(Warning, this essay is a long, detailed, and cantankerous effort to “correct” several mis-recordings that have arisen in various tellings of the glorious fight to save the Grand Canyon from damming. No apologies, just a warning.)
An oft-repeated smear and lie is that advocates protecting the Grand Canyon in the 1960’s gave up the Southwest’s clean, blue skies in order to keep dams out of the Canyon’s deep, dark gorges. I propose here to present some of these smears (in black or a red-brown) and then offer correction and critique (in blue). The main line of the fantasied tale goes like this:
The dams were planned to generate electric power to pump water for the Central Arizona Project, and to sell excess power to help pay for that CAP. But the people and government of the United States decided not to build the dams, so instead coal-fired electric stations — in particular one to be put up near Page and using coal from Black Mesa — had to be built to pump the CAP’s water and which would also pump clouds of smoke and gas and ash, rendering the skies over the Southwest, and especially the Grand Canyon, thick and brown with the burning coal’s residue, causing would-be viewers to turn away, gasping and choking for breath in the poison miasma.
Consider a few questions: The factual: Did the Sierra Club, David Brower, the Club’s other spokespersons, or other conservationists urge that thermal plants be built in place of building the dams?
The counterfactual: Would the thermal plants that were built not have been built if the dams were built and operating?
Did Brower’s/SC/environmentalists “advocacy” of thermal plants (coal/nuclear) make a difference in how much thermal power was generated?
The psychology of historians and biographers: Why were they so intent on claiming Brower (personally or as a stand-in-for all conservationists) did play the role of trader of the Canyon gorges for the gorgeous skies? Why have none of them really investigated and made the case that the thermal plant complex had nothing to do with Brower and conservation positions? And that he fought against the dams without making the case (if there were one) for thermal plants, except in the general sense of saying: we can have both the Grand Canyon and power needs of the Pacific Southwest being met?
For instance, in 1985, Donald Worster, eminent historian of the American West, wrote on pp 275-6 of his Rivers of Empire:
“Originally the (Central Arizona Project) plan had been to run the pumps on hydroelectricity generated by two more Colorado River dams, one at Marble and the other at Bridge Canyon, the latter creating a reservoir that would bury a portion of the Grand Canyon National Park. (f.n. 21; see below) Once more the environmentalists buckled to battle to save a last piece of the natural, and once more—for the second time in the century—they were victorious. Once more, however, they lost something as well, for the energy to make the CAP go would be derived instead (JI emphasis) from coal strip-mined on Hopi sacred lands at Black Mesa in northern Arizona and burned in the Navajo Generating Station near Page, polluting the crystalline desert air with ash and poison gas. (f.n. 22)”
Worster, Donald , Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West : Oxford University Press, 1985
Dean Mann et al., Legal-Political History of Water Resource Development in the Upper Colorado River Basin, Lake Powell Research Project Bull. 4, 1974, 138-43;
“Central Arizona Project,” Bureau of Reclamation leaflet (Washington n.d.);
Rich Johnson, The Central Arizona Project, (Tucson, 1977).
Helen Ingram, “Politics of Water Allocation” in Dean Peterson & A. Berry Crawford, eds., Values and Choices in the Development of the Colorado River Basin, (Tucson 1978), 61-74 is excellent on the silencing of debate over CAP.
Worster has a penchant for the loose, colorful phrase. But he is an academic, so grave accuracy is less important. Here is some of the history from my researches (taken from various entries of this blog):
“Originally” (1930’s) the CAP was called the Bridge Canyon Project and was to take water from the Grand Canyon through a stupendous tunnel to dump it into the Phoenix area. The Project kept its name but was radically redrawn by the Bureau of Reclamation in the 1940’s to be an aqueduct taking water way downstream of the Grand Canyon, below Hoover dam even. Getting the water into the aqueduct and over to Phoenix would require a fair amount of energy, and paying for the aqueduct (barely justifiable even in Reclamation’s generous terms), would require huge subsidies. The idea that Bridge Canyon dam could serve both those needs delighted Arizonans and Reclamation alike.
