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

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

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 lowered water use on the Colorado River over the previous twenty years to what we now perceive as precise ranges of water availability…the disaster would not be practically as dangerous.

– 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 a vital 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 an emblem of the folly of unjustified expectations.

That is as a result of the deal was constructed on a lie in regards to the potential of the Colorado River to serve Western pursuits – a lie Westerners will wrestle with for many years to come back.

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 exhibits how a lot decrease than regular the water degree is.

As my colleague Ian James experiences, 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, under which water is not going to go downstream by way of the dams.

This prospect has led to stress from the federal authorities on water businesses in California and the six different basin states to drastically scale back water use. Up to now, nonetheless, no agreements have been reached on the cuts.

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

The long-term decline in Lake Mead’s international warming capability has principally 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 might probably present — in truth, what it might probably 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 supplied by a big dam.

Congress resisted approval of the undertaking until the seven basin states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming agree on find out how to divide the river amongst them.


The Colorado River Basin consists of seven states. The All-American Channel, decrease left, serves California’s Imperial Valley. Les Ferry, Arizona, within the middle, 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 had been painfully conscious that California was probably the most evil person of the river’s water despite the fact that it had the smallest acre throughout the basin.

Everybody was satisfied that California, probably 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 had 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 along 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’d all have sufficient water to offer for all their future financial development.

They did this by way of collusion. Davis supplied an estimate that the typical annual measurement of the river was 16.4 million acres. (One acre foot, or 325,851 gallons, is sufficient water to serve a mean of 1 or two households right now.)

This allowed the settlement to be concluded making certain that the higher basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico may 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 method aside from Arizona, which didn’t signal the settlement till 1944.

(By then, the state was virtually 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 Instances tasked with overlaying the skirmishes. After the federal authorities imposed a truce, the guards reportedly returned residence from the “struggle zone” as “conquering heroes.”)

However the actual 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 recognized 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 typical annual measurement of Colorado since 1906 at 14.7 million acres. Since 1991, the annual common has been nearer to 13.5 million.

Nonetheless, the elements of California and the West that relied on the river grew in power as if its bounty was nearly limitless.

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

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

Laborious decisions turned needed. The federal authorities really orders that basin states scale back their water use by 2 million to 4 million acres per yr.

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

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

As water and local weather knowledgeable Peter Glick informed James just lately, “If we lowered water use within the Colorado River over the previous twenty years to what we now perceive as precise ranges of water availability, there could be extra water within the reservoirs right now. The disaster would not be that dangerous,” Glick mentioned. “.

The reckoning might have been a very long time coming, nevertheless 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 provide the earth.”

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