Shaping the West: 100 Years of Reclamation Water
Water is the true wealth in a dry land – Wallace Stegner
One hundred years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation that changed the course of American history and permanently altered the landscape of the western United States. The West of today retains some of the vestiges of the land that brought the explorers, entrepreneurs and dreamers hundreds of years ago. Despite the surge in population, vast tracts of wilderness remain – forests thick with evergreen trees and seemingly unending open spaces where human inhabitants are few and far between.
But stark differences are evident in every corner. Los Angeles, once a sleepy outpost, burst into a sprawling megalopolis thanks in part to water piped in from the Owens Valley. Desert communities in the Southwest continue to grow at a rapid rate, straining available resources, including water. The pace of residential and agricultural development has indelibly changed the environment. Wetlands have been drained, open space paved and river flows altered to accommodate settlement.
Two events that transformed the West, population growth and the dominance of agriculture, are inextricable parts of the battles fought over its most vital resource, water. Throughout the 19th century, as settlers sought to tame the rugged landscape, momentum built behind the notion of a comprehensive, federally financed waterworks plan that would provide the agrarian society envisioned by Thomas Jefferson. The Reclamation Act of 1902, which could arguably be described as a progression of the credo, Manifest Destiny, transformed the West into an economic powerhouse while putting an exclamation mark to the tide of American migration.
The act was controversial. Many balked at the prospect of the federal government embarking on such a monumental undertaking. The passage of time has not diminished the spirit of the debate among the competing interests for whom water is such a vital resource. The U.S. government’s mission of bringing water to dry western lands for agricultural settlement has been an unbridled success, as witnessed by the virtually limitless bounty of fruits and vegetables harvested in California’s farming regions. Yet, at the same time, it is evident that the alteration of river flows has negatively affected fish and wildlife habitat, and that steps must be taken to ensure species survival.
“One hundred years ago, nobody thought about endangered species,” said Dan Beard, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) commissioner from 1993 to 1995.
The end of World War II sparked a population boom in the West, as returning GIs arrived home ready to launch careers and families. California, which had grown during the war because of the defense industry, picked up the pace further in the 1950s as orange groves in southern California gave way to new homes. Other western states saw a large influx of new arrivals, fueled by a healthy economy and the attractive climate. “Urban archipelagos” of settlement arose, some with ample water supplies, others dependent on the skill of modern engineering for their water.
“The most significant change has been the change in the West itself,” said Beard. “Las Vegas was once barely a watering hole. Now, it’s the fastest growing community in the United States.”
The growing population in the West brought different values and ultimately more conflict. In the early decades of the 20th century, agriculture was dominant and played a major role in water policy. But the belief that the diversion and storage of water has consequences to fish and wildlife that must be considered and, where necessary, mitigated put the Bureau square in the middle of a controversy that continues with each new scientific study, court ruling and official agency decision. The struggle to balance the needs of a growing populace with those of the environment reverberates around the globe and is the primary subject of debate among scientists, regulators and water users.
“We’re always pressing for more environmental protection but I do give the Bureau some due,” said Tom Graff, senior attorney with Environmental Defense. “The Bureau of 2002 is more environmentally-conscious than . . . 30 years ago.”
The Bureau’s emphasis on environmental protection was spelled out a decade ago in a mission statement that pledged “to manage, develop and protect water and water-related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public.” An accompanying strategic plan called for the protection and enhancement of instream flows, wetlands, riparian habitat, fish and wildlife and water quality “where compatible with other project purposes.”
Part of the movement to return water to rivers and streams is rooted in American Indian tribes, which seek to replenish the population of salmon and other fish that have served as a source of sustenance for centuries. The rise of tribal water rights has had a major affect on the Bureau’s allocation of water, a situation that is complicated by the overlay of federal laws and judicial decisions affecting those rights. Tribal water rights have and will continue to be a major issue in several western water battles, including the Klamath River basin and the Truckee and Carson rivers.
“The creation of the Bureau and its early projects were the result of the demands by non-Indians to develop water for their use,” said Gary Hansen, water resources director for the Colorado River Indian Tribes. “There has been a lot of money spent on dams and water delivery structures for non-Indian interests. Now, there is a recognition of the importance of tribal water rights and the need to promote equal consideration of those rights.”
As the shape of the West has changed, so has the makeup of the Bureau. Originally staffed with a battalion of engineers ready to harness the region’s wild rivers, the agency has diversified to keep up with the rapid changes that have occurred the past quarter century. The shift in professional backgrounds and the altered philosophy has produced a Bureau that retains traces of its past but is highly cognizant of the new Western water paradigm.
Inherent in that change is the recognition that the era of large projects is over and that the Bureau has evolved from a dam building agency to a water management agency. In some instances, the Bureau has overseen the elimination of dams deemed no longer essential. Amid the clamor for species protection, water users, aided by a friendly administration in Washington, fight to preserve their precious allocations while fending off what is sometimes viewed as politically motivated science. “There’s no doubt in my mind . . . we will continue to have conflict between water development and environmental restoration,” said Elizabeth Rieke, acting deputy regional director for the Bureau’s Mid-Pacific Region at the Water Education Foundation’s executive briefing March 14 in Sacramento.
The Bureau, caught in the cross-fire between emerging science and the need for steady, reliable water delivery, has been forced into an even more delicate balancing act, one that emphasizes effective management of present allocations. Regulators and users also acknowledge that other innovations, such as the sale of water rights, can be useful tools to ease the strain of so many demands being placed on watersheds.
“Anytime there’s a scarce resource, there will be a struggle,” Graff said. “The debate is, how much of that is resolved by political means and how much by markets. We believe some combination of the two should happen.”
One of the Bureau’s first projects in the Klamath River Basin provided a vivid illustration of the harsh reality of the struggle for water in the West. The multi-faceted conflict, complicated by the debate over species protection, exploded into full-fledged crisis in the summer of 2001, capturing the nation’s attention. Local farmers literally saw their livelihood shut off because of the perceived harm of water diversions on endangered fish. The images of tractor rallies, bucket brigades and defiance of federal authority showed a people willing to engage in civil disobedience to have their argument heard.
“Western water issues are complicated and they go to the very fabric of society and the values we hold,” Beard said. “It’s like going to the dentist and hitting a sensitive nerve. Everything in Klamath worked just well in 95 years because there never was a water supply problem.”
This issue of Western Water provides a glimpse of the past 100 years of the Reclamation Act, from the early visionaries who sought to turn the arid West into productive farmland, to the modern day task of providing a limited amount of water to homes, farms and the environment. Included are discussions of various Bureau projects and what the next century may bring in terms of challenges and success.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 20-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our on-line store and add the May/June 2002 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart. Or, contact us by phone at 916-444-6240.
The man who changed the face of the West through legislation and the power of his personality was a man I once thought of as a distant, almost comical character. Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency seems very distant to our time. Old recordings reveal that he spoke in a high-pitched voice and was known for happily proclaiming, “Bully, Bully.” However, through recent biographies on Roosevelt, especially Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris, I know that he was a much more complex figure. A brilliant man who read the classics in the original Greek and Latin, Teddy Roosevelt was also a lover of the natural environment. A terrorist – they called them anarchists in that time – took the life of President William McKinley giving Roosevelt the opportunity as the new president to change policy toward the West. Teddy Roosevelt had been out West working as a rancher and he had definite ideas of needed reforms. He hated the water speculators who charged rents for water from small private dams. He hated the private irrigation schemes that the water speculators had tried and failed to get rich on.
Roosevelt thought the country needed a new vision for the new century.
He agreed with his Secretary of the Interior, Gifford Pinchot, that the resources of the West should be put to use for man and for the good of the country. Roosevelt had followed the work of scientist/explorer John Wesley Powell who had concluded that settlement of the region would only succeed if the federal government stepped in and harnessed Western waters for coordinated delivery to farmers. Within a year after becoming President and, upon conferring with John Muir and his Secretary of State, John Hay, Roosevelt proposed the 1902 Reclamation Act, a dream of his to bring irrigation to Western lands farmed in small family acreage.
It was a policy based on the principle that there can be sustainable growth in the West to benefit the greatest number of people.
This issue of Western Water, written by Gary Pitzer, charts the course of the Reclamation Act and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over the last 100 years. There is no doubt that the Bureau - first called the U.S. Reclamation Service – has changed over the years as the values of society have also changed. The story of the Bureau and the Reclamation Act is the story of 100 years of involvement in water for the West.
NOTE: Val Kilmer’s new movie, The Salton Sea, has been released by Castlerock Films and should be showing up at your local theater. And showing up on public television is the Foundation’s new documentary that Kilmer hosted, High Stakes at the Salton Sea. It should air on local public television stations this spring. Check your local public television stations for time and listing.
In the News
Study Finds Micro Levels of Pharmaceuticals in Surface Water
A new study that reveals low-level concentrations of prescription medication, antibiotics and other organic wastes in surface waters could be the harbinger of tougher controls, depending on the potential threat to human health and aquatic wildlife. Scientists and regulatory officials emphasize that much research needs to be completed before any actions are taken to reduce chemical levels.
“Little is known about the environmental occurrence of many chemicals we use to maintain the quality of our daily lives,” said Robert Hirsch, associate director for water at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which sampled 139 streams in 30 states in 1999-2000. “This study begins a process of exploring the occurrence of these chemicals in our nation’s streams.”