Complications arose, and the entire shebang was put on hold while Arizona and California contested before the Supreme Court as to Arizona’s water claim. That done, it was almost 20 years later, and the Southwest was a new place, of huge and growing population and economy. Electricity was being provided mostly by such non-federal entities as the Salt River Project, and Arizona Public Service, with additions from federal constructions like Hoover and the new Glen Canyon, dams. The electric grid into which generated electricity was fed and delivered covered the Southwest and beyond. Very simplistically, there was baseload power, fulfilling most needs and always available, and peaking power, to handle the heavy calls — think air conditioning in the hot desert summer afternoons. Peaking power commanded a higher price; so for instance, it would be less costly to pump water, not as a peak need, but at low-demand hours, when baseload power could be bought at its cheapest, while peaking power could be generated at those times when it could command the highest price. Think of the furnaces in coal-burning electric plants — most efficient if they are kept running, i.e., baseload producers. Think of a dam storing water behind it; you want to produce electricity, then just open a gate, the waters drop through a chute into the generators, and at time of peak demand, you can instantly send a bunch through the grid, and when demand drops a few hours later, close up the gate, storing the water for the next peak. One more factor: The Pacific Southwest (including most especially southern California), growing, would in a very few decades need far more water than the area produced, water from, say, northern California, and yes, why not, water from the rain-sodden Northwest, and its huge Columbia River.
There arose in the mid-1960’s a federal scheme: The CAP aqueduct would be built; the water into it would be pumped, using electricity, generated preferentially at the lowest baseload rates, therefore produced by the coal-fired stations being built and planned by the non-federal utilities in the area. (Two points: Non-federal because Reclamation was not allowed to build coal-fired plants. And yes, nuclear, non-federal, was also dreamed about, and eventually showed up, in a minority way.) In the Grand Canyon, with its narrower inner gorges, dams could be built, but with relatively small reservoirs. Conclusion: they could not operate for baseload (e.g. water pumping), but would be ideal for kicking in to handle peaks. So, what a carve-up! Build the aqueduct and dams. Run the dams to maximize profits over and above construction costs. Use those excess dollars to 1. help pay for the construction and running costs of the aqueduct (pumping that water included), and 2. accumulate lots of dollars to help pay for the continent-spanning waterworks needed in the twenty-first century to supply the tens of millions of people surging into the southwestern sun belt.
The once-simple 1946 scheme had become a monstrous 1964 Rube Goldberg machine, one that menaced, not just the Grand Canyon, but the people and economy of the Northwest, and in prospect, the environment and living quality of western North America. But that machine had, in its monstrousness, become politically vulnerable. Unclouded analysis showed the implacable opposition to the monster’s long-term purposes by Northwest politicians, who held key veto positions. Also it was obvious that pumping power would be acquired most cheaply from the many new mine-mouth coal plants being built and connected to the growing grid. The dams’ revenues would not be required, but would only be to feed the monster’s future bloating. Not only that, but x-raying the monster’s innards showed that even the finances of the CAP did not require the dams’ ill-gotten gains.
Even, and here is the key truth that belies all the smears and snark, had the dams been built, the pumping power would have come from coal-fired plants and the revenue to build the aqueduct from users and existing sources. The dams were solely and only to power the burgeoning of the bureaucratic and political empire of Reclamation and the Pacific Southwest. Those who seek to smear advocates for an undammed Grand Canyon with the soot and ash of coal-produced power should accept that the view they would have had of a damned Canyon and its murdering concrete plugs, drowning reservoirs, and strangling high-tension powerlines would be, not just as bad as today’s, but far worse due to the environmental degradation of the Southwest that would have been produced by an industrialized Grand Canyon region.
Donald Worster, and others minded like him, would have done better to have worked harder at their research than polishing their misled and misleading glib prose.
Now here’s another historian, even more lurid with overtones of environmentalists sucking in the poor Navajo:
P. 187 in Pearson, Byron E., Still the Wild River Runs Congress, the Sierra Club and the Fight to Save Grand Canyon, 2002, Univ. of Ariz. Press. (There is a lot more uninformed or unsophisticated analysis in this book about the dams and how they died, but that is for another entry.)
