Hiltzick: The lie that led to the construction of the Hoover Dam

It is human nature to rejoice numerous individuals, however there’s a looming centenary that Californians – and different Westerners – might not need to rejoice.

It’s the centenary of the signing of the Colorado River Settlement, a seven-state settlement signed on November 24, 1922.

That night, in Ben-Hur’s room on the Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe, utilizing the pill on which Normal Lou Wallace wrote his biblical appendix 40 years in the past whereas serving as provincial governor of New Mexico, representing six of the seven states of New Mexico. The Colorado River Basin utilized its signatures to the settlement with a golden pen.

If we diminished water use on the Colorado River over the previous 20 years to what we now perceive as precise ranges of water availability…the disaster would not be practically as unhealthy.

– Peter Glick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute

The settlement—primarily an interstate treaty—set out the foundations for dividing the river’s waters. It was an important step within the building of the Hoover Dam, which couldn’t have been constructed with out the consent of the states.

The settlement marks a milestone within the improvement of Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Phoenix, and different Western capitals. However it’s also a logo of the folly of unjustified expectations.

That is as a result of the deal was constructed on a lie concerning the capacity of the Colorado River to serve Western pursuits – a lie Westerners will battle with for many years to return.

Colorado’s water provide disaster is most vividly represented by the so-called bathtub ring round Lake Mead, the extensive reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, which reveals how a lot decrease than regular the water degree is.

As my colleague Ian James stories, federal projections present that the chance is rising that each Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the Glen Canyon Dam, are approaching “useless pond” ranges, beneath which water is not going to go downstream via the dams.

This prospect has led to stress from the federal authorities on water companies in California and the six different basin states to drastically cut back water use. Thus far, nonetheless, no agreements have been reached on the cuts.

The last word hazard is that Lake Mead reaches the “useless pond” stage. On the finish of final month, Lake Mead was 1,044.28 ft above sea degree. That is about 100 ft beneath its August 2003 degree and about 180 ft beneath its file elevation of 1,225 ft, which was reached in July 1983. When the extent drops to 950 ft, the lake is not in a position to generate hydroelectric energy. At 895 ft, the dam can not launch water downstream.

The long-term decline in Lake Mead’s world warming capability has largely been blamed. However as I discussed earlier than, enemies of the river are each pure and man-made. It’s true that nature has put the aquarium in a long-term drought. However human calls for for water from Colorado far exceed what it could actually present — in reality, what it could actually present in any respect.

This brings us again to the settlement negotiations. The impetus for making a excessive dam on the backside of Colorado got here largely from California—primarily from farmers within the Imperial Valley. They relied on the river for irrigation and desired a extra dependable provide in addition to flood management that might solely be offered by a big dam.

Congress resisted approval of the venture except the seven basin states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming agree on divide the river amongst them.


The Colorado River Basin contains seven states. The All-American Channel, decrease left, serves California’s Imperial Valley. Les Ferry, Arizona, within the heart, represents the division between the higher basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, and the decrease basin states of California, Nevada, and Arizona.


The duty of overseeing the negotiations fell to Herbert Hoover, who was President Harding’s Secretary of Commerce. The method was controversial. The upstream states have been painfully conscious that California was essentially the most evil person of the river’s water though it had the smallest acre throughout the basin.

Everybody was satisfied that California, essentially the most developed state of the seven, was planning to allocate greater than its share of water to impress continued improvement at their expense. They have been skeptical of Hoover, who regardless of being born in Iowa had made his residence in California since changing into a member of the primary graduating class at Stanford College in 1895.

Working together with his deputy, Arthur Powell Davis—the director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and nephew of John Wesley Powell, the pioneering explorer of Colorado and the Grand Canyon—Hoover overcame states’ variations by promising that they might all have sufficient water to offer for all their future financial development.

They did this via collusion. Davis offered an estimate that the common annual dimension of the river was 16.4 million acres. (One acre foot, or 325,851 gallons, is sufficient water to serve a median of 1 or two households right this moment.)

This allowed the settlement to be concluded making certain that the higher basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico might go 7.5 million acres per yr — measured at a 10-year common of 75 million acres — to the decrease states. California, Nevada and Arizona with out sacrificing their very own wants. All states agreed to this formulation apart from Arizona, which didn’t signal the settlement till 1944.

(By then, the state was nearly at struggle with California over water rights on the river, sending a contingent of Nationwide Guard troops into the river on a ferry to stop the development of Parker Dam in 1934. The ferry was dubbed the “Arizona Navy” by a reporter The Occasions tasked with protecting the skirmishes. After the federal authorities imposed a truce, the guards reportedly returned residence from the “struggle zone” as “conquering heroes.”)

However the true flaw within the settlement was no joke: Davis’s character was grossly exaggerated — as he absolutely knew, having studied Colorado for many years.

The time interval 1899-1921 upon which his character was based mostly was one of many wettest in identified aquarium historical past. In actual fact, solely 4 instances since building of the Hoover Dam started in 1931 the 10-year common has reached 16.4 million acres.

Present estimates place the common annual dimension of Colorado since 1906 at 14.7 million acres. Since 1991, the annual common has been nearer to 13.5 million.

Nevertheless, the components of California and the West that relied on the river grew in energy as if its bounty was nearly limitless.

In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt devoted the dam from a platform overlooking the venture, declaring that he had turned the intentional river right into a “nice nationwide property.” Since that point, the inhabitants of the seven basin nations has grown by greater than 52 million, and many of the development has been fueled by the water and electrical energy offered by the dam.

However for a number of many years, climatologists and hydrologists have warned that there could be no easy touchdown of the constraints that world warming imposes on the historic beneficiaries of the Colorado River.

Laborious selections turned obligatory. The federal authorities really orders that basin states cut back their water use by 2 million to 4 million acres per yr.

There’s growing discuss of draining Lake Powell to maintain the water in Lake Mead at a serviceable degree, regardless of political and engineering obstacles standing in the best way. Inside basin states, particularly California, water shortage exacerbates conflicts between farmers, residential customers, and environmental advocates.

The drastic cuts indicated by the federal authorities have been made obligatory by inappropriate measures within the current previous.

As water and local weather professional Peter Glick advised James lately, “If we diminished water use within the Colorado River over the previous 20 years to what we now perceive as precise ranges of water availability, there could be extra water within the reservoirs right this moment. The disaster would not be that unhealthy,” Glick mentioned. “.

The reckoning might have been a very long time coming, however it was inevitable. Since 1893, John Wesley Powell – the uncle of Arthur Powell Davis, who dedicated the founding lie that allowed the development of the Hoover Dam – predicted the basin’s destiny.

Powell attended an irrigation convention in Los Angeles the place the subsequent heaven for water-driven development was declared, presenting a harsh actuality. “I inform you, gents,” he mentioned, “you might be accumulating a legacy of strife and litigation over water rights, as a result of there may be not sufficient water to produce the earth.”

He was kicked out of the corridor by a refrain of cheers and boos, however time proved him proper.

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