The fight for Reclamation

  • Huge plastic crack in Glen Canyon dam, compliments of Earth First!, 1981

    L. Wagner
  • Beard admits he's a liberal Democrat

  • Dominy drove the BuRec like a fast bus

  • A houseboat cruises below the rocks of Lake Powell/F.A. Barnes


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 teeth.

Doused by the maelstrom, the cigar, minutes later, glows again: McPhee's sly allusion to Dominy's dominance of the tempestuous river.

Last August, 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 himself.

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 may wish.

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 extreme.

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 compliment.

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 habitat.

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, efficient.

"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 staggering.

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 it.

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 Canada.

Las Vegas was artesian springs and a lone Mormon trading post in 1902; today it gains almost 5,000 people a month.

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.

Beard is 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.

"The greatest 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 money."

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.

Colorado may 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.

Ideally, water 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 take it."

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.

"Our 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."

Beard 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 engineer.

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.

The 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 Council.

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 California.

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 congratulations.

"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, California.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Dams were built on breathless prose

- Grand Canyon flood postponed

- One project seems like the same old BuRec

- So far, it is the rivers of the region that have suffered

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