Lets start by giving credit where it is due, to the Navajo and Carl Hayden. The first thing to know is that the Navajo opposed a dam in Marble Canyon all on their own, back in the early ’60’s when the Arizona Power Authority was pursing a federal license to build it as a state project. We did not have to enlist them; they were already in the field, fighting.
What is true, that Pearson seems ignorant of, is that Hayden, in 1934, legislated a “deal” for the Navajo—they got a western boundary on the Colorado river for their reservation, but in turn they would have no claim on benefits from any dam that was built in that stretch of the river — the benefits were to be for Arizona. So it was self-interest for the Navajo to create a Grand Canyon Tribal Park, to oppose the dam, and to accept the benefits of coal mining, as they had from oil and uranium. Benefits, we can now say, that came at a cost perhaps too high. And benefits, I suspect, that might well have been determined by non-Navajo “advisors”. (That 1934 deal has also led, though Pearson could not know it 15 years ago, to opening the ground for the current controversy over preventing inappropriate mass development at and below the Canyon’s Navajo Rim.)
However, the biggest element of Pearson’s slipshod thinking comes next, his “supreme irony” whereby the Sierra Club became “a party to environmental devastation on a large scale”. There is some excuse for Worster; he was not pretending to be versed in the history of the CAP and how the dams fit in. However, that is Pearson’s subject, and for him to pretend that fighting dams made the Club a “party” to what was already happening (and had happened by the time Pearson was writing) in the development of power generation in the Southwest is an ignorance too far. To write in 2000 that people in the 1960’s failed to anticipate the consequences of their actions is either just dumb or that easy rhetoric that comes from not knowing the real substance & texture of the history you are relating.
I dont mind saying that there was compromise in the sense that the Sierra Club did not oppose everything in the entire twentieth century, calling for a return to the Paleolithic. But I do mind that in his limited knowledge, Pearson could pontificate that we did not anticipate consequences and chose “political pragmatism” over human concerns, when he, in 2002, simply ignored the environmental gains over the quarter-century following the dams’ demise. On Pearson’s behalf, I note that in his detailed recounting of how Secretary Stewart Udall masterminded the re-launch of a damless CAP proposal, there is no mention of trading dams for coal.
Now lets get a bit more tricksy. The dams were not needed to pump water nor to generate revenue to help pay for the CAP. Still, if built, the dams would have generated (peaking) power, power that would have been sold and used. So where did the power come from instead? The necessary corollary is: Where does it come from now?
Here is how California does it, gleaned from a Dep’t of Water Resources document:
Interconnected grids have the benefit of a more efficient bulk transfer of power and make it possible to serve load at the lowest available marginal cost of generation, provide supply
reliability, and provide better outage management. The benefits provided by the interconnected grid have limits, however, especially as power flows on the grid reach maximum capacity and create congestion or bottlenecks that limit the ability to move power from one region to another.
Contractual agreements and electric reliability requirements guide the movement of power over the grid. Changes in supply and demand in any given time period can have both direct physical effects on the grid that can affect system reliability, and effects on the economics and contractual instruments that drive the use and operation of the grid.
The grid in the Western U.S. and Canada is highly interconnected north and south, such that
hydroelectric generation in British Columbia can be delivered to California, and vice versa.
Seasonal exchanges occur when winter-peaking utilities in the north send power south during the summer, and summer-peaking utilities in the south send power north during the winter.
Since 1983, 90 percent of all new generation in California was natural gas-fired, consisting primarily of either simple-cycle gas turbine peaker plants generally used for meeting peak power demands or to compensate for sudden changes in demand, and combined-cycle power plants used as intermediate or “load-following” power plants that can ramp power production up or down to meet demand through the day (CEC, 2003; CEC, 2012a). Gas-fired power plants are more efficient than other fossil-fueled plants; easier to site, operate, and permit than other options; and are cleaner than other combustion sources. In the mid-1980s, approximately 25 percent of the power plants were gas-fired. By 2009, approximately 42 percent of the energy used in California came from gas-fired plants.
