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 [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: