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The Dammed Rivers That Shaped America’s West

Concrete, steel and turbines play an outsize role in the past and future of water in western states.

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Lake Mead seen from the Arizona side of the Hoover Dam, which blocked the Colorado River, lowered the water levels and left a distinctive bathtub ring behind it.
(The Guardian)
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.



The evolution of the sprawling cities of the American West is inextricably bound to America’s 20th-century fascination with dam-building. But that decades-long story, rife with dammed and diverted rivers as well as political intrigue, is being reshaped by climate change, drought and overuse into a tale of ecologic and economic misadventure. Despite the problematic history of the big dam projects, however, historian Char Miller insists that objective assessment requires acknowledgment of both the benefits these structures have provided and the good intentions involved in their creation.
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Environmental Historian Char Miller wrote Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016) and On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013). (Trinity University Press)

Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College, where he has taught classes in U.S. environmental history, water issues in the American West, and public lands management. Miller has written or edited a number of books, including On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest, and Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream.

Miller remains hopeful that the same spirit and know-how that built the dams can now be relied upon to ameliorate the challenges they have caused. Miller recently spoke with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Governing: There are a number of great extended urban areas in America, places like Phoenix, Los Angeles and Denver, that would never have been possible without massive transfers of water. As global climate change disrupts and threatens the water supply, how should we start to think about this?
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Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College in Claremont, California.



Char Miller: The federal government released billions of dollars to create the infrastructure that allowed Denver, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, El Paso, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego, cities whose size is mind-blowing. Forty million people draw their water off of the Colorado River, including Denver, which now has four bores through the Rocky Mountains to tap the upper watershed.

On the one hand, I'm amazed by the technology and the engineering. It’s astonishing to look at these plumbing systems that have been developed. The downside is that in creating large cities that depend on a water supply that is shrinking, we built cities that may not be sustainable by the end of the 21st century. People are going to do what others did after World War II, which was to move toward water. We emptied out Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Chicago. Eighteen million people in-migrated to the Southwest alone. Their great-grandchildren are probably going to fill up the U-Haul and drive back to the same Great Lakes area from which their great-grandparents left, since that's where 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply is located.

Governing: I hear you saying that the great dams are not necessarily a bad story, that they are among our greatest technological accomplishments.

Char Miller: That's part of what makes it so tension filled. To walk across Hoover Dam is to be reminded of the human beings that designed it, built it and have been sustained by it. But it’s also to be reminded of the problems that came with that. Don Worster, the great Western historian, argues that Hoover Dam is an incredible accomplishment that within 300 years will be a cataract (a large waterfall). It will silt up, and then nature will cut through it to create an enormous waterfall that will continue until the whole thing falls apart. So that's a more humble way to think about it.

We create these great projects, and then at some point, they fall apart. Like the Parthenon. People will go to visit and marvel at what Americans in the 20th century constructed, and then they’ll shake their head and say, "They should have thought better." But these same people will be doing something of their own that will also fall apart. It's a human condition that science and technology unleash us and liberate us at some level, and eviscerate some of the opportunities that we might have pursued otherwise. These great water systems have produced more water for more people, more food for more people, and more stable and better housing for more people. I'll take that. I would just like to tinker around the edges so that the problematic justice issues could be smoothed out.

But let's not miss the fact that those folks who were carrying out this policy were not just feathering the nests of great corporations. They had a very pragmatic and, I would argue, small-d democratic aspiration. That’s what Theodore Roosevelt and Francis Newlands argued back in the early 20th century, that if we can help people irrigate land, we can create these small landholders. It didn't turn out that way, but that doesn't mean the rhetoric was wrong. It just means that large landholders figured out how to manipulate the system to their great advantage.

Governing: What was it about the mid-20th century that gave American civilization this gigantic industrial confidence? Today it seems impossible to think we could even get an interstate highway act passed.

Char Miller: It was in part because of World War II and the notion that within a very short period of time, you could marshal a million people to go off to war, to build tanks and airplanes, to do incredible stuff globally. The Cold War fed into that same dynamic, allowing us to throw people up into space and then land them on the moon. My wife and I were just watching Hidden Figures, which demonstrates the number of women, especially African American women, who were involved with the space program. Talk about social uplift and utilization of the real strengths of all sorts of people. Once the atomic energy and bombs emerged, science and engineering technology supplanted every other way by which one calculates a civilization’s success. At some level, we're the direct beneficiaries of that, while at other levels, we're paying the cost.

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The Newlands Reclamation Act, named for land speculator Francis Newlands who had hired engineers to study the possibility of building dams and other means of irrigation, brought water to the desert. (Pilis Chase)
Governing: The Newlands Reclamation Law of 1902 was a Jeffersonian, Powell-esque plan to help the small landholder get a foothold in the desert places of America. It authorized 24 irrigation projects, including Owens Valley. Shortly thereafter, however, the Los Angeles aqueduct juggernaut came along, eliminating farming as a viable option in the Owens Valley. How did Los Angeles get both Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the founding chief of the U.S. Forest Service, to side with them?

