Floyd Dominy, who made it his mission to improve nature by, among other things, damming the Colorado River at Glen Canyon and creating the more user-friendly Lake Powell, died at the age of 100, on April 20.
Some had hoped that Glen Canyon Dam would go first, draining Lake Powell and restoring the river’s ecosystem. But Dominy, who was commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation from 1959 to 1969, spoke of his pride in his achievement during an interview a decade ago: “Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of the most wonderful lake in the world, Lake Powell, is my crowning jewel."
One week before Dominy passed away in Virginia at his Angus farm, I spoke to him by telephone. I wanted to talk to the man I’d first learned about long ago from reading John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid. I can think of no better way to write a story than the way McPhee did: You put two enemies in a rubber raft (along with a handful of unsuspecting strangers) and send them all down a wild river together.
That’s what McPhee did with Dominy and David Brower, the Sierra Club executive director who considered the construction of Glen Canyon Dam his biggest environmental policy failure. McPhee set the stage with both scenery and character. His canvas was the Colorado River, with its mile-high rock walls and hundreds of side canyons. And his characters were equally memorable: Brower, the environmental leader, who saw what would be lost to the rising waters; and Dominy, the determined dam-builder, who learned as a young man in Nebraska that water in a river does no good at all if isn’t made available for people to use.
In the end, it seemed that Dominy and Brower had a blast, drinking beer and occasionally bickering about whether remote stretches of the Colorado were valuable because they were untouched, or wasted because they weren’t being developed.
I’ve never forgotten McPhee’s description of Dominy, smoking cigars on the raft trip and somehow able to keep his cigar lit as the raft passed through a waterfall. Brower kept referring to the future Lake Powell as “Lake Dominy.” When I spoke to Dominy, I said I thought the trip sounded pretty exciting.
“It was boring!” he said. “Boring, how could it be anything else? You can’t see out from the bottom of a canyon.”
Some might interpret that statement as an indication of the kind of blindness to the need for natural processes that characterized the Bureau of Reclamation during Dominy’s day and for a long time afterward. Dominy argued that if the West were going to be developed, the waters of the Colorado River’s cycle of flood and trickle would have to be managed. Others doubted that intensively developing the West was a wise thing to do in the first place; they thought that the region should be left unpredictable and fragile –– that we should discourage settlement, rather than invite it. But Dominy was convinced that nature could be improved; that it could, and should, be manipulated and mastered in order to make life less difficult for human beings.
That belief was planted during Dominy’s hardscrabble childhood and no doubt further developed during his early days as a county extension agent in parched northeastern Wyoming. He told McPhee about that experience: “I watched the people there -- I mean good folk, industrious, hard-working, frugal -- compete with the rigors of nature against hopeless odds. They would ruin their health and still fail.”
Perhaps that prompted him to do some water management on his first farm in Fairfax, Va., building ponds and stocking them with fish for the kids. He and his wife decided to settle in Virginia because it was an easy commute to his Washington, D.C., office, he said.
Dominy had a long career before retiring from the Department of Agriculture. All that government service paid off in the form of a “very nice” 100th birthday party on Capitol Hill, attended by members of Congress and others, he recalled.
Dominy told me that he wasn’t surprised that he achieved his 100th birthday, because once he made it to 99, he could see it from there. He’d had colon cancer when he was 97, he said, and “survived that just fine.” He gave up cigars years ago but said he was still fond of whiskey, to which he partially attributed his longevity. Still, he acknowledged that he didn’t think he’d make it to 101.
“I’m collapsing,” he said. Unlike the silt-filling reservoirs along the Colorado River, a few days later, that’s just what he did, leaving the world a little less interesting in his wake.
Julianne Couch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Laramie, Wyoming.