Hiltzik: The lie that got Hoover Dam built

It’s human nature to mark big-number anniversaries, however there’s a centennial looming simply forward that Californians — and different Westerners — may not wish to have fun.

It’s the one hundredth anniversary of the Colorado River Compact, a seven-state settlement that was signed Nov. 24, 1922.

That night, within the Ben Hur Room of Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors, utilizing the lapboard on which Gen. Lew Wallace had written his biblical epic 40 years earlier whereas serving as New Mexico’s territorial governor, representatives of six of the seven states of the Colorado River Basin utilized their signatures to the compact with a gold pen.

If we had minimize water use within the Colorado River during the last twenty years to what we now perceive to be the precise ranges of water availability … the disaster wouldn’t be practically as unhealthy.

— Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute co-founder

The compact — primarily an interstate treaty — set the foundations for apportioning the waters of the river. It was a vital step in development of Hoover Dam, which couldn’t have been constructed with out the states’ assent.

The compact stands as a landmark within the improvement of Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Phoenix and different Western metropolises. However it is usually a logo of the folly of unwarranted expectations.

That’s as a result of the compact was constructed on a lie in regards to the capability of the Colorado River to serve the pursuits of the Western states — a lie that Westerners will likely be grappling with for many years to come back.

The disaster of water provide from the Colorado is vividly represented by the so-called bathtub ring round Lake Mead, the huge reservoir behind Hoover Dam, exhibiting how far beneath regular the water degree has fallen.

As my colleague Ian James has reported, federal projections present that the chance is rising that each Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam, are approaching “useless pool” ranges, beneath which water would not cross downstream by way of the dams.

The prospect has led to strain from the federal authorities on water companies in California and the six different basin states to drastically reduce on water use. Up to now, nonetheless, no agreements on cutbacks have emerged.

The last word hazard is that Lake Mead reaches the “useless pool” stage. On the finish of final month, Lake Mead was at 1,044.28 ft of floor elevation above sea degree. That’s about 100 ft beneath its degree in August 2003 and about 180 ft beneath its report elevation of 1,225 ft, reached in July 1983. When the extent falls to 950 ft, the lake can not generate hydroelectricity. At 895 ft, the dam can’t launch water downstream.

The long-term decline in Lake Mead’s capability has been blamed totally on international warming. However as I’ve reported earlier than, the river’s enemies are each pure and man-made. It’s true that nature has positioned the basin in a long-term drought. However human calls for for water from the Colorado have far outstripped what it could actually present — certainly, what it ever might present.

That brings us again to the compact negotiations. The impulse for a excessive dam on the decrease Colorado got here largely from California — principally from growers within the Imperial Valley. They trusted the river for irrigation and desired a extra dependable provide in addition to flood management that would solely be supplied by a significant dam.

Congress resisted approving the mission until the seven basin states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming might agree on apportion the river amongst themselves.


The Colorado River basin encompasses seven states. The All-American Canal, at decrease left, serves California’s Imperial Valley. Lees Ferry, Ariz., at middle, marks the division between the higher basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, and the decrease basin of California, Nevada and Arizona.

(U.S. Geological Survey)

The duty of supervising the negotiations fell to Herbert Hoover, who was President Harding’s Commerce secretary. The method was contentious. The upstream states have been painfully conscious that California was probably the most voracious person of the river’s water despite the fact that it had the smallest acreage inside the basin.

All have been satisfied that California, the most-developed state of the seven, was plotting to acceptable greater than its share of the water to stoke its continued improvement at their expense. They have been suspicious of Hoover, who although born in Iowa had made his dwelling in California since changing into a member of the primary graduating class at Stanford College in 1895.

Working along with his deputy, Arthur Powell Davis — director of the U.S. Reclamation Bureau and a nephew of John Wesley Powell, the pioneering explorer of the Colorado and the Grand Canyon — Hoover overcame the states’ disagreements by promising that all of them would obtain sufficient water to offer for all their future financial development.

They did this by way of connivance. Davis supplied an estimate that the river’s annual quantity averaged 16.4 million acre-feet. (One acre-foot, the equal of 325,851 gallons, is sufficient water to serve one or two common households at this time.)

That allowed the compact to be concluded with a assure that the higher basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico might cross 7.5 million acre ft a yr — measured as 10-year averages of 75 million acre-feet — to the decrease states of California, Nevada and Arizona with out sacrificing their very own wants. All of the states agreed on this formulation besides Arizona, which didn’t signal the compact till 1944.

(By then the state had all however gone to battle with California over water rights on the river, dispatching a squad of Nationwide Guard troops to the river on a ferryboat to dam development of Parker Dam in 1934. The ferry was derisively dubbed the “Arizona navy” by a Occasions correspondent assigned to cowl the skirmish. After the federal authorities imposed a truce, the guardsmen have been reported to have returned dwelling from the “battle zone” as “conquering heroes.”)

The actual flaw within the compact was no joke, nonetheless: Davis’ determine was a flagrant overestimate — as he definitely knew, having studied the Colorado for many years.

The 1899-1921 time span on which his determine was based mostly was one of many wettest intervals within the basin’s identified historical past. Certainly, solely 4 instances since development of Hoover Dam started in 1931 has the 10-year common reached 16.4 million acre-feet.

Present estimates place the common annual quantity of the Colorado since 1906 at 14.7 million acre-feet; since 1991, the annual common is nearer to 13.5 million.

But the parts of California and the West depending on the river for his or her sustenance have grown as if its bounty is successfully limitless.

In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt devoted the dam from a podium overlooking the mission, declaring that it had turned the willful river into “a fantastic nationwide possession.” Since that point, the inhabitants of the seven basin states has grown by greater than 52 million, a lot of the expansion fueled by the water and electrical energy the dam has supplied.

For a number of a long time, nonetheless, local weather and hydrological consultants have warned that there will be no gentle touchdown from the restrictions that international warming are forcing upon the Colorado River’s historic beneficiaries.

Arduous decisions have gotten crucial. The federal authorities is successfully ordering that the basin states minimize their water utilization by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet a yr.

Speak of draining Lake Powell to maintain water in Lake Mead at a serviceable degree is getting louder, however the political and engineering obstacles standing in the best way. Inside basin states, particularly California, water shortage is exacerbating conflicts amongst growers, residential customers and environmentalists.

The draconian cutbacks signaled by the federal authorities have been made needed by insufficient motion within the current previous.

As water and local weather knowledgeable Peter Gleick advised James just lately, “If we had minimize water use within the Colorado River during the last twenty years to what we now perceive to be the precise ranges of water availability, there can be extra water within the reservoirs at this time,” Gleick stated. “The disaster wouldn’t be practically as unhealthy.”

The reckoning could have been lengthy in coming, but it surely was inevitable. As way back as 1893, John Wesley Powell — the uncle of Arthur Powell Davis, who perpetrated the foundational lie permitting the development of Hoover Dam — foresaw the basin’s future.

Attending an irrigation congress in Los Angeles at which the approaching paradise of water-driven development was being proclaimed, Powell stood to ship a tough reality. “I let you know, gents,” he stated, “you’re piling up a heritage of battle and litigation over water rights, for there may be not ample water to produce the land.”

He was pushed from the corridor by a refrain of catcalls and boos, however time has proved him proper.

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