metropolitan Water District was plotting
strategy with the Natural Resources Defense
Alliances between capitalism, urbanism
(which implies growth), and environmentalism are uneasy ones, but
they are no longer just a California phenomenon. Through passage of
the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, Utah got funds to
complete the Central Utah Project. Some of the water will be
rerouted from its original destination - irrigated fields - to the
Wasatch front, serving people fleeing
Shortly after Beard helped engineer
this coup from the outside, the Clinton administration submitted
his nomination as commissioner. Many thought his confirmation was
as likely as Ben and Jerry running the Department of Agriculture.
When he was actually in his office at engineering headquarters in
Denver, having moved it from the top floor to the bottom, right
behind the receptionist, I phoned in stunned
"It wasn't that hard," he
deadpanned. "I laid pretty low, and I never had a nanny problem."
As the new nanny for an unruly constituency that has been spoiled
for a long time, he does now.
Marc Reisner is the author
of the now-classic Cadillac Desert: The American West and its
Disappearing Water, published in 1986. He lives in Marin County,
Bureau of Reclamation says it is now a water-conserver, and not a
dam-builder, one ghost from the past continues to linger.
Southwestern Colorado's Animas-La Plata water diversion project,
first approved by Congress in 1968, is still slated for
construction next year - despite a mountain of evidence indicating
that it is an economic and ecological boondoggle.
The project, a convoluted combination of dams,
canals and pipelines, proposes to pump water uphill almost 1,000
feet, then deliver it to dry-land farmers and municipalities.
Last year, a study by the Inspector General of
the Department of Interior found that the $688 million project was
"economically infeasible" (HCN, 8/8/94). And another study by the
Bureau of Reclamation, slated for release sometime this spring,
will likely say the same thing. Lori Potter, an attorney with the
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, has seen a draft of the study and
says it predicts a yield of just 37 cents on the
Nevertheless, Bureau of Reclamation
Commissioner Dan Beard says he is committed to completing the
agency's last big dam project to fulfill treaty water obligations
to two Ute Indian Tribes. And his agency, which expects to complete
a final environmental impact statement on the project later this
year, is getting strong support from the Republican-dominated
In late January, Colorado's two
Republican senators, Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Hank Brown, along
with Rep. Scott McInnis, R, released a privately contracted study
touting the project as an economic winner. That study, financed by
the project's three biggest customers, the Southern Ute and Ute
Mountain Ute Indian tribes and the Southwestern Colorado
Conservation District, says Animas-La Plata would return the
equivalent of $1.66 for every dollar
The study takes a broad view of both
costs and benefits, including the costs of litigation if the tribes
fail to receive their water through the project and are forced to
go back to court.
"This should lay to rest the
question of whether Animas-La Plata is economically feasible,"
Campbell told The Denver Post.
that Animas-La Plata is an economic loser," responds Sierra Club
Legal Defense Fund attorney Chris Seldin. "It takes factual and
methodological distortion to make this project look good, and
that's exactly what they did."
emphasize that building a dam will uphold tribal treaty rights. In
1988, Congress acted to restore senior water rights to the tribe by
offering them Animas-LaPlata water instead. If the project is not
at least started by the year 2000, the tribes may void the
agreement and return to court, requesting the implementation of
their 130-year old rights which pre-date anyone else's (HCN,
3/22/93). Most analysts think they could win their claim, and
possibly gain control of the region's entire water
If the project gets built, the tribes may
still have to pay for the construction of a water delivery system,
pegged at $160 million. Critics, including some tribal members,
wonder if the tribes will end up with water in a reservoir and no
pipes to send it anywhere.
Phil Doe, an
environmental compliance officer with the Bureau of Reclamation in
Denver, isn't afraid to criticize his own agency. Doe says frankly
that tribal demands can be met without building a dam he labels
The simplest solution, he says,
is to force the "hobby hay farmers' in the region to use less water
and pay more for the privilege. Currently, these ranchette owners
don't produce crops, but do use cheap water that ought to belong to
"They don't want to sit down and
systematically analyze probable costs," says Doe of his agency's
top officials. "The Utes should get the water first and foremost,
but this (project) is a developer's dream. The Bureau of
Reclamation seems to be the handmaiden of development interests."
Others continue to pressure BuRec to look at
alternatives as well. William Yellowtail, the regional
administrator of the EPA, advised the Bureau in a letter last
February that its EIS must be revised to include "a comprehensive
and contemporary examination of alternatives' to the proposed dam
and pipeline system. Some tribal members, calling themselves the
Southern Ute Grassroots Group, have also called for a study of
non-structural alternatives to damming the Animas, which has
cultural and spiritual value to many tribal members. And the Sierra
Club Legal Defense Fund has hired water engineers to help the
tribes look for alternatives.
But the agency has
given no indication that it wants to change course. "We're moving
forward as aggressively as we can," says BuRec spokeswoman Shannon
Cunniff, who is based in Washington, D.C.
the Bureau can release its final EIS late this year, however, it
must address a lawsuit brought by the Defense Fund which alleges
that endangered fish downstream of the project area will be
affected by the lowered water. All parties involved expect future
litigation when the EIS is finally
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration
has asked for $5 million from Congress to begin initial
construction during the 1996 fiscal year. For more information,
contact the Bureau of Reclamation, P.O. Box 11568, Salt Lake City,
UT 84147 (801/524-6477).