Floyd Dominy: An encounter with the West's undaunted dam-builder

  • Building Glen Canyon Dam in 1963

    Bureau of Reclamation photo

The name Floyd Dominy still rings loud in the West. As the head of the Bureau of Reclamation from 1959 to1971, he built Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River and many more of the West's dams, persuading Congress that the region needed to control the flow of rivers to generate electricity, control flooding and irrigate cropland. Now close to 90 years old and living in Boyce, Va., Dominy agreed to reprise his career in an interview earlier this year with Ed Marston for the half-hour program, Radio High Country News.

Ed Marston: Floyd Dominy, you are famous for building Glen Canyon Dam and creating Lake Powell behind it. Is that your proudest achievement?

Floyd Dominy: Yes, I think so. I was in the federal government for 37 years, in water and land development, but I expect the Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of the most wonderful lake in the world, Lake Powell, is my crowning jewel. But I would say that any discussion of Glen Canyon Dam has to start with the understanding of the law of the river on the Colorado. Glen Canyon Dam was part of a major undertaking to develop the upper basin in the Colorado, and that law of the river, of course, was established back in the '20s. There's a lot of idle talk, I think, about ' maybe we can amend the law of the river and make it a little more friendly to the upper basin.

MARSTON: And the river in question is the Colorado River, and it's a seven-state compact.

DOMINY: That's right.

MARSTON: It's almost a treaty between foreign nations.

DOMINY: Exactly. Now, that compact was arrived at after several years of very violent and rough negotiation between the seven states. I don't think you can do better if you renegotiated it today, for this reason: At the time it was negotiated, the ratio in population didn't go strictly against the upper basin as bad as it does now.

MARSTON: You mean there're so many more people in California than there are up here.

DOMINY: Right. For example, in the '20s, the upper basin had eight congressmen and the lower basin had 13. Today, the upper basin has 13 and the lower basin has 63. And the other thing about it is that California wanted something in 1920.

MARSTON: It wanted ...

DOMINY: It wanted the Hoover Dam.

MARSTON: And now it has the Hoover Dam.

DOMINY: And it wanted the All-American Canal. They were spending millions of dollars developing that Imperial Valley, and, of course, the water supply they wanted on the coast. And they wanted the federal government to help them. Well now, they've got that ' they've got Hoover Dam ' they've got the All-American Canal, so I don't think our region would come out very well if they tried to renegotiate that compact.

MARSTON: What position did you occupy when Glen Canyon Dam was built?

DOMINY: Well, I started out, I was the associate commissioner when it was first under way.

MARSTON: And what year was that?

DOMINY: Well, it got under way very soon after 1956, when it was authorized. It's amazing how things change. In 1956, when the project was authorized, it was under construction in a matter of weeks. Today, we'd still be writing environmental impact statements.

MARSTON: Yes, these are the good new days. That brings me to a quote I wanted to read to you from the writer of Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner. He said: "Dominy drove Reclamation, in John 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 General Patton with General MacArthur's ego doing Mulholland's work, which he considered the Lord's." Does the federal government today lack a Floyd Dominy?

DOMINY: I was a dominant man, no question about it. As a matter of fact, some people said my name should be "Dominate," not "Dominy." I was dedicated. I knew that we needed to develop the waters of the West if we were going to develop the West. Sure, I was a little rough at times, but ' I think, of course, Reisner's book is prejudiced all the way through. He doesn't give me the benefit of a doubt on any of his judgments.

MARSTON: But that quote isn't exactly a slam.

DOMINY: No, I understand that, I understand that ' and I accept that as a fairly realistic quote. I loved to argue with Congress.

MARSTON: Whereas other bureaucrats ... your bureaucrat of a similar station would have kowtowed to Congress.

DOMINY: Most of them didn't have the energy that I had before a congressional committee, and I wasn't above challenging the secretary of Interior and the Bureau of Budget and Management. If they hadn't gone along with certain things I wanted, I sometimes went direct to Congress.

MARSTON: And where did your power come from? What enabled you to do that while others running Housing and Urban Development couldn't do that?

DOMINY: Well, I think they could have if they'd had the courage to do it. See, when I went to the Bureau of Reclamation, I already knew more about that program than anybody in it.

MARSTON: You came as an outsider?

