Saturday, January 4, 2020



Revisiting the long-dead world of Colorado River Basin politics in the 1960s is surely an esoteric exercise; for me, it is an itch I need to scratch. For any reader not up to speed on the maneuvers of that dimmed time of late summer 1966, my short history (17 Sep 2018 "Dumping the Dams") may help to make more sense of the following what-if historicizing.

What is generally accepted is that at the crucial moment when momentum needed to be sustained at full strength to get from positive House Interior Committee action and onto the House floor for approval, California betrayed its supposed allies, Chairman Aspinall and bill prime workhorse Representative M. Udall. This doomed the pending legislation.

First in the Interior committee mark-up, and then again as the House leadership was considering whether to green-light the bill for floor action, California over-muscled both Udall and Aspinall, first taking control of bill action away from Aspinall when he tried to ease up on the Northwest-confronting water import study, and then blocking action in the Rules Committee and the House leadership in the face of Udall's insistence that he had the votes. Without California's acquiescence, or more effectively, its active and enthusiastic work, to build support for the bill, Udall and Aspinall were out-matched. California had that leverage because of its numbers and its key committee memberships. So why did the big state, after being awarded most of the big items it demanded, undercut first Aspinall, and then Udall? 

A simple answer is that, in the mind of California's chief water strategist, Northcutt "Mike" Ely, delay in giving Arizona the physical means to get its share of the Colorado River was always, always, the best policy -- even when that meant embarrassing Aspinall and thwarting Udall. I believe that these two, with their allies, did think they had a real chance to get their kitchen-sink contraption through the House, even given the bombast of anti-dam Republican Saylor. (It is worth recalling that in 1968 when the House did finally work its will, Ely had effectively been removed from any role by the new governor Reagan and his water man, W. Gianelli.)

So, to get at how things worked out from a different angle, one I have not seen before, let us suppose that California, in July 1966, instead of playing dog-in-the-manger, put all its muscle and position behind the bill as steered through the Interior Committee by Aspinall and Udall. That is, suppose it endorsed the supposed softening of the study provision that Aspinall put forward (instead of rebelling and forcing Udall and Aspinall to reverse themselves). The bill would have then had a smooth road to get a rule for debate on the House floor. Suppose, then, that action was scheduled for September, providing Aspinall the theater to exercise his acumen and leadership and Udall to marshall his votes. This would have been a big noisy deal, given the publicity over the dams. In this California-working scenario, the votes for the bill truly would have been there, and it would have passed, complete with some kind of study, the dams, and its other obnoxious provisions.

Had that happened, I believe that the positioning was such that Jackson in the Senate would have been able to keep control, assuring all and sundry that the bill would be taken up in the new Congress, even though he would insist that the Senate version would not contain the provisions to go after Northwest water. 

Just keeping our eyes on this small part of the political landscape, I find it interesting to now pose the question Secretary Udall would have faced: Given California's commitment to the House bill, would he have taken the initiative he took in our real world, and seek a damless alternative? Could he have, confronted by California's irresistible force and the Northwest's immovable object? With California aggressively pushing with Aspinall and Rep. Udall, the Secretary, even if he believed with all his political smarts that Jackson had to be placated, would, I believe, not have been able to come up with a damless, studyless administration proposal as he did in our real world. One likely course was that he would have done the politic thing of backing the House-passed bill while stepping to the side to let the legislative process work its will. 

Maybe not; maybe he would have envisioned a clash of the titans resulting in no bill at all in 1967-8 -- thus satisfying, negatively, both California and the Northwest, but of course, leaving the Arizonans with no Colorado River water. If he did see that future possible, he might have said I have to be active and lead: How can we keep the CAP; what do we have to re-jigger to keep California and the Northwest from fighting any bill? The dams? The import studies?  

Here's the alternative picture: The Colorado Basin forces are sitting fat and happy with the Aspinall-Udall-California bill they have carried through the House, ready to push it in the new 1967 Congress. With their House success, there is no reason nor room for the calculation Secretary Udall made in the real 1966 when the bill died, namely that Senator Jackson must be placated by removing the dams and the import study. Indeed, in this alternative, Secretary Udall has no purchase at all to enter into the picture. That picture would show that the House in the new Congress would "quickly" re-pass the pro-CRB bill, and send it to the Senate, complete with dams and study. It is all speculation as to what would have happened in this instance, but certainly the strong possibility is that the forces and persuaders concentrating on the Senate would have been intensively trying to find a formula that would placate Jackson. Drop a dam? Maybe. Both? Certainly not--there would have been no Secretarial alternative using pre-paid thermal power. Feasibility Study? Certainly not. So the recon study under the National Water Commission with provisions that gave the Northwestern states a veto over import from their rivers? Very likely, or maybe something even more anti-study to further strengthen Jackson's position. And one of the dams, with a provision that no revenues could be spent on importing water? Also likely. 

The result then would have been a high-stakes House-Senate conference. And in this scenario, accepting the proposition that first the House, then the Senate, would have approved at least one dam, the Grand Canyon would have lost. 

I have run out this grim alternative history to make this counter-factual point about Pearson's claim that it was the Secretary's move to placate Senator Jackson that led to damless legislation: IF California had not been following Ely's delay-delay-delay strategy, if California had pitched in and helped move the bill strongly through the House, the Secretary would not have been involved (indeed, he would have supported the House bill, as he did in 1966) and the dams would still have been in the bill that confronted Senator Jackson. That is to say, what killed the idea of dams in the Grand Canyon was that California played dog-in-the-manger so that the bill died and gave the Secretary the chance to step in and re-shape the legislation with coal- instead of hydro-power. 

I have, in an earlier blog (6 Sep 2019), pointed out several other factors that contributed to the dam-bubble being popped. This one is entertaining because one can fantasize a grand "Californian conspiracy", in which the water gurus, like Ely, and the conservation powers, like Brower, gather and decide the best course for their state is to obstruct and slow down the bill in the House. Pure fantasy, of course, but amusing because the Sierra Club was often sneered at as the "California Sahara Club". 

In any case, of course it was the unremitting, inspired, uncompromising effort by the Sierra Club and all the other pro-Canyon Americans that did down the dams and contributed to the shifting of this nation's policies on development and the environment, a shift still going on and that our changing, less-predictable climate makes even more urgent. 

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