"You can't see out from the bottom of a canyon."
April 25, 2010 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Floyd Dominy, a man obsessed with damming the West, is dead at 100.

The head of the Bureau of Reclamation from 1959 to 1969, Dominy oversaw the building of some of the largest dam and public-works projects in the American West, most importantly, Glen Canyon Dam (and the creation of Lake Powell behind it. As Dominy put it, "The unregulated Colorado was a son of a bitch. It was either in flood or in trickle. It wasn't any good." He was a fierce advocate for developing public lands to benefit farmers, industry and other interests.

Dominy and the BLM became major targets for the flourishing environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, who characterized the agency as the "Wreck-The-Nation" Bureau. Battles over Western dams brought the Sierra Club into the national spotlight, particularly its executive director, David Brower. Brower and the Sierra Club successfully kept Dominy's BLM from building a dam across the Colorado River in Echo Park in Colorado; this fight, though, led to the eventual construction of Glen Canyon Dam, something Brower later referred to as "America's most regretted environmental mistake." To persuade Americans that Glen Canyon was worth saving, the Sierra Club published The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, a collaboration between Brower and photographer Eliot Porter.

The Dominy-Brower conflict was so well known that John McPhee used it as the part of the basis for his book Encounters With the Archdruid, in which Dominy and Brower debate the construction of Glen Canyon and its environmental effects while floating down the river together. (The two ended up drinking a lot of beer together, despite their intense disagreements.)

Despite the long (and continuing) controversy over the BLM's policies, Dominy has always defended his work. "I have no apologies. I was a crusader for the development of water. I was the Messiah. I was the evangelist who went out and argued persuasively for the harness of water for the benefit of people."

One of the better interviews with Dominy can be found here. Russell Martin's A Story That Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the American West is one of the best histories of Dominy's work with the BLM and the Glen Canyon controversy.
posted by heurtebise (29 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure I won't be the only one to read that as "damning" the West. For a glorious moment I had an image of an Oliver Hardy type figure clutching a bowler to his head with one hand while shaking the other westward in impotent fury.
posted by howfar at 5:17 PM on April 25, 2010 [16 favorites]

I'll pray for a preee-cision earthquake on his behalf.
posted by phrontist at 5:27 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

"The Colorado River Basin is facing both water supply and environmental crises. Rising demand, relentless drought, and climate change have left both Lake Powell and Lake Mead half empty. Scientists project there will probably never be enough water to fill the two reservoirs again. They raise the very real possibility that both reservoirs could run dry if current trends continue—jeopardizing the water supply of 22 million people in the American Southwest.

Policy makers are open to new ideas that they never would have considered before. The Glen Canyon Institute has launched the Fill Lake Mead First Project to convince these policy makers to implement an innovative change in Colorado River management. This would involve consolidating the water from the two half-empty reservoirs into one, Lake Mead. Lake Powell would serve as a backup in flood years." — Glen Canyon Institute 2010 Update

"In 1996, David Brower joined the board of the fledgling Glen Canyon Institute. In October, 1998, David Brower was awarded the Blue Planet Prize for his environmental accomplishments. The Blue Planet Prize is awarded annually by the Asahi Glass Foundation of Japan and is the richest environmental prize in the world. He used part of the prize money in a challenge grant to help the still young Glen Canyon Institute develop and work toward its stated mission to restore a free-flowing Colorado River through Glen and Grand Canyons. David Brower never forgot the importance and splendor of Glen Canyon, the heart of the Colorado River, and remained a strong supporter of draining Lake Powell Reservoir and restoring Glen Canyon throughout his life."
posted by netbros at 5:34 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

In '59 and '69, it was surely less appreciated that cyclic "catastrophes," like forest fires are essential to the forest's existence. It's one thing to save the water -- why not save it somewhere near the southern border and ship it back as bottled water? But trying to cure the unruly and irregular "defects" in the patterns of nature at a geological scale, that's a fool's errand.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:48 PM on April 25, 2010

Hayduke Lives!
posted by horsemuth at 5:55 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

"i have no apologies. i was a crusader for the development of water. i was the messiah. i was the evangelist who went out and argued persuasively for the harness of water for the benefit of the people." f. dominy
posted by kitchenrat at 5:58 PM on April 25, 2010

howfar: I read it as damning the West, too, and when I saw that I was wrong, I was afraid that this was going to be less interesting than I'd initally hoped. I was wrong twice, then -- this was far more interesting that I expected. Thanks for the great post, heurtebise!
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:06 PM on April 25, 2010

a man obsessed with damming the west
he dammed it like no one before
he dammed up the canyons and dammed up the valleys
he dammed it clean up to the shore
he dammed right up to his last dying day
as his last words I heard that he said:
"you're dammed if you do and you're dammed if you don't"
and then, friend, he damn well dropped dead
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:13 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Excellent post. That McPhee book is to me his best — a remarkable look at how to describe both sides of an issue and give each person a fair chance to speak. Certainly the controversies about controlling the Colorado River and using its water are still much with us today.

Another good look at all this is Marc Reisner's 1986 book Cadillac Desert. There's an interesting bit in chapter 7 about the time Dominy's administrative building outside Denver, hastily erected during WW II, was falling apart, but the GSA wouldn't give him money for a new one. When Dominy was told by his lawyer that the GSA had no authority over dams, he got the new offices classified as a dam so they could be built.

During the House Appropriations Committee hearings, Dominy complained that icicles formed inside the old building in winter, and also inside the engine of the old plane he flew around the West in. "My people need a decent place to work," he said, "and I need a plane that isn't going to fall out of the sky so I can live to see them enjoy it."

When committee chairman Clarence Cannon (D-MO) heard that Dominy expected his plane to fall out of the sky, he told Floyd he had a list of passengers he wanted taken along. Cannon then approved the budget request.
posted by LeLiLo at 6:16 PM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

I don't have a very good opinion of Floyd Dominy.
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:38 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Everybody likes hydroelectric power, but nobody wants dams.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:03 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was around 8 years old, I read a library book with title: "Dams". Much of the book was about the Tennessee Valley Authority, with another chapter about The Grand Coulee Dam, and of course, The Hoover Dam.

I became obsessed with controlling the flow of natural waters, and I drew intricate cross-section drawings of massive concrete structures with spillways and turbines.

Eventually, I grew out of it.
posted by ovvl at 7:04 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

from the Graaaand Cooooulee Dam,
to the Capituuuuuuuuuhhhhlllllll
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:43 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Everybody likes hydroelectric power, but nobody wants dams.

They also like cheap barge shipping, effective flood control, and the recreation opportunities that dams provide. That said, we've paid a really high price for our dam-building, and that price is only going to go up with time.

The worst of it is that once built, dams are expensive -- expensive to maintain, and incredibly expensive to remove. The cost of building them in the first place is nothing compared to the cost of removing a huge structure that may have millions of tons of heavy-metal-contaminated sediment behind it, upstream of a major city.
posted by Forktine at 9:00 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

.kobayashi.: “howfar: I read it as damning the West, too, and when I saw that I was wrong...”

No, you weren't wrong.
... at the very moment when the West is blueprinting an economy which must be based on the sustained, permanent use of its natural resources, it is also conducting an assault on those resources with the simple objective of liquidating them. The dissociation of intelligence could go no farther but there it is—and there is the West yesterday, today, and forever. It is the Western mind stripped to the basic split. The West as its own worst enemy. The West committing suicide.

The National Parks are composed of lands that were once part of the public domain (plus a few minute areas that had previously passed out of it). Exceedingly small in total area, they are permanently reserved and dedicated to their present uses: the preservation of wilderness areas, the protection of supreme scenic beauties, and the pleasure and recreation of the American people. By the terms of the original dedication and by policy so far kept inviolate they are to be maintained as they are, they are not to be commercially exploited at all. But they contain lumber, grazing land, water, and minerals. And that, in the West's eyes, is what is wrong with them...

The parks are trivial in extent, though the destruction of their forests, many of which have critical locations, would have disproportionately destructive effect on the watersheds—the watersheds which must be preserved if the West is to continue to exist as a society. They are trivial—the main objectives of the Western assault on the natural resources are the remnants of the national domain, the Taylor Act grazing lands, and the national forests.

I have heard this assault called a conspiracy but it is in no way secret or even surreptitious; it is open and enthusiastically supported by many Westerners, by many Western newspapers, and by almost all of the Western specialty press. Openly engaged in it are parts of the lumber industry (though other important parts of that industry are opposing it), some water users (though water users would be its first victims), the national associations of cattle and sheep growers and a majority of state and local associations, large parts of the mining industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (some of whose local chambers are in opposition), and those Western members of Congress who represent these interests. Obscure but blandly co-operative in the background are Eastern interests perennially hostile to the West and concerned here because they greatly desire to halt and reduce government regulation and to open additional Western wealth to liquidation—notably the power companies...

There you have it. A few groups of Western interests, so small numerically as to constitute a minute fraction of the West, are hellbent on destroying the West. They are stronger than they would otherwise be because they are skillfully manipulating in their support sentiments that have always been powerful in the West—the home rule which means basically that we want federal help without federal regulations, the "individualism" that has always made the small Western operator a handy tool of the big one, and the wild myth that stockgrowers constitute an aristocracy in which all Westerners somehow share. They have managed to line up behind them many Western interests that would perish if they should succeed. And they cound on the inevitable postwar reaction against government regulation to put their program over.

To a historian it has the beauty of any historical continuity. It is the Western psychology working within the pattern which its own nature has set. It is the forever recurrent lust to liquidate the West that is so large a part of Western history. The West has always been a society living under threat of destruction by natural cataclysm and here it is, bright against the sky, inviting such a cataclysm.

