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America Dammed Water and the West

by Bill Croke
The Weekly Standard, September 9, 2002

Watershed: The Undamming of America by Elizabeth Grossman

THE UNITED STATES Bureau of Reclamation, begun in 1902, celebrated its centenary earlier this year with a reception at Hoover Dam, attended by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and other political and bureaucratic dignitaries.

In that century, the Bureau of Reclamation has built and maintained six hundred dams and accompanying reservoirs. Its fifty-eight power plants generate forty billion kilowatt hours a year, lighting six million homes. The reservoirs provide ten trillion gallons of drinking water to thirty-one million people in the West. Accompanying water projects send irrigation water to 140,000 farmers working ten million acres that produce 60 percent of the nation's vegetables and 25 percent of its fruits and nuts. The Bureau of Reclamation's water irrigates most of the cattle ranches in the Mountain West, and its reservoirs host ninety million boaters and fishermen each year. A recent enthusiasm of the environmental Left is "breaching" (a partial deconstruction that restores normal river flow) or entirely removing dams. Not all of this is a bad idea. The Army Corps of Engineers has built some seventy-five thousand dams in its two-century history, many of them rock and earthen millpond dam! s in New England. But the environmentalists' dream is a recipe for disaster in the arid West.

That didn't stop Clinton administration interior secretary Bruce Babbitt from conducting a national "Dam Busters" tour as he inspected possible breaching and decommissioning sites. Accompanying Babbitt on much of this fabled tour was Elizabeth Grossman, a journalist originally from Manhattan and lately relocated to Portland, Oregon (one of the shining capitals of the Green intelligentsia).

Grossman soon became enamored with the movement to drain the West's reservoirs like so many bathtubs, and her new book, "Watershed: The Undamming of America," is a well-written argument in defense of an extremely bad idea. She devotes half her book to warranted removal projects in a handful of eastern states, but comes at last to the conclusion that a dam is just a dam, whether it's a small rock barrier on Maine's Kennebec River or the towering Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. They're all damn bad, and they all have to go.

Glen Canyon, the seven-hundred-foot concrete plug on the Utah-Arizona border, is the poster dam for the Dam Buster movement. Eloquently written about by the likes of Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, and David Brower, pre-dam Glen Canyon was an Eden of multi-colored rock with clear springs trickling down its walls, beautifully mysterious side canyons of grottos and waterfalls, and remote willow-stirred beaches: a two-thousand-feet-deep crack in the earth accessible only by river raft. It's now all at the bottom of Lake Powell. Brower once delivered a eulogy: "Glen Canyon died in 1963 and I was partly responsible for its needless death. So were you. Neither you nor I, nor anyone else, knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should endure. When we began to find out it was too late." Abbey wrote: "To grasp the nature of the crime that was committed, imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible."

The Colorado River is known for high turbidity, vast amounts of silt washing downstream. In the past this silt made for expansive canyon beaches with vegetation and wildlife. Since the dam was built, the mud has begun to accumulate, and Lake Powell is silting up. In a century or two, the Colorado will spill over the dam like a desert Niagara Falls. The Greens argue that we ought to breach the dam before this happens. Why not let nature take its course and scour out Glen Canyon and return it to its pristine state?

The answer is that Lake Powell, Lake Mead, and other impoundments on the river are subject to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Talmud of western water law, which "divides the seven states of the Colorado River Basin into Upper and Lower Halves." In the West, water is a commodity, and the water of the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming) is much in demand in the Lower Basin (California, Nevada, Arizona), home to some of the nation's fastest growing cities: Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson.

If Glen Canyon Dam were breached, the Upper States would be giving away the store, with disastrous economic and political consequences. It's something they are not about to do to please environmentalists, river rafters, and swimming-pool owners in Los Angeles who would love cheaper municipal water rates.

Another of Grossman's crusades is the preservation of "anadromous" fish (species that migrate up rivers to spawn, with the offspring returning to the sea), particularly salmon. She supports the breaching of four dams on the lower Snake River--Ice Harbor, Lower Monument, Little Goose, Lower Granite--in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Her argument essentially boils down to a claim that "salmon are a cultural icon." Needless to say, this view is not universally held throughout the region in which, she laments, "Dams mean business." In fact, they have made possible annual barge traffic revenue on the Snake and Columbia rivers valued at $3 billion. This has made Portland, Oregon, America's largest wheat-exporting port. Twenty-three percent of the nation's grain exports move through the river system, providing 5,000 jobs to towns such as Lewiston, Idaho, and Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland, Washington. The Snake River dams have the hydropower "peaking output" (when water flows are at their highest) of 3.5 million kilowatts, enough to supply the needs of three cities the size of Seattle.

Grossman chronicles a public meeting on dams in Portland, filled with sophisticated "urban, outdoorsy, and professional" people who are almost unanimous in sharing her contempt for the dams. Two weeks later, at another meeting in Pasco, Grossman runs up against economic reality. The locals have gathered at a public meeting sponsored by a federal caucus charged with gathering public comments on a document convolutedly titled: "The Draft Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement and the Federal Caucus All-H Paper."

"It's not about fish," a woman tells Grossman. "It's about being able to control land. It's about removing people's ability to manage their own lifestyles. It's being done in Washington, D.C., not here. They're taking people's ability to control their own lives. . . . The further you are from an area, the more you want to protect it." This sentiment is a constant theme in the West.

Most of the people who live near these dams think that breaching or removing them is a bad idea. The "Dam Busters" are typically urban dwellers from Seattle, Portland, Berkeley, and Boulder.

Still, Elizabeth Grossman's "Watershed" is a readable update on the region's perennially complicated water wars. As Mark Twain once put it: "Liquor's for drinking; water's for fighting over."

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.
America Dammed Water and the West
The Weekly Standard, September 9, 2002

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