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Know the West

'Mr. Dominy, are you a hero or a villain?'


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 beautiful.

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."

A questioner asks about today's Bureau. "What Bureau?" he replies.

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 large California agribusinesses.

"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."

A graduate 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 his.

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 table.

"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 Interior).

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 Southwest.

"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 it.

"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.