But if it has this mad beauty it also has an almost cosmic irony, in that fulfillment of the great dream of the West, mature economic development and local ownership and control, has been made possible by the developments of our age at exactly the same time. That dream envisions the establishment of an economy on the natural resources of the West, developed and integrated to produce a steady, sustained, permanent yield. While the West moves to build that kind of economy, a part of the West is simultaneously moving to destroy the natural resources forever. That paradox is absolutely true to the Western mind and spirit. But the future of the West hinges on whether it can defend itself against itself.
— Bernard DeVoto, "The West Against Itself," Harper's, January 1947

Rest in peace, Floyd Dominy. May your legacy die with you.
posted by koeselitz at 9:06 PM on April 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Ah Lake Powell. You are more trash and carp than water these days. Every year or two I hear a rise in argument for returning it to it's natural state. Then when people in SLC learn that means no more giant place to waterski and water to keep St. George golf courses Green in the desert sun, it quickly dies down. I'm happy to drink my water from a renewing watershed in the Wasatch mountains (for now).
posted by msbutah at 9:13 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oops. Apparently Green is a proper noun now.
posted by msbutah at 9:13 PM on April 25, 2010

Oh, and I meant to say: this is a very, very good post. Thanks, heurtebise. Fantastic stuff, honestly.
posted by koeselitz at 9:35 PM on April 25, 2010

If you would enjoy a great writer's take on this issue, a book you want is Wallace Stegner Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.

posted by bukvich at 9:56 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Floyd's wiki page.

posted by Brian B. at 11:53 PM on April 25, 2010

I think much anti-dam sentiment comes mostly from the overuse, and more importantly, the larger-than-needed scale of previous dam projects. Combine that with the subject being inextricably linked to overarching water policy in the west, which is divisive in its own right, and it becomes a pretty hot button topic.

Obviously, the folks who depend on the water supply are generally in favor of doing whatever needs to be done to get them water, while the rest of us sit around and shake our heads wondering why so many people want to live in a desert.

I think there are a lot of good dams in this country. Dams that needed to be built for navigation, flood control, or water supply. I also think that for a period, we got into the habit of building these enormous dams that were so large in scale they went far beyond what was needed and ended up in penis enlargement territory.

There is a balance that must be struck between being harmonious with nature and protection of life and property. Glen Canyon probably wasn't really necessary for either, and Hoover probably could have been built smaller, but in the case of the former, those were very different times, and in the latter, sometimes mistakes have to be made to demonstrate the consequences before people realize they need to change their thinking.

Today, the situation is becoming untenable, and we're going to have to do something before we end up with Arizona and southern California going thirsty. There's a lot of agriculture happening because of that water. We would not be better off with it going away entirely, at least in the short term.
posted by wierdo at 12:45 AM on April 26, 2010

Where is Barnes Wallis when you need him?
posted by pracowity at 4:17 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of agriculture happening because of that water.

But maybe it's happening in the wrong places and with the wrong crops.
posted by pracowity at 4:49 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why is it that the "giants" of the American west seem to be the ones who have worked hardest to destroy it?

I remember a quote by Dominy to the effect that if he had to sacrifice the Salmon so that a child could have carrots so be it. Truly a man man with a vision, narrowed and unwavering.

I grew up in the Central Valley, we used to drive out to the large dam projects and watch them go up. Truly amazing and brutish engineering.

We also used to catch Salmon in the San Joaquin river, something no one will do today.
posted by pianomover at 8:33 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert as a senior in high school. He introduced me to the world of Floyd Dominy, William Mullholland, and all the other legendary figures in western water. Fifteen years later I was back in school for water resources with a focus on the west. Thanks, Floyd, William, and the rest of the crew for giving me something to work on! Without you, I'd have nothing to fix.
posted by golden at 8:38 AM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Dominy got quite a bit of screen time in the PBS documentary of Cadillac Desert, which I saw before I read the book. He's fascinating (if nutty!) to listen to; definitely had a single-minded vision, and the drive to make it happen, alas.
posted by epersonae at 10:53 AM on April 26, 2010

Wow, that's a really interesting documentary, epersonae. That lead "I was the messiah" quote is the first thing in it. I can't find it commercially available anywhere, but it's on Youtube, by the way, right here.
posted by koeselitz at 11:32 AM on April 26, 2010

We just stopped by Glen Canyon Dam a few days ago. It's a fascinating piece of engineering and an interesting place to visit. Lake Powell is beautiful. But, as you look across the landscape at the lake, and downstream at the Colorado River, something just doesn't feel right. The dam feels like an invader, like a dandelion on the 18th green at Augusta. It just doesn't seem to belong. The Colorado, the mighty river of the west, is not much more than a creek after the dam.

I've accepted the fact that Glen Canyon Dam is part of the river system. There are far too many monied interests to ever see it gone. But I also see it as something that may be looked back as a mistake in the future.
posted by azpenguin at 11:42 AM on April 26, 2010

Nthing Cadillac Desert, in which Dominy comes across as a raging asshole, who not only slept with as many of his subordinates' wives as he could, but also publicly humiliated the cuckolded men. If any of them are still alive, they probably arranged to have a stake put through his heart prior to burial.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:53 AM on April 26, 2010

« Older Quasi-amateur art porn of scruffy, impoverished...   |   Set phasers to... popping balloons of a specific... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments