Hydropolitics in the Southwest

If you do not live in the West or the Southwest, it is easy to overlook the significance of water politics in the day-to-day.

In the Central valley of California water billboards, bumper stickers, and yardsigns about water issues are pervasive.

The physical manifestations of water allocation — whole vineyards dried up and abandoned because they have lost the war to capture water and irrigate – are evident.

Our deep dive into the history and significance of water politics grew out of our stay on Lake Powell, the reservoir created by the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam itself is remarkable, generating electrical power for almost a half million households, regulating the water supply for a vast geography of Arizona and California, and establishing an amazing (artificial) recreational area over 1.2 million acres.

Adjacent to the dam is a planned community, Page Arizona, that is itself a remarkable policy creation of a micro economy and community, totally supported by the local dam economy.

Jack August’s sympathetic book, Vision in the Desert, describes the epic legislative history of Senator Carl Hayden and his role in building the waterways of the Colorado river basin. Hayden had a policy and political career spanning 67 years (including 57 years in federal government under ten Presidents). He was nicknamed the “Silent Senator.” He was regarded to be truly bipartisan — almost without party affiliation – and beloved by his colleagues, including Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson.  Bruce Babbitt, the Governor of Arizona and Secretary of the Interior, emphasized his “kindness, humility, and modesty.”

These personal characteristics and social capital allowed Hayden to orchestrate the creation of a  massive system of waterways and public projects spanning seven states. His portfolio of federal funding included dams, power plants, transmission lines, farmland reclamation, Indian and Veterans hospitals, highways, military bases, schools, and so many other public projects. It is hard to underestimate the scale and enduring footprint of Hayden’s quiet but powerful legislative work. He lived in the era of “big policy” and earmarks.

On the other side of this history is enormous backlash over the environmental impact of the Glen Canyon Dam and other big water projects of the Southwest. Pooling water in this huge reservoir leads to massive evaporation and seepage, ultimately depleting the store of water available along the length of the Colorado river. Disruptions of flood plains, river temperatures, sediments, vegetation, fish stocks, and other ingredients of the river ecology have been documented and criticized by environmental scientists. The destruction of important archeological sites, including sacred native lands, has been sadly and well documented.

The recent spill of the Oroville Dam in California made visible the current vulnerability and underlying controversies of these grand engineered solution to water rights and uses across an enormous swath of the west.

There is much to read and learn about this water history, especially as we enter into a policy debate about trillion dollar investments in infrastructure.

It is worth learning about the environmental consequences of Glen Canyon and other federal water projects. It is worth appreciating the vision and skill of great legislative leaders like Carl Hayden.

The stakes are high in public investments of this scale, and the historical legacy is long. Sadly, today we have too few visionary and likeable leaders like Carl Hayden who are moving massive public initiatives that are motivated by the desire to create long term and massive benefit for the collective. Sadly, we have not created the forum and franchise for environmental, social justice, and academic input into these decisions. This is what the infrastructure debate – and its pushback – should be all about.


Jack L. August, Vision in the Desert: Carl Hayden and the Politics of the American Southwest

Stephen Grace, Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future

Watch: DamNation







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