Water, the feds, and Mormons, too

  Dear HCN,

In your coverage of the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission's report (HCN, 6/22/98) I was struck by a quote attributed to Denise Fort, chairman of the Advisory Commission: "The traditional control of Western water has largely been federal because the federal government has had such a major role in the construction of water projects' (HCN, 6/22/98).

To the contrary, many water rights and many water-users in the West trace their origins back to an era in which the federal government held relatively little influence.

Specifically, the federal Mining Act of 1866 - championed by California gold mining interests dependent upon "hydraulicking' - granted enormous power over water allocation to local, territorial and state authorities, even on public lands owned by the federal government. And after the U.S. Reclamation Service was authorized in 1902, it struggled in a political environment in which issues related to water rights were firmly separated from federal control.

As historian Don Pisani of the University of Oklahoma notes, the constitutionality of federal involvement in Western water projects was very much in question during the first decades of the 20th century. Prior to the New Deal there always loomed the possibility that federal participation in this sphere of activity would be curtailed on constitutional grounds. In this context, I find it significant that legal justification for allowing the federal government to build Hoover (a.k.a. Boulder) Dam - as determined by the 1931 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stemming from Arizona's strenuous objection to the project - rested first and foremost on the navigability of the lower Colorado River and thus drew upon early 19th-century precedents (Gibbon vs. Ogden, 1823) bearing little relevance to actual Western water practice.

Why? Because "traditional" federal involvement in the region's water development could not support such an intrusion into an arena previously dominated by non-federal authorities and interests. I might also add that some of the most adamant congressional opposition to San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy project in 1913 did not derive from wilderness protection or concern for the integrity of Yosemite National Park; rather, it resulted from a belief that federal legislation had no business stipulating how water flow was to be divided between San Francisco and irrigation districts in Modesto and Turlock.

A second point regards Ed Marston's engaging description of Richard Ingebretson's visit to High Country News' board meeting to discuss initiatives to remove Glen Canyon Dam. His column notes that "Reclamation is associated with Mormonism, and members of the LDS Church are a disproportionately large part of BuRec's workforce." I have come across this assertion in other contexts. I am not necessarily disagreeing with this claim, but before embracing it as gospel I would be interested in seeing some validating statistics.

Lest someone wonder why I might wish to raise the above point, I direct them to the introduction of the book Cadillac Desert where author Marc Resiner makes the bold (rash?) assertion that "(in 1902) the United States government launched its own irrigation program, based on Mormon experience, guided by Mormon laws, run largely by Mormons." Based upon extensive research I have undertaken into Reclamation Service records, the notion that the early Reclamation Service was "run largely by Mormons' lacks foundation.

Before taking on faith that Mormons constitute a "disproportionately large" number of BuRec staff members, I would counsel that the issue remain in question until some statistics are presented to back up the claim.

Donald C. Jackson

Easton, Pennsylvania

The writer teaches history at Lafayette College.
High Country News Classifieds