Dam Fools

Why federal water management is all wet--and why environmentalists are right to question it.

David Brower has been the soul of the Sierra Club for almost half a century. Now in his 80s, he senses the rush of time and is anxious to correct an old error.

In the late 1950s, Brower acquiesced in the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, located 50 miles up the Colorado River from the Grand Canyon. The dam is huge: 710 feet high, 1,560 feet wide and storing 27 million acre-feet of water in Lake Powell, which extends back up the river for 186 miles. Completed in 1963, at the height of a period when America was damming everything that flowed, the dam destroyed beautiful, red-rock Glen Canyon and altered the ecology of the Grand Canyon area permanently. The trade-off Brower and the Sierra Club got in exchange was to stop dams that would have flooded nearby Dinosaur Canyon, and it is not clear that their choice was a bad one. Nonetheless, Brower rues his decision.

His basic position is simple: The dam was a mistake. At the time, its effects were assumed to be necessary costs for the benefits of controlling the Colorado. But Glen Canyon Dam performs no functions that cannot be handled by Hoover Dam, built in the 1930s and 250 miles downstream. We need not blow it up: Just open the gates, drain Lake Powell, let the ecology of the canyon recover, and leave the dam standing as a monument to hubris and folly.

This is not a one-man or one-dam crusade. The Sierra Club board of directors has voted to back Brower's view on Glen Canyon, and the environmental movement as a whole is challenging many other dams. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently denied a license renewal to Edwards, a privately owned hydropower dam on the Kennebec River in Maine, and it may reach the same decision on others. The dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest are under fierce assault because of their effect on the salmon. Millions of dollars are already being spent to undo some of what these dams have wrought, and the enviros are suggesting that some of them should be torn down.

Some observers regard anti-dam activism as yet more environmental craziness and assume that Brower's position--and by extension the other dam-busting efforts--is so outlandish as to require no serious answer. The fourth highest dam in the nation, a mistake? Surely you jest.

But the dam busters have a point. Many dams probably should not have been built, not necessarily because of any environmental harm--you do not even have to get to that--but because they made no sense economically.

The big dam era was a significant experiment in delegating economic decision making to government bureaucracies working closely with private interests, all under the firm hand of Congress. The result was a disaster. "Water socialism," as it has been called, was and is as big a mess in the United States as were its counterparts in Eastern Europe.

Understanding the excesses of the era is important. The future of the West remains inextricably tied to water, and many people doubtless still think this means more dams, aqueducts, and other big construction projects. The real need in the West, however, is not for more brute-force water projects but for institutional change. The West needs to establish property rights in water and to foster free markets that will let water flow freely among users. It also needs to adopt the golden rule that he who gets the benefits pays the costs. People need to understand how far water policy departed from these principles, and how high a price they've paid as a result.

The Century of Dams

It is impossible to stand on top of one of the great dams, such as Hoover in Nevada, Dworshak in Idaho, or any of a dozen others, without feeling awe at the power of the natural forces held in check and profound respect for those who accomplished it. Dams are an intrinsic part of the epic of engineering achieved by Americans since the beginning of their national history: Between the first European settlement and 1900, they built 2,661 dams with a total storage capacity of 10 million acre-feet.

Before 1900, the technology and economics of damming were checked by the necessity of moving massive quantities of earth or stone, largely by hand. But in this century, the rise of machinery for moving earth and pouring concrete, together with improved scientific understanding of materials, opened up new possibilities. By 1996, the inventory maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers listed 75,187 dams with a combined storage capacity of almost 1 billion acre-feet, which is enough to cover the entire state of Texas with six feet of water. About 5,500 of these are over 50 feet high.

The overwhelming majority of dams are privately built and owned, with the federal government owning only about 5 percent of them. But the federal government owns the biggest and most important dams, and its share of total storage capacity is much higher. The Bureau of Reclamation of the Department of the Interior has only 340 dams in the 17 states west of the Mississippi, but these include Hoover and Glen Canyon on the Colorado River and Grand Coulee on the Columbia.

Perhaps surprisingly, the most common primary purpose for which dams are built, according to the corps's inventory, is recreation: 35 percent of existing dams fall into this category. Nor is this a new phenomenon: 48 percent of the dams built before 1900 had recreation as their primary purpose. Other primary purposes are farm ponds (18 percent), flood control (15 percent), water supply (12 percent), irrigation (11 percent), hydroelectric (2 percent), and navigation (less than 0.5 percent).

To understand the dam building binge of the 20th century requires an appreciation of how America's history merges with its geography. When the line of western migration reached the 100th meridian which bisects the nation at about the middle of Nebraska, it ran into a wall. Except for a belt along the Northwest coast, the rainfall beyond that line averages less than 20 inches a year, not enough for farming. The answer seemed obvious: irrigation. Private groups started watering the West as soon as the Mormons reached Utah in 1846, and by 1900 almost 7.5 million acres were under irrigation nationwide, primarily in the West. For the most part, these works consisted of rudimentary diversions of water from streams into nearby fields.

Irrigation is always up against the iron reality that water is heavy, so moving it takes lots of energy. Try to move it very far or very high, and the cost of the energy used outstrips the value of whatever you can produce with the water. Private citizens with their own money on the line do not pump water over mountain ranges to grow hay.

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