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Rogue Columnist

Colorado River and drought: Arizona's dam problem

A photo hangs in my study showing my mother at Glen Canyon Dam, posing with officials of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Interior Department and Arizona State Senate. She is the only woman in the group and represents the Arizona Interstate Stream Commission, the quiet but powerful state agency fighting for the Central Arizona Project. The year is 1965 and the 710-foot-tall stark white (at the time) arched structure that impounds Colorado River water in Lake Powell will begin full operations a year later. She has the satisfied expression of a woman who never met a dam she didn't like (that would change later, as it would for many involved, when they realized the unintended consequences of what they had wrought). But she and some of her colleagues also knew they were pulling a kind of confidence game on California and the Upper Basin states. More about that later.

I've been studying that photo as Arizonans who are paying attention read about how persistent drought is reducing the water released from Lake Powell. A Bureau of Reclamation study says the drought is the worst in a century (it is actually worse than that, but such is the record keeping), and less water will be sent downstream to Arizona, Nevada and California than at any time since when Powell filled — when that photo was taken. The local-yokels say, it's no big deal. But they always say that.

It is a big deal.

Understanding why requires at least a cursory knowledge of Glen Canyon Dam and its history. I promise this won't hurt at all. Although it lacks the art deco majesty of Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon is still an amazing feat, the fourth tallest dam in the United States. But it was an accidental dam. When the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922, the document divided the Father of Southwestern Waters among the seven states it drains. California already had its straw in the river, so to speak, creating the Imperial Valley, and the other states were desperate to avoid losing all the water to the Golden State. Arizona, small and lacking political power, was among them (and refused to sign the compact for another 24 years). But there was also concern among the Upper Basin states, those above the marker at Lee's Ferry, Ariz.: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. This only grew when Hoover Dam and Lake Mead were completed in 1936, primarily for the benefit of Los Angeles.

The Bureau of Reclamation — whose hammer was dams and every problem was a nail — wanted to build a major reservoir for the use of the Upper Basin in Echo Canyon. The Bureau did not like Glen Canyon, particularly because the Navajo sandstone of the walls was porous and potentially unreliable. The rock was the opposite of the granite to which Hoover was attached. But the Echo Canyon Dam would have inundated Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado.

The battle led to the birth of the modern Western environmental movement. The Sierra Club persuaded the Eisenhower administration and Congress to kill the Echo project and build at Glen Canyon instead. This was an endeavor only eclipsed by Hoover — the site was entirely isolated; Page didn't exist. Soon after the project was authorized, Sierra Club President David Brower toured the canyon for the first time and saw its singular beauty. Brower called the compromise he had led his "greatest sin."

Arizona, one of the three Lower Basin states, always supported Glen Canyon. It was moving on multiple fronts to get its full allotment of Colorado River water, which for decades California had been taking. By the late 1940s, it had two powerful senators, Ernest McFarland and Carl Hayden, working in Congress to secure the funds for the Central Arizona Project. In the 1950s, Mark Wilmer and Charlie Reed took over the landmark Arizona v. California, the longest case in Supreme Court history. Arizona won the suit, and the water, in 1963. Novel and clever legal tactics caused the court to remove the Gila River's water from Arizona's allotment. The state's plan was to get the Bureau of Reclamation to build dams at Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon. The former would especially provide power to pump water in a canal to Phoenix and Tucson. The latter would be a reservoir, entirely in the state, from which CAP water could be drawn (the original plan was to send the water by gravity south, as opposed to the canal finally built from Lake Havasu). Glen Canyon was a useful hedge, storing water and gathering silt. It didn't matter that the water in Lake Powell primarily belonged to the Upper Basin. Those states lacked a canal to Lake Powell. The lake became the Upper Basin's water stock only insofar as it held water that could be measured off what was used upstream. By the Law of the River, a certain amount would have to be released down the river to the Lower Basin.

You know that when the 1922 Compact was drawn up, it used water measures from particularly wet seasons on a fickle river. You may not know that many experts understood this at the time. Later, it was used as testimony against allowing construction of the CAP. But Arizona was united in getting its legal allotment, damn the other states. Hence, the confidence game. Things started to go awry when environmentalists successfully defeated first Marble Canyon and then Bridge Canyon. Easterners, aghast at the prospect of turning part of the Grand Canyon into a reservoir, helped push back the Western Water interests. It was the Sierra Club's high mark and the end of the dam-building frenzy that had turned the Colorado River into a massive plumbing system.

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The federal government funded the Central Arizona Project, which is ever more an essential prop of a state with 6.5 million people — not a rightful allotment for agriculture and 1 million people as it was sold. Arizona put its straw in behind Parker Dam, finished in 1938 to serve LA's Metropolitan Water District through the Colorado River Aqueduct. The 336-mile CAP canal is an engineering marvel. But it is far less efficient than the Bridge Canyon "gravity route."