DOMINY: Yes, because I was born and reared in the Nebraska dryland area. I grew up on a subsistence farm, without plumbing and so forth, and I was county agent in one of the most drought-stricken areas of the West during that critical period in the '30s. So I knew the value of water. I knew the problems that farmers had in making a living in the arid West. I had all that in my background when I stepped into the Bureau of Reclamation as a land-development specialist.

MARSTON: So what enabled you, even with that knowledge, to rise through the ranks so quickly?

DOMINY: Well, I did my homework. In 1954, President Eisenhower had a Democratic Congress, and the whole picture changed for the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. Before, he had Western members on that committee who were devoted to helping him. But the Democrats changed it and put us under a different committee. Now we were put over into the Public Works subcommittee, and there wasn't a single Western member on that committee. And I went to the Commissioner of Reclamation when I was the chief of the irrigation division ...

MARSTON: So you were a couple of rungs down.

DOMINY: Oh, yes. I wasn't even assistant commissioner. And I went to him and I said, "Look, you can't bring the regional directors in here to testify. We can't just answer the questions, we've got to make a speech, we've got to sell Reclamation. This group is not friendly to Reclamation. They want all the money to go to the Corps of Engineers and the Eastern part of the United States."

MARSTON: So this wasn't an environmental battle, this was a battle for pork.

DOMINY: Right. And he brushed me off and didn't accept my recommendation. So I did my homework. I thought I'd be a backstop. I had been for years. I knew every line and item in that budget. I made several trips out West to make sure that I was ' that I could support the budget on each project. And then the day came when we went before the committee and they (the congressmen) said, "Well, they don't have room for you." So I wasn't up there, and the roof fell in. And the committee was so antagonistic to Reclamation that after a couple of days they said, "Well, you're not answering our questions, you're not giving us the information we need. We're going to adjourn the hearing. You go back to your ivory tower and study your lesson, and we'll bring you back after a while." Well, that's when the Western congressmen and senators, of course, became very excited. And they began to wonder, "Where the hell's Floyd Dominy?"

MARSTON: How come they knew you at all?

DOMINY: Because I was a backstop. I had answered the questions.

MARSTON: Oh, I see. So there were suits in front of you, but you were feeding them.

DOMINY: Right, right. And then also, I had testified before the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee on the amendatory repayment contracts. This was the first job I had in Reclamation of any significance, when I was in the irrigation division. Commissioner Strauss and all the rest of them, they didn't want to go up and defend those amendatory contracts because it was making Reclamation look bad. The old projects hadn't worked out. There were financial difficulties. And I carried them up to Congress and told them, I said, "This project needs to have not 40 years' repayment period, but 140 years' repayment period." (On) one project the congressmen said, "Well, this looks like infinity." I said, "That's right, it will never pay out." "Well then, why don't we abandon it?" "Well, we don't abandon it because we have a viable community out there. We've got a small city, we've got a viable environment, if you let those settlers pay what they can afford to pay, which is very little." I already had that background, and the Western congressmen and senators had seen me in action in that program. So, to make a long story short, the Interior secretary called me down to ask: "Is Bureau of Reclamation in as bad a shape up on the hill as I'm being told it is?" Well, I told him, "I don't think it's a proper question to address to me," and I refused to answer. But he said, "Well, look, my phone won't quit ringing about how bad this thing is up there. The relationship of the Bureau to the Congress ' and all the Western congressmen and senators are saying you seem to be the man to take care of it." He said, "Can you?" And I said, "Yes, of course I can, but I can't do it as chief of the irrigation division. You've got to give me a title of at least assistant commissioner, and you've got to give me the responsibility that I can handle it."

So that's how it happened. In 1957 they made me an associate commissioner, and Commissioner Dexheimer was told to stay out of my way, and I really ran the Bureau for two years before I was made commissioner.

MARSTON: That's when the dams got built.

DOMINY: Oh yes, yes. The Yellowtail Dam on the Bighorn and all the others ... the Trinity Dam in California. This is the stage I like to describe as having no naysayers. If we proposed a project, it was endorsed, and it got built.

MARSTON: It's probably no secret to you that some people today think these dams are a terrible mistake, including Glen Canyon. In fact, you just debated" was it this fall again that you debated David Brower, formerly of the Sierra Club?


MARSTON: Were the dams terrible mistakes? And do you think this new generation - not that I include Brower in that - do they have a chance to take those dams down?

