Between a rock and a dry place

How the “mega-drought” facing the region got its start.

 

As all eyes in the West turn to the skies for relief from 14 years of “mega-drought,” as California Gov. Jerry Brown just put it, this is as good a time as any for the region’s states and municipalities to ask: “How did we get caught between a rock and a dry place, and what, if anything, can we do about it now?”

To answer that question, we have to go back to the boom-boom years of America’s dam building. No politician in the West was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Arizona’s favorite son, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the Bureau of Reclamation’s biggest booster in Congress when the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects to tame the mighty Colorado River.

Never mind that the Hoover Commission, in a report commissioned by Congress, warned in 1951 that the Bureau of Reclamation would bankrupt the nation with senseless dams and irrigation projects, while holding future generations of Americans hostage to unpaid bills and unintended consequences. Caveats never stopped a federal water agency from building a dam.

At a time when Goldwater and the Bureau of Reclamation were enjoying a Golden Age of water projects, their chief nemesis was an environmental crusader named David Brower. Brower, president of the Sierra Club and founder of the Earth Island Institute, single-handedly led the fight against building Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. And lost. He called that defeat “the darkest day of my life,” vowed it would never happen again and blamed himself for it until his dying day.

Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. Toward the end of his life, Goldwater took political positions that left most of his libertarian allies scratching their heads in bewilderment. Is Barry going senile? Did somebody poison his soup?

Goldwater’s public epiphany came about when PBS aired Cadillac Desert, a series based on Marc Reisner’s eponymous book. In the third episode, when Goldwater and Reisner were discussing the adjudication of the Colorado River, the silver-haired Goldwater looked out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix and asked, “What have we done to this beautiful desert, our wild rivers? All that dam building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”

That admission reverberated across the high mesas of the Southwest like summer thunder. A few months later, when Brower and I talked over lunch, I asked him, “What did you do when Goldwater said it was all a big mistake?”

The Archdruid, as he had been affectionately dubbed by the writer John McPhee, was then in his late 80s but just as fierce as ever. He cackled and then let out an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called (Goldwater) and I said, Barry, let’s do the right thing, help me take out Glen Canyon Dam. He said he would! Then he died a few months later.”

And Brower died a few months after that.

Taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not have altered today’s water crisis in the Southwest, but it would have made a resounding statement. It would have said, “Wild rivers rock.” It would have said, “We should have left well enough alone, we should have listened to John Wesley Powell in the first place, we should have limited settlement on arid lands.” It would have said, “We shoulda, we shoulda, we shoulda. ...”

We will never see men like Goldwater and Brower again. Nor will we see people like. their cohorts, such as Floyd Dominy of the Bureau of Reclamation and the writer Edward Abbey; they were men of a certain time in America that no longer exists.

We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the days before the Civil War, or to the Indian Wars, and fix things. We’re stuck with the aftermath of those decisions, many of them poorly informed, unwise or downright bad. And, sadly, as the Hoover Commission warned 63 years ago, the consequences will be with us for generations to come.

The Colorado River, though, is a special case. It has always been a special case; now, more than ever. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, say some experts, and it shows no sign of releasing its grip. No doubt, the region’s leaders despair over vanishing options. The Bureau of Reclamation has announced it may start rationing water from Lake Mead to downstream states by 2015. And no climate model is predicting rain.

The first state in line to lose water from diminishing reserves is Arizona. Suddenly, those 280 golf courses in the greater Phoenix area -- not to mention the tens of thousands of swimming pools -- look kind of ridiculous. What in the world were we thinking?

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire through Indian Territory.

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