It requires massive energy "inputs" (from the coal-belching Navajo Generating Station) to heave the water over the mountains and then on to Phoenix and up 2,000 feet to Tucson. Nor has the CAP really achieved its other promised goal: To stop the groundwater looting in Pinal and Pima counties. The canal also suffers huge evaporation — a growing problem at lakes Powell and Mead.

Now the troubles accumulate. Arizona's hard-won 2.8 million acre-feet per year is not guaranteed if the river falls to a certain level, which we are now reaching. California's allotment, however, is. The Gila River, which was once navigable by small craft all the way into New Mexico, is dry most of the year below Coolidge Dam. Its water, a big portion of which belongs to Indian tribes, was diverted over the decades to white farmers. Settling the tribal claims was a condition of the CAP. Now nine tribes have fully settled and four remain in adjudication. Many tribes may never get real justice, restitution for their stolen water. It may be many years, if ever, before all the tribes can utilize the water. But the Gila River Pimas are at least now in a powerful veto position. And their water will come from Arizona's allotment. Oh, Las Vegas: When the Compact was signed and amended, nobody ever imagined a major metropolitan area at the tip of Nevada, which is entitled to a tiny fraction of the river's bounty.

Local warming and climate change are the biggest danger, both to the Colorado and to the Salt River Project. This is real and happening now. As for Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, the water is going down, huge amounts also lost to evaporation, and Arizona's insurance policy is not guaranteed. Indeed, the Upper Basin will never allow itself to be swindled again. Although advanced techniques were used to secure the dam into the Navajo sandstone, Glen Canyon is the least stable of the major American dams. It is meant to move slightly. And it does. It also faces significant challenges with its spillways as silt accumulates. The heroic plumbing system that destroyed the Colorado River but allowed for millions to live in the Pacific Southwest — the dream of the Hohokam, who only lacked the technology — is breaking down. Lake Powell is only the most evident problem. The Colorado beneath the dam is dying. Removing or re-engineering the dam may be the only solution.

It has become a local cottage industry to produce articles shooting down "Phoenix is doomed" books and articles. I haven't seen the response to William Debuys' powerful reality check. Or the wider water problems in the American West. Almost all of these apologias can be discounted. Arizona's water situation is complicated. What is not open for serious debate is whether the state can continue to add population in the sprawl, single-family-house, "Sun Corridor" model. It may try.  The Wall Street Boyz are buying houses, financing some new projects in the affluent suburbs of Phoenix. The local yokels take it for a recovery, an affirmation. Please, God, give me one more real-estate boom — with championship golf. No one in power is working on a sustainable future.

But the old game — all the old cons and hustles — is over. The only question is whether Phoenix (and the rest of Arizona) adjusts easy or hard. I fear it will be the latter, with horrific consequences for everything I love there.

The famous hypothesis of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross holds that someone facing death or another deep trauma goes through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Maybe. But it doesn't work that way collectively and Arizona is the prime example. Faced with an existential crisis, it is stuck in denial gear, sometimes slipping into anger, but nothing more. Think of your friend's old truck in high school where the clutch is finally, fatally, blown. Only you stay on the side of the road for decades claiming "everything's fine!"

One parting thought: It doesn't really matter whether the politicians and real-estate jocks — no leaders with vision and means to affect the argument are left — get the reality bearing down on Phoenix. Reality doesn't care. How often a smart person says to me, "Well, Phoenix (or Arizona) is running out of water." Americans are increasingly paying attention, with consequences that will go beyond tourism. Even dust storms that are common to the Sonoran Desert have become big national news, and not in an "everything's fine!" way.

Behind the scenes, an Arizona insider told me, "People are alarmed." Yet the "austerity" that so enamors the Kooks has captured what passes for the political "center" in the United States. The Haydens, McFarlands, Udalls and Rhodeses are gone. Jon Kyl, who led the Indian water settlement, has retired, leaving the state without a water expert in the Senate for the first time. So Arizona can't expect a federal bailout from this gathering (dust) storm. Indeed, the Tea Partiers who rolled in from the Midwest and thoughtlessly turn on their water taps in Surprise and Gilbert apparently think this magnificent audacious waterworks was created by Ayn Rand and Dagny Taggart. Or they think they think. Beneath the denial, all they have is attitude: "I got mine and whatever happens — hell, I'll be dead by then." After them, no deluge.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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1 comment on this story

May 12, 2015, 6:50 pm
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In the article the author twice uses the term “local yokel”. Yokel is a derogatory term referring to the stereotype of unsophisticated country people. It’s interesting that in these politically correct times the basic need to denigrate and feel superior to a group of people finds expression in ways like this. The author can’t disparage and mock people based on race, gender, age, or sexual preference, but it’s all right to do so if the group he wishes to describe as inferior is of a geographic location or social demographic other than his own.

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