DOMINY: First of all, let me say, I don't think we destroyed the Gunnison River (in Colorado) by building three wonderful hydroelectric dams. Before, it was a closed river. Now the public has access to those three reservoirs, with far more fishing and boating and recreational activities than was ever there in its natural state. Glen Canyon Dam, for example, in addition to its main function of providing the regulated water supply for the upper basin projects, it also has opened up for 3 million visitors a year, a land that probably had 20 or 30 visitors before. Rainbow Bridge gets 300,000 or more a year now, when it had only 15,000 in 50 years. The Colorado River float trip was limited to about a six-week period, haphazardly, when it was available in the flood season. Now you've got 20,000 people a year going down it every year.

Sure, we've changed the environment of the river, but that doesn't mean we've made it worse. I happen to think that Homo sapiens is what the Endangered Species Act ought to be addressed to. I'm no fan of the Endangered Species Act. The thing that they're talking about now is that we've destroyed the humpback chub, because he can't live in clean water. Well, hell, all the archaeological digs around the world prove every day that various species have been evolving - flora and fauna - and expiring over the years.

MARSTON: Well, Mr. Dominy, let's go from rhetoric to practicalities. Do you think there is a chance to breach some of these dams? Including some of the ones that you built and are proud of having built?

DOMINY: They certainly have no chance of breaching Glen Canyon Dam. If you took Glen Canyon Dam out of there, you'd destroy the viability of all those upper-basin projects. You'd destroy the viability of the 110,000-acre irrigation projects of the Navajos. You'd destroy the viability of the San Juan-Chama that delivers 150,000 acre-feet of water into New Mexico for Albuquerque and that area.

MARSTON: Why would you destroy the viability of projects that are upstream of Glen Canyon Dam?

DOMINY: Because you have to have that storage to meet the law of the river. Don't you remember that in 1936 the Colorado River flowed only 4 1/2 million acre-feet in the whole year?

MARSTON: So you mean all those upstream projects would have to forgo their diversions in order to provide the lower basin with water?

DOMINY: Right. You can't possibly meet the law of the river without getting a big sponge to hold up your plentiful years, to squeeze out during your dry years.

MARSTON: Well then, let me put you on the spot. Richard Ingebretsen is the Utah doctor who wants to breach Glen Canyon Dam. And he is incredibly proud of a napkin with a sketch by you showing the best way to breach the dam. Now my question to you is: Why do you hang out with these people? Why do you spend time debating a Dave Brower; what is the chemistry here?

DOMINY: Well, I like people. I think the book that John McPhee wrote ... he quotes me as saying that I like people, I like cab drivers, I like pimps, I like anybody. I like to associate with people. And I like to debate my position on issues with people.

MARSTON: Let me be the devil's advocate. Could it be that the kind of vitality that you and your movement shared in the '50s and '60s, has shifted to a different vision, that dam-breakers are the keepers of a vision just as you had a vision 50 years ago?

DOMINY: Well, it may be.

MARSTON: And that you're attracted to that?

DOMINY: I can only say that I don't think the so-called environmentalists of today are necessarily right. I'm an environmentalist. I'm a different kind of environmentalist. I believe that nature can be improved upon. I do it right here in Virginia. I built a dam on my little farm in Fairfax 50 years ago. There was no fish there, nothing, and now it's the finest little fishing hole for that neighborhood. When I bought this farm up here, it didn't have any fish on it, it had no water supply at all. I built nine ponds, and four of them are wonderful fishing holes. And they're used by the ducks and the Canadian geese and, sure, I've changed the environment. I think I've improved on it.

MARSTON: A relatively small scale compared to Morrow Point Dam.

DOMINY: Yes, but the principle is the same. Let's take a look at the carrying capacity of the Colorado River, for human use, between Lake Mead, (Nev.,) and Rock Springs, Wyoming. In its natural state, how many people can it support for recreational activities? Maybe a couple of thousand. Now we have millions using it because of man-made structures.

MARSTON: So do you think the environmental movement is a nostalgia movement for back when there were fewer people and nature could be handled a little more gently?

DOMINY: Yes, I think so.

MARSTON: Mr. Dominy, this has been a pleasure and a privilege.

DOMINY: Well, I enjoy High Country News; I read it religiously.

MARSTON: Oh! Can we quote you on that?

DOMINY: Yes, you can.

Ed Marston's interview with Floyd Dominy was conducted in February 2000, and aired in April, in a two-part series on Glen Canyon Dam. CDs or transcripts of the shows can be ordered; visit our Web site www.hcn.org for a complete catalog of program descriptions. Each CD is $12.99. Interview transcripts are $10.

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