Lets admit it — we are a long way from a simple trade-off of blue skies for undammed Canyon. No surprise there; these are just the kinds of considerations that make decisions about protecting our environment and providing a decent economy so difficult — something is always coming back to bite us. Digging out just how we would have been environmentally better off had the dams been built is ultra-complicated and endlessly contentious. I dont have any doubts; the environmental and political consequences of building the dams would have kept this country on a course of environmental degradation, scarificing (sic) not only the Grand Canyon region, but the whole ethos of the decades we have developed since Earth Day.
No matter, the simple-minded dams-for-pollution claim keeps getting made. Here is a really new one:
From pp 2-3 in Robert Wyss, The Man Who Built the Sierra Club A Life of David Brower, 2016, Columbia University Press:
“All federal land, set aside as a national park or monument, was now off limits to dams…(and Brower) capitalized on that principle and power by fighting and eventually defeating the proposed Grand Canyon dams. It was an even greater victory than Dinosaur. Yet the price that had to be paid was also great. On behalf of the Sierra Club and as the acknowledged leader of the conservation moment (sic), he agreed to trade the two Grand Canyon dams’ hydroelectric units for a coal-fired, electric-generating plant six miles east of Glen Canyon Dam. Air pollution soon fouled the skies, extending to the Grand Canyon, evolving into yet another contributor to the twenty-first century’s greatest environmental challenge—climate change.” (My emphasis; and I have to ask how he knows climate change is the greatest challenge, with 84 years left, and lots of opportunity for even greater challenges — thermonuclear war under President Trump, for instance — oops, and I wrote that before the election.)
The quote comes from Wyss’ Introduction, no footnotes. On page 68, talking about the Dinosaur fight in the 1950’s, Wyss says Brower “argued” that coal power was cheaper and could be built closer to power sources (no footnote). He also says Brower was “optimistic” about nuclear power — it will probably render hydro obsolete. (footnoted speech, but not exactly Brower calling for a “trade”. )
Wyss gets closer with a 1964 newspaper report about a Brower speech, in which “he maintained” that nuclear was cheap and coal plentiful, so thermal plants should be erected instead of dams being built (p 195) to help finance water.
The most detailed, and most derailed, of Wyss’ narratives comes on p. 218.
But just before that, on 217, I have to deal with his claim that Morris Udall, leader of Arizona’s House delegation fighting for the CAP, “remained angry with the Sierra Club and with Brower in particular for a very long time”. Wyss ignores that Brower and I were fully cognizant of Udall’s accomplishments and potential in working for environmentally friendly legislation. So even as the battle over the dams was at the boil in 1966, we personally invited Udall to be the keynote speaker at the Sierra Club Rio Grande chapter’s third November conference in Santa Fe. And he accepted, flying to New Mexico to talk to us about the potential for a Sonoran Desert National Park — a still unrealized dream. I dont say that Udall was not “stung” by conservation attacks (and stung us back); but I do know that I, and the Club, worked personally with him on Grand Canyon matters (with the dams done) throughout the 1970’s, as he joined with Senator Barry Goldwater to help realize the goal of a “complete” Grand Canyon National Park. Wyss demeans Udall’s spirit, which was very much along the line of one of his favorite opening joke lines: “Dear Friend (and former enemy),”.
Anyway, over a page and a third (218-9), Wyss tells this story: Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall grappled with the problem of getting the CAP without the dams. Nuclear power generation was rejected as taking too long, and so a coal-fired plant was preferable “to produce the money the (CAP) needed”. (Actually, this is a much more interesting exercise in bureaucratic responsiveness than either Wyss or Pearson hint at. More on that at a later time.) Then, writes Wyss, “Even though a coal-fired plant could and eventually would create significant air pollution in the Grand Canyon, Brower at this time supported the plan.” … “Brower and his MIT Trio had in the past advocated such alternatives.”
1. The plan did not call for building a coal-fired plant. It called for appropriating money to pre-pay the utilities in the region enough cash to guarantee there would be enough electrical capacity to provide for pumping CAP water. My memory is that, in fact, it was said to amount to a quarter of the Page plant’s cost, but that is probably off. Anyway, the genius of this idea was that the federal government would NOT be building or owning coal-fired electricity generation, it would be locking in its right to a share of the power generated as power was needed to pump the water. (This had nothing to do with power revenues paying for the CAP, except as the cost of power might be affected. Good research topic for some Ph.D.—how is the pre-payment idea of Secretary Udall working out in the real world?)
