Saturday, July 3, 2010

Dams: Touching the Dream; Losing the Future

Or: What are we doing, anyway?

Amid all these details about process and planning, working through these dozens of pages of notes from archives, it is easy to get lost; just trying to put a narrative together is a lot of effort, and often somewhat remote from the Canyon itself. However, this effort is all in aid of something more important than a story, and this is a very good moment to step back from the narrative, to re-state and re-relate my goal in GCFutures to what the would-be dam builders had in mind, what all developers and resource exploiters have in mind.

I give myself, along with other friends of and advocates for the Grand Canyon, credit for having a vision of a future in which the Canyon stands as an icon of the natural world, of our environment as support and nourishment of our non-material natures. So I write about trying to get a National Park to realize that vision, even though it is often wobbly. And as well, I give people who do not share my ideas credit for having a vision of the Canyon's future. The dam-builders were not just obsessed with a big concrete object that could generate power. They believed, and believe, in a vision of the Earth as here to be in the service of human needs and expansiveness. So often, as I have written, and will even more as the dam fight heats up, one of them will break out about how many more people can be taken care of, how many more people there can be, as an absolute good. More people living a more resource-rich life is not a cramped dream, although I am willing to argue that if it does not include, as a prime instance, an unexploited, trammel-free Grand Canyon, then that dream leads into a dead-end future, where more and more people will be chasing fewer and fewer resources.

So yes, the dam-builders have a vision for the Grand Canyon, and I need always to keep that vision in mind in order to make sense of all these bureaucratic bits and pieces that obsess them. To do that I will fore-shadow here because as I was writing that last entry about the Reclamaation staff trying to formulate policies that would justify what they wanted to do anyway --build canals and dams--, it seems to me that they were cultivating the seeds of the jungle in which they finally, in the mid-1960's, lost their way to their future. 

I do not know enough water history to know if their discussions in the summer of 1946 originated the concepts of integrating projects and pooling benefits from some to pay off costs of others. It is clear they were still grappling with the idea of a basin-wide pool of funds, and how to make it work. It seems dry, technical, and tedious, even though there is more than a whiff of cooking the books to make politically demanded projects look financially feasible. We may see this concept grow in the Canyon-related history, or we may not, for the Reclamation scene will shift to the upper basin plan -- which is not my business --, and it advanced the concept mightily.  Revenues from many projects were to be collected into one fund in order to pay off all the projects, including those which were not self-supporting. 

The projects did not even have to be physically related. Take the simple idea of building a Bridge dam that diverted water into Phoenix-bound canals. We saw the staff complicating that idea so that it included upstream dams for silt control that would benefit power generation at Bridge (and Hoover) which power would be sold to Los Angeles to build up a fund to bring to farms around Phoenix water that got pumped there using power from multiple sources through a grid. Brilliant. 

Now look at this idea of gathering projects and pooling revenues in the 1960's. No longer were they talking just about Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. The 1964, grandiose, descendent of that 1946 discussion would pool all the revenues, including from the Canyon dams, in order to bring water from the Columbia River. The vision of those engineers had been realized many times over; the populations of the Southwest were swelling mightily, and demanding more power, more water, more of everything so they could grow without constraint. And who gave a sniff about the few people in the Northwest; they could move to LA. As it will turn out when we get to that part of the story, people In the Northwest, people with political power, did care about their rivers, and the grand scheme to use Grand Canyon cash registers to funnel water from everywhere to the Sun belt died. 

And so, I am trying to say, yes, the engineers dreamed, and the dreams they had for the Grand Canyon misled them to way overreach, and thus lose, if not everything, then any chance of subordinating the Canyon to their purposes. Not at all modestly, I will argue that those of us who saw the future for the Canyon as being left "as it is" had an important role in the dam-builders 1960's crash-and-burn. But here my point is that they themselves lost their bearings. How they saw the Grand Canyon led them on to dream of a future, and then on, and on, and on, until the bloating of the modest foundation they built in the 1940's subverted and destroyed their vision of a Canyon totally harnessed to human demands.
Im glad to say.

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