Char Miller: For both Roosevelt and Pinchot, the rhetorical hook for Owens Valley, as it was for Hetch Hetchy, was utility. If they did this, they would, in their minds, make the best use of the available resources for the largest number of people for the longest time. It was a sustainability project. It wasn’t just for this moment but would provide benefits across generations. They were working on Hetch Hetchy at the same time. John Muir, the great apostle of that valley, was screaming bloody murder about what was going to happen on the western slope, but not paying a moment's attention to the similar problem on the eastern slope of the Sierra. For Muir, the desert wasn't an interesting place.
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A dredge works to cut the LA Aqueduct. (Eastern California Museum/ sierranevadageotourism.org)
Meanwhile, down in L.A., they were touring the Owens Valley and calculating. It was if they had punched a pipe down into an artesian spring. They wanted to produce this remarkable engineering project, and to hell with the consequences to others. L.A. needed to grow. So, some of this was about that city's aspiration, which was quite imperial. Some of it was about the federal government's complicity. Pinchot, for example, signed off on the Inyo National Forest that involved desert floor land that lacked a single stick of trees. They would do the same thing up in the Mono Basin. They were basically taking it off the marketplace, holding it for Los Angeles to come in and absorb it. I can tell you how I think it happened. L.A. was paying for this, not the federal government, so it didn't require congressional support like Hetch Hetchy did. And when Pinchot designated parts of the Owens Valley as a national forest, he used the Forest Acts of the 1890s, not the Newlands Act. Roosevelt could sign that, as he did repeatedly in his administration. It still violated the function of those forest management acts, which were about watersheds, not valleys, and timber supplies, not water supplies. There was a five-finger discount going on, and they bought themselves space by saying, "Well, L.A. is going to pay for this. It's not going to involve any federal dollars. We're just allowing the access such that their capital can flow up and the water can flow down."
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The 65 square-mile Mono Lake has a salinity level over three times that of the ocean and supports a diverse collection of wildlife. (Mammoth Lakes California)
Governing: What about the efforts to save Mono Lake? Even the city of Los Angeles has gotten onboard with this plan.

Char Miller: The Mono Lake Committee is a success story. They may win one lawsuit but not another, but they are vigilant and indefatigable. They are not just a worthy opponent of one of the most powerful cities on the planet, but pretty damned effective. They have slowly moved the city, reluctant as that city is, to allow some of its prerogatives to be clipped. It is vitally important in lots of places around a lot of environmental issues that people recognize that there are things that they can do to start to transform their own life experience. We're active agents, and if we don't do that work, then we are passive in response to things that need to be changed, from systemic racism to bad public policy that is inimical to our rights. Compromise works, and Los Angeles has had to compromise because they kept getting whacked with lawsuits that they didn’t win. That's part of it. And California has agreed not to take its full share out of the Colorado. Who thought that would ever happen? Certainly not me. The lower states have agreed too, so we've got a new compact. That’s really amazing. You don't always win. Gifford Pinchot once wrote to one of his nephews, "The number of times I've lost is a heck of lot more than the number of times I've won, but you just get up the next morning and go back to work." That's what the Mono Lake Committee does. That's what other people do, and it's important.

Governing: A few dams are coming down, and at least a few more will. Do you think that the main stem of the Columbia could ever again be salmon friendly?

Char Miller: I would have said no 10 years ago. But smaller projects have demonstrated that the evidence is even stronger than we knew. If you're able on the Klamath, as the projections say, to generate the electricity that those inefficient dams generated without having a dam, then go for it. Why shouldn't the same technological drive that produced the Bonneville Dam come up with a non-Bonneville Dam? We've got the talent. If we can convince Boeing and Microsoft and all the others that they will have the same supply of energy plus salmon, why would anyone say no? We spent billions building these water systems. Why not spend billions to retrofit projects that we know cause enormous environmental damage if we can fix them with the same engineering that caused that damage?

Governing: You come across as an optimist about all of this.

Char Miller: I’m hopeful. That’s a different thing. Barbara Kingsolver calls hope “the armor you put on every day to go out in the world and make it different.” Optimism assumes change. Hopefulness assumes struggle. There are good signs, whether it's Mono Lake, or the discussions that are going on up and down the Columbia River, or Los Angeles crimping its own water supply. Our per capita use of water has been ratcheted down. That's a hopeful sign. There's a lot to do, but part of what I've learned from my students for the last 42 years is that you’ve got to get your butt in gear. You have to get out there and do the work. Let's make these things happen.

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, Listening to America. Clay’s new book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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