2. “could and eventually would create significant air pollution” — yes, but along with the other such plants in the region also created the backlash for pollution controls that continues to push for cleaner thermal plants. If the dams had been built, would there have been so strong a national environmental force for clean air as we have seen?
3. “in the Grand Canyon”? “IN” the Canyon? Down there in the bottom of the gorge, the coal ash and smoke was filling in the vistas with dark and dirty Brow-air?
4. “Brower at this time supported the plan.” No he did not. He supported the Plan, the Udall proposal to build a CAP with a pre-payment for power capacity and without dams. Here is what Wyss himself quotes Brower as saying in the House hearings: “We are not advocating the alternative steam plants…It (the Udall plan) is an attempt —and I dont think it is a bad one— to find some way to get the Bureau of Reclamation off the hydroelectric horse…We don’t like strip mining any better than you do.” The last said to Rep. Morris Udall who was trying to embarrass Brower with photos of strip-mining. (These guys are always trying this sort of stuff; in earlier years, Udall had showed pictures of a reservoir in a National Park and asked pro-Grand Canyon witnesses if they didnt think it was pretty — of course the photo showed a full reservoir with mountains in the background, not drawn down with muck and rings. More, in another place.)
5. “Brower and … Trio (includes me) had in the past advocated such alternatives”. We had not. This is just a broad-brush smear—no footnoting, of course. Speaking only for myself, I had gone out of my way in my 1966 testimony to show how the CAP could be paid for, using the Bureau of Reclamation assumptions and numbers, without any dams. There was nothing in my testimony about buying the power (I wish I had thought of it, actually; pretty clever.) from plants that already existed or were being planned. Carlin and Moss (the others in the trio) did talk about nuclear. but our point was that there were alternatives of some kind to be found if they were looked for — without being blinkered by the lure of dam-building. And by the way, in that 1967 hearing, I talked about the National Water Commission legislation, and how important it would be in dealing with the long-term problems of water in the Southwest.
Wyss continues, salting in remarks Brower made in 1977. He then goes on to describe the effects of the Page coal-fired plant that uses coal from Black Mesa, brought by train (see The Monkey-Wrench Gang, a book of truth). At least here (p.219) he gets the pollution to “billow into the sky”, making it difficult to see the Canyon’s other rim, and leading to the backlash efforts I mentioned to control the pollution. He tosses in global warming, too, which is nice, but frankly, to mention global warming and only the one thermal plant in the Southwest seems a bit tendentious, when he might better have just condemned Canyon advocates because we did not oppose bringing the water into Phoenix and Tucson altogether — after all, the immense growth in those cities over the past 50 years was abetted by the CAP flows, and all of us people are great contributors to our planet’s changing. But I guess Wyss is satisfied with trying to hang one coal-fired air-pollutiing albatross around Brower’s neck, leaving him to wander woefully in the wilderness.
Although not written as a counter to Wyss’s depiction of Brower, an earlier biography by Tom Turner is far friendlier, fittingly since Turner worked with Brower for decades, and because Tom let me edit the part about the dam fight (especially pp 127-8 in Tom Turner, David Brower The Making of the Environmental Movement, 2015, Univ of Calif Press), so that I could “forcefully dispute” the Worster account.
The tough thing about a poisonous weed like the pollution-for-canyon smear is that it creeps in even where it is irrelevant. In her pro-First-Nations A Place Called Grand Canyon Contested Geographies, (1996, U of Arizona Press), Barbara Morehouse concludes (p 91) a cursory summary of the anti-dam fight with this:
“The (CAP) act placed a moratorium on the construction of dams in the Grand Canyon between Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. In the end, coal-fired power plants were built in the Four Corners area instead — eventually creating yet another problem: regional air pollution” (my emphasis). From her footnote, this comment appears just a carryover from her reliance on Worster, though her wording could be read to imply that had the dams been built, there would not have been any coal-fired power plants — a magic trick indeed. And one that, by bringing us back around to Worster — did he start it all back in 1985?— completes my survey of the little lie that doesnt die.