Steroids, non-prescription drugs and insect repellants were the chemical groups most frequently detected, according to the study, released in March. The chemicals pass virtually untreated through sewage treatment facilities and until recently, the technology did not exist to detect their presence at trace levels. The majority of the chemicals do not have drinking water standards or health advisories. Those that do were measured at concentrations that “rarely” exceeded them, according to USGS.
Limited information is available on the potential health effects to human and aquatic ecosystems from low-level, long-term exposure to single chemicals or chemical combinations. Seven or more compounds were detected in half the streams sampled; in one stream, 38 chemicals were present in a single water sample. Most of the sites sampled were located downstream of urban and agricultural activity. USGS scientists said the ability to measure the chemicals at such low concentrations gives researchers an early start on the risk assessment process.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researchers are concentrating on finding the effects of drugs on aquatic ecosystems because the compounds may have a more serious impact on fish than people. Environmental advocates say the USGS study points out the need for further research to avoid what could be a more troublesome issue in the future, given the expected growth in population. In the meantime, it should be assumed that drugs and other chemicals in water have the potential to do harm, said Marguerite Young, director of Clean Water Action.
The wastewater treatment industry acknowledges that medicines and antibiotics could be finding their way into water supplies and believes that research can result in a better understanding of which pharmaceuticals are least harmful to the environment. “Many believe that treating the problem at the source is likely to be a far more effective and efficient method for removing compounds from the environment than redesigning water treatment facilities,” according to a fact sheet prepared by the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. “Many pharmaceuticals alter dramatically as they break down and the amalgam of substances mixed in the waste stream makes it nearly impossible to filter out certain substances, especially at such minute levels.”
A Conversation with John Keys
John W. Keys III was confirmed in July 2001 as Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency he previously served in for 34 years. Most recently, he was Pacific Northwest Regional Director from 1986 to 1998. As regional director, he developed coalitions of stakeholders working on meeting Endangered Species Act requirements.
He was awarded Interior’s highest honor – The Distinguished Service Award – in 1995 for maintaining open lines of communication and keeping interest groups focused on solutions. Keys is from Alabama and earned an M.S. in Civil Engineering from Brigham Young University. With his physician wife, Dell, Keys has flown volunteer medical rescue missions, he also served as an NCAA football referee.
Keys attended and spoke at the Foundation’s Jan. 30- Feb. 1 Colorado River stakeholder Symposium, “Coming to Consensus: Sharing the Colorado River,” held at The Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, N.M., site of the negotiations for the 1922 Colorado River Compact. On February 1, Foundation Executive Director Rita Schmidt Sudman interviewed him about his views on some key issues including the contrast between the traditional and modern-day role of the Bureau, controversies within the Truckee-Carson, CVP and Klamath reclamation projects, and security concerns after September 11. This is an excerpt from that interview
SUDMAN: You have said that the Bureau has changed, moving towards environmental restoration and away from the way the Bureau traditionally did business – building dams in the West. Then you’ve said that after September 11 the Bureau changed again.
KEYS: By the early ‘90s, we had tried several times to change over to managing our facilities and not concentrating on construction the way we had for a long time. And the big change really came under Dan Beard (in the Clinton administration). I personally feel that if we hadn’t made a hefty change at that time that we wouldn’t be around. There was a lot of talk in those days of breaking up Reclamation and giving our facilities to the states or having another agency do it. Personally, I think there is an absolute need out there for Reclamation in dealing with water supplies and working with the states, working with the tribes, working with the water users, because if we weren’t there, I can only imagine the chaos that would be out there. We changed from about almost 9,000 people down to about 5,500 people, and we lost a lot of good expertise at that time. But it was a change we needed to make. And I think we are accomplishing that change very well. We still do some big construction. We’re still building dams as part of our Safety of Dams Program. We’re still building fish screens and ladders and canals and pumping plants. But dam building is just not the central focus of what we’re trying to do.
SUDMAN: And after September 11?
KEYS: Very fortunately, all of those security plans we did previously kicked in on September 11. But before September 11, I think like a lot of other agencies we were in a mode to open up our facilities, get people down into the bottom of the dam so that they could see what we were doing.
SUDMAN: What about the environmental community and other folks that might be somewhat critical of the Bureau. They also are part of the 100 years of Reclamation.
KEYS: We’re a conservation agency. Some folks might not agree with that, but we do a lot of conservation work. If you look at the history of the Bureau over the last 50, 60 years, the environmental ideas, environmental opinions have changed the way we work. And I think in most cases, it’s been for the good. All of the endangered species work, a lot of the accommodations for fish and wildlife, for recreation and so forth, came about as part of that input from those folks.
This is an excerpt from that interview. The full interview is available in the May/June 2002 Western Water.