Floyd Dominy, the colossus of dams, dies at 100

Former Bureau of Reclamation commissioner built Glen Canyon dam

  • Julianne Couch


Floyd Dominy, who made it his mission to improve nature by, among other things, damming the Colorado River at Glen Canyon and creating the more user-friendly Lake Powell, died at the age of 100, on April 20.

Some had hoped that Glen Canyon Dam would go first, draining Lake Powell and restoring the river’s ecosystem. But Dominy, who was commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation from 1959 to 1969, spoke of his pride in his achievement during an interview a decade ago: “Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of the most wonderful lake in the world, Lake Powell, is my crowning jewel."

One week before Dominy passed away in Virginia at his Angus farm, I spoke to him by telephone. I wanted to talk to the man I’d first learned about long ago from reading John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid. I can think of no better way to write a story than the way McPhee did: You put two enemies in a rubber raft (along with a handful of unsuspecting strangers) and send them all down a wild river together.

That’s what McPhee did with Dominy and David Brower, the Sierra Club executive director who considered the construction of Glen Canyon Dam his biggest environmental policy failure. McPhee set the stage with both scenery and character. His canvas was the Colorado River, with its mile-high rock walls and hundreds of side canyons. And his characters were equally memorable: Brower, the environmental leader, who saw what would be lost to the rising waters; and Dominy, the determined dam-builder, who learned as a young man in Nebraska that water in a river does no good at all if isn’t made available for people to use.

In the end, it seemed that Dominy and Brower had a blast, drinking beer and occasionally bickering about whether remote stretches of the Colorado were valuable because they were untouched, or wasted because they weren’t being developed.

I’ve never forgotten McPhee’s description of Dominy, smoking cigars on the raft trip and somehow able to keep his cigar lit as the raft passed through a waterfall. Brower kept referring to the future Lake Powell as “Lake Dominy.” When I spoke to Dominy, I said  I thought the trip sounded pretty exciting.

“It was boring!” he said. “Boring, how could it be anything else? You can’t see out from the bottom of a canyon.”

Some might interpret that statement as an indication of the kind of blindness to the need for natural processes that characterized the Bureau of Reclamation during Dominy’s day and for a long time afterward. Dominy argued that if the West were going to be developed, the waters of the Colorado River’s cycle of flood and trickle would have to be managed. Others doubted that intensively developing the West was a wise thing to do in the first place; they thought that the region should be left unpredictable and fragile  –– that we should discourage settlement, rather than invite it. But Dominy was convinced that nature could be improved; that it could, and should, be manipulated and mastered in order to make life less difficult for human beings.

That belief was planted during Dominy’s hardscrabble childhood and no doubt further developed during his early days as a county extension agent in parched northeastern Wyoming. He told McPhee about that experience: “I watched the people there -- I mean good folk, industrious, hard-working, frugal -- compete with the rigors of nature against hopeless odds. They would ruin their health and still fail.”

Perhaps that prompted him to do some water management on his first farm in Fairfax, Va., building ponds and stocking them with fish for the kids. He and his wife decided to settle in Virginia because it was an easy commute to his Washington, D.C., office, he said.

Dominy had a long career before retiring from the Department of Agriculture. All that government service paid off in the form of a “very nice” 100th birthday party on Capitol Hill, attended by members of Congress and others, he recalled.

Dominy told me that he wasn’t surprised that he achieved his 100th birthday, because once he made it to 99, he could see it from there. He’d had colon cancer when he was 97, he said, and “survived that just fine.” He gave up cigars years ago but said he was still fond of whiskey, to which he partially attributed his longevity. Still, he acknowledged that he didn’t think he’d make it to 101.

“I’m collapsing,” he said. Unlike the silt-filling reservoirs along the Colorado River, a few days later, that’s just what he did, leaving the world a little less interesting in his wake.

Julianne Couch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Laramie, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Floyd Dominy Falls, someday
Bob Dinger
Bob Dinger
Apr 27, 2010 11:29 PM
In his book Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey fantasized about the removal of Glen Canyon dam by dynamite (somehow) and proposed that the resulting falls be named for Floyd Dominy. Abbey, and now Dominy, have died before that glorious day came to pass, but someday that dam will be gone.
Wild and free!
To Katie and Ed
To Katie and Ed
Apr 28, 2010 05:52 PM
The Glen will rise green and verdent.

The RIVER will reclaim her own and she will run muddy and red once again.

Colorado river...
Rube Ruiz
Rube Ruiz
Apr 28, 2010 12:49 PM
I'm a documentary maker...
I just spent a week in the Colorado river delta...(Baja California)
In its hey day it was without doubt one of the most magnificent places in the world. Untold forests of cotton wood, herds of mule deer and a bounty of wildlife, jaguar etc. etc.
 Indigenous people fished and hunted and lived idealic lives.

Then comes men like Dominy,
used a pawn by American Plutocratic capitalism.
Dam up "gods given river," destroy gods natural greatness, subvert indigenous ways of life and start the quest to build an unsustainable American way of life that leads to subsidized corporate farming, and disgusting cities built in sin such as Las Vegas.

There is nothing great about the dams of the Colorado if you are true to our planet and Gods word and virtue.

The river is used to subvert gods truth.
It was the demise of greatness and certain peoples for the benefit of others as to profit through unsustainable capitalism! It is the continuation of manifest destiny- a dark chapter for American History! Men such as Dominy, view God and greatness in their own image!
Dams bring water and life to deserts
Sam Lew
Sam Lew
Apr 28, 2010 10:01 PM
Dams and water conservation bring life to people.
Enjoy the benefits of civil engineering.
Hah! on Floyd's claims
Socratic Gadfly
Socratic Gadfly
Apr 29, 2010 02:26 PM
Usable water? What, you're going to pump water for irrigation up canyon walls out of Lake Mead? Besides, Reclamation had long moved past its original mandate.
Floyd's Void
Jeremy Ladd
Jeremy Ladd
Apr 29, 2010 07:54 PM
"There's a special breed of men who sit at their desks, and they like their water tame. They like to dam the rivers up then give the lakes a name. So give Three Cheers! to the Bureau Boys, and a special rah to Floyd. He built his dam and he built it well, and then he said 'in spite of Hell, I'm going to ...fill that void.'

Now! Let's have three cheers for the boys in the bars who dream their dreams neath the glittering stars. Who dream of a wild and wonderful treat - A HOUSE BOAT RUNNING DOMINY FALLS AT A MILLION SECOND FEET!"

- Vaughn Short

I hope I live to see it.
Jeannie Patton
Jeannie Patton
May 04, 2010 04:29 PM
Read Conversations with the Archdruid. It's a classic.