Friday, April 30, 2010

GC dams: An introduction

The dream of damming the Grand Canyon lasted not even a century. Were I to give in to the temptation of organizing our untidy affairs into themes and periods, the second decade of the XXth century would be akin to  a staking of claims, though minimal. (And at the same time that a Grand Canyon National Park was being legislated, which would both allow for and make more difficult water and power projects.) Order and priority were imposed in the 1920's by Congress. Out of that effort grew the Bureau of Reclamation, becoming the dominant dreamer in the 1930's and 40's. Fully fledged, its vision took flight in a combination of an upper Grand Canyon dam, diverting the river through a tunnel under the Kaibab Plateau, to flow through a power plant at Kanab Creek, down into the reservoir of a second dam, just upstream from the maximum reach of  Hoover dam's impoundment, itself silting in the Canyon's final 40 miles. This launch of a dam proposal crashed over California's opposition to Arizona's water demands, which forced a decade-long delay. Re-furbished in the early 1960's, the Grand Canyon dams became fatally entangled in a West-wide scheme, a cynic's dream of the dangers of extended over-reach. This second crash did leave vapors of claim and hope among a few, dissipating in the 1970's, and now perhaps hardly to be recalled. 

Yet the dreams had magnitude. No surprise-- the Grand Canyon is itself outsize; our satellite photographs only emphasize its scale. And Marinaris me no valles, Mariana me no trenches--such monsters are playthings for machines. The Grand Canyon is OUR grand adventure. And when we fight over it, we often push it into the arena that is our political center stage, for as we repeatedly do and will, we carry the struggle to the top, to Congress, the only theatre where the actors can have a hope of disposition. Consider:
Congress created the Federal Power Commission (FPC) in 1920 to, among others, adjudicate who would build power dams on the Colorado. Congress pre-empted the FPC and other contenders by creating the Boulder Canyon Project for California's water and power needs. After World War II, Congress first considered a Grand Canyon dam, then set the whole question aside and authorized a dam in Glen Canyon. Faced again by plans for GC dams, it refused them from a mixture of changed attitudes, local concerns, and reordered national priorities. Along the way, whenever some non-Congressional claimant made waves, Congress shooed it away. And finally, through the Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act of 1975, it said, "Enough." 
That capsule history is only one of many histories that pound in the lesson: Its never over until the fattest lady sings, and whatever politically incorrect thing that phrase originally meant, for Grand Canyon affairs, Congress calls the tune. 

The first of the cohering periods runs through about 1930. Not all of the players remain featured in that time; some appearances are brief, if significant. Indeed, the Canyon itself can be considered as a side issue to what we can now see was the main theme: authorization of California's Boulder Canyon Project. (Much of the material I collected came from Reclamation archives, although bits came from the Park Service, Los Angeles, and Southern California Edison. Recently, I came across "Damming Grand Canyon" by Diane Boyer and Robert Webb, which gives a very nice picture, from the USGS view, of the 1923 survey of the Canyon, as well as doing useful scene-setting.) 
California entities include the private utility, Southern California Edison (SCE). Los Angeles had its chiefs, for water, Mulholland, and for electricity, Scattergood, and a political town crier, Phil Swing. 
Reclamation was a concept made institutional in this period, starting in 1902 as a Service, one of USGS's branches, then becoming (very independent) under the Interior Secretary in 1907. For our story, it was most significantly headed by A. P. Davis, who set the stage for Boulder, and then was dumped in 1923. 

Arizona first produced J B Girand, though he was even more a symbolic figure of the effort for privately owned hydropower pursued by SCE. Most closely associated with the goal of maximum development of the Colorado, including the Grand Canyon, was E.C. LaRue, variously associated with the USGS, SCE, Arizona, and his own ego. Central to the period's history (and sidelining the Canyon) was the Colorado River Basin states effort to divide the waters, epitomized by Herbert Hoover's chairing of the negotiations.
What is truly odd is Arizona's self-sidelining role, represented by its long-time governor Hunt, and what appear to fringe elements like Colter and Maxwell, championing schemes that went from logical to personal obsessions.

But my concern is the Canyon, not any re-telling of the fights over the river's waters. One of the oddities of this story is that until the 1923 USGS expedition, there was no overall survey of the Canyon and its water and power potential. Everyone apparently was convinced of the values, but real knowledge was a matter of checking here and there, a bit by land, a bit by boat. Powell, though he came to understand these arid lands in a fundamental way, led explorations, not technical surveys. Stanton's trips were aimed at a railroad, and apparently had no carry-over. Other trips were adventure.  But then, hydropower itself only started in the 1880's. SCE looked at the lower Colorado River in 1902.  One substantive action was installing gaging stations--Green River in 1895, Yuma in 1903, but not at Lee's Ferry until 1921. Then in 1910, a revised federal power law stabliized the authority for power withdrawals on public lands, so the first actions affecting the Canyon were paper ones. I found none before 1912. 

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