Monday, May 31, 2010

Dams: Fed vs. Fed, 1930's

Through the 1920's and 30's, Reclamation concentrated its attention on the Boulder project. It generated no grand plans, as La Rue did, and made no claims on Grand Canyon damsites, as Arizona and private parties did. Nevertheless, staff was aware and thoughtful about Reclamation's role in Canyon power development; a policy of watchful waiting spiced up now and then by ensuring that turf was not lost.

One such mote in the eye was a hapless application by a Phoenician for a Marble Canyon dam to supply cities and mines. Reclamation told the FPC in Oct 1934 that the water rights were adverse, that no storage was available at the location, and that the case was strong for coordinated river development. The FPC denied.

Another indicator of a more long-running controversy was a Jan 1933 letter from NPS Director Albright to Reclamation head Mead. This vexing time-bomb had been set by the proclamation of the second Grand Canyon National Monument a month earlier, raising Reclamation worries. Albright argued this way: The 1920 federal power act opened all national parks and monuments to development. The 1921 act repealing the 1920 act prohibited development, but only in existing parks and monuments. Since then, NPS additions made by legislation explicitly prohibited power development. The GCNM of 1932 was not created by law, but by presidential proclamation. Therefore, it did not interfere with, delay or render impracticable the Bridge project. Thus, the FPC had jurisdiction over power development in GCNM. NPS "had in mind all the time the Bridge Canyon Project." Then --and watch this switch-- he added, there was no possible way to interfere with Bridge "provided it receives the approval of the Secretary of the Interior", which would carry with it the approval of Reclamation and NPS. Indeed, since the 1921 act did not apply to the GCNM, Reclamation did not even need to seek NPS approval.

Lets consider this for a moment. Director Albright wrote to Reclamation, yet started out talking about FPC jurisdiction, which would apply to an Arizona or private dam. He ceded jurisdiction to the FPC without a qualm. Shameful. He noted that between 1921 and 1932, Congress had prohibited development in new NPS lands, yet he did not take the obvious step, which is to say that he would ask Congress to withdraw FPC jurisdiction over GCNM. But, for Reclamation, that was not the point, since a federal Reclamation dam would require, not FPC approval, but Congressional authorization. So he switched to hiding behind the Secretary's broad form, again avoiding the principled position for NPS of saying "and we will argue to the Secretary that the dam should not be built". So he refused twice to defend the Monument, and then in his last sentence spun around to use the 1921 FPC act, which applied to a non-federal dam, to absolve NPS from opposing Reclamation in any debate before the Secretary over a federal dam.

Reclamation did not take this well, either. E.B. Debler, regional engineer, had told Albright Reclamation wanted assurance that no other approval was needed for it to move in on Bridge site and build a dam. He reiterated his view that the need for Bridge's power was closer than assumed, to counter the view that Bridge was in the dim future. In Mar 1933, Debler elevated that view, that Bridge will be needed to pump water at Parker dam, to dogma. He was suspicious of NPS, fearing that it would try to extend the Park without reference to any reservoir behind Bridge. He suggested a formal agreement. 

Four years later, the legislation --to add the Monument to the Park-- he feared was introduced; it excluded FPC jurisdiction and said nothing about reclamation withdrawals. (There were none at the time; only for power.) Reclamation protested to Secretary Ickes, since the Park boundary "definitely limited" the height of the dam, so that the power potential would be even more reduced if the Monument were added to the Park. In Mar & May 1938, Reclamation, although saying it had no specific early plans for Bridge, raised again the question of securing in the Monument legislation its rights to use any GCNM lands. The legislation did not even mention development, and Reclamation asked the Secretary to take action, since we are "not certain that a dam within the park would be consistent". 

The Park Service countered by suggesting the Monument lands be added to a Boulder recreation area, first proposed in 1933 by the Arizona delegation. This possibility lapsed after the legislative route was junked and the Monument reduced by executive order in 1940, an event largely forgotten by defenders of the Park System, as well as, more fortunately, its exploiters. 

Albright's cringe was vacated when another Federal Power Act was signed in Aug 1935. This removed FPC authority to grant power licenses in national parks and monuments, no matter when or how established. So any state dam at Bridge would have to be 2-300 feet lower than a federal dam to stay out of the Monument.  

NPS said it still wanted to cooperate with Reclamation on the Boulder reservoir area. Not easy, as indicated by Debler telling the GCNP Superintendent that though the Canyon was special, recreational enthusiasts should not be allowed to block the necessary power development. Indeed, an agreement for cooperation was not made in 1938 because of Reclamation's suspicions. Debler's dogma had now become "Reclamation … ha(s) long planned the construction of a dam at Bridge Canyon as a part of the coordinated plan for development of the river" (memo, Reclamation to Secretary, 24 Mar 1938). The purposes were to protect Lake Mead by storing silt and "to generate cheap electrical energy" to help re-pay construction costs. The self-defeating nature of these uses was emphasized when Reclamation added in the La Rue/Arizona idea of an irrigation diversion, "believed to be economically infeasible". After such definitions, the memo then says protecting Mead may not be a strong enough reclamation purpose to overcome the requirement in the GCNP Act that said purpose be consistent "with the primary purpose of the park", since some park features would be submerged, even though some would be more accessible. Having created this crazy straw man, the memo ends by asking that protecting Hoover dam be enough of a reason to allow a reservoir in the Monument. 

What makes the memo such a joke is that in spite of misleading brag about "long planned", Reclamation had not yet focused on a dam above the Canyon, as La Rue had, to trap silt, something that the much smaller reservoir behind Bridge was unsuited for, so future protection of Hoover would never have become a use of a Grand Canyon dam. NPS and Reclamation had very different missions, but they shared confusion of thought when it came to the Canyon. 

On another front, Reclamation used its dogma in 1939 to argue that there should be no state dam because maximum benefit would come only if coordinated with other projects; this was a stand of "complete opposition". (This was the 1938 Arizona CRC plan to generate power for mining, railroads, and  water-pumping.) NPS supported that call on the basis that it easily cooperated with Reclamation. However, a year later, when Reclamation again asked NPS to acknowledge that there would be some flooding in the monument, NPS said it had no plans in conflict with such an event, and would be glad to comment when the project was defined. 

In any case, the discussions among the Basin states and their power agencies added up to postponement of FPC action. However, the process produced an approving FPC staff report that emphasized that at some point the silting threat, not to Hoover, but to Bridge, would have to be countered by a dam in Glen Canyon. For long planning, Reclamation maybe should have consulted the FPC.

*Material from: 
National Park Service Archives
Bureau of Reclamation Archives

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