May 26, 2010

Hoover Dam's Perpetual Power

Franklin Roosevelt's signature project created more than jobs and energy—it incited one of our nation's greatest transformations

A view of part of the Hoover Dam in 1936. (CSU Archives/Everett Collection)

Wall Street Journal

Seventy-five years ago this summer, President Franklin Roosevelt journeyed west from Washington to place the New Deal's indelible stamp on an outstanding symbol of governmental might.

The occasion was the official dedication of what is today known as Hoover Dam. As FDR told 10,000 spectators at the Colorado River dam site and 20 million more via radio, the dam meant gainful employment, cheap hydroelectric power, reliable irrigation and protection from the obstinate elements, all ripped from a forbidding desert canyon by the hand of a visionary federal government. Eleanor Roosevelt, who accompanied her husband on his visit to the Colorado River, would tell friends that the trip brought home to her the sweeping achievement of his administration as if for the very first time. That the project had originated with Republicans—indeed, it was originally conceived by her own Uncle Theodore—went unmentioned.

It is customary to think of Roosevelt's New Deal as the driver of the social and economic changes that gripped America after 1945. But this transformation really began a decade earlier, when the completion of Hoover Dam heralded a period of explosive industrial development and population growth in the West that would reverberate nationwide. The story of America in the last half of the 20th century should be seen as the story not of the postwar era, but the post-dam era.

The dam did more than contribute to the physical and economic remaking of its region; it prefigured and inspired a fundamental change in American values—political, ideological, even psychological. The path from an America of self-contained localities, each one trying address its problems and needs in local isolation, to one in which every state or local issue is seen as a piece of a broad national agenda points us back to Hoover Dam.

Yet the history of Hoover Dam warns us, too, that the nationalization of regional public works can come at a cost. As the Sept. 30 anniversary of FDR's dedication approaches, the country is debating, even more vehemently than it did 75 years ago, the place of the federal government in our lives. It was people's concerns about ceding their personal relationships with doctors to a remote government bureaucracy that animated the opposition to the health-care reform bills in Congress. State and municipal officials complain about the strings that almost always come attached to federal program funding—whether it's minimum benefit standards imposed on federally subsidized health and relief programs, or wage or employment rules attached to federally funded public works.

Then there's the infiltration of national politics into local contracting. Consider the case of a $54 million rail project in California's Napa Valley, which went, without competitive bidding, to a contractor owned by an Alaskan Native American tribe in 2008 because of a preference written years ago into federal law by former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.

These sorts of conflicts and concerns will only become more common as the federal government takes more of a role in upgrading the nation's infrastructure, whether through stimulus funding or by other means. As the Government Accountability Office determined in 2008, the vast majority of the nation's roads and highways are owned by state and local governments, as are the nation's bridges, ports, transit lines and water systems. Few of these can be repaired or even maintained without some federal funding. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of a major public construction project that can be launched without a huge federal appropriation, whether it is an aqueduct, flood-control levee, highway or transportation link.

Hoover Dam made the West but also confined it in a straitjacket. The growth of such great regional urban centers as Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver was driven by the water and hydroelectricity it promised. But the millions of residents drawn to those metropolises over the decades have had to confront the realization that its promise was equivocal. Today the Colorado River cannot provide enough water to fulfill all the expectations that the building of Hoover Dam excited in the seven states of the river basin. Even taking advantage of its actual capacity comes at a price—as the federal government controls the water, states and smaller communities must cede to it a large measure of control over their own politics and policies.

The dam that would wield national influence was born in a quintessentially local crisis: a series of floods that devastated Southern California's Imperial Valley in 1905.

The valley had been converted from an arid desert into an agricultural Eden by water irrigated from the Colorado via a 50-mile canal. When the river burst its banks that winter, the private company managing the canal proved itself unequal to the engineering challenges and the financial demands it entailed. The Southern Pacific Railroad stepped into the breach, rescuing the valley from almost certain catastrophe at a cost of some $3 million. But the episode underscored for conservation-minded President Theodore Roosevelt—at a time when "conservation" connoted not only the preservation of nature, but the exploitation of natural resources—that the U.S. government alone could marshal the resources and the authority to manage the river for the public good. In 1907 he proposed that the government undertake "a broad, comprehensive scheme of development" for the Colorado "so that none of the water of this great river which can be put to beneficial use will…go to waste."

Roosevelt's successors expanded on his vision, to the point that Woodrow Wilson's interior secretary, Franklin K. Lane, would proclaim in 1916 that "every tree is a challenge to us, and every pool of water and every foot of soil. The mountains are our enemies. We must pierce them and make them serve. The sinful rivers we must curb."

The Colorado was the most sinful of rivers, unpredictable and destructive in its violent moods. In the 1920s, curbing it became a Republican cause, promoted in Congress by Sen. Hiram Johnson of California, whose Boulder Canyon Project Act was signed into law by Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

Even then, the government's traditional fiscal conservatism stood in the project's way. Federal spending, focused largely on the nation's standing Army and Navy and the payment of obligations incurred in wartime (such as interest on war debt and the upkeep of veterans), amounted to roughly 2% of gross national product. By the end of the 20th century, that figure would be closer to 20%.

What changed the political calculus was the onset of the greatest economic crisis in modern history. By 1930, President Hoover was contemplating a vast increase in federal public works spending to combat unemployment. The problem then was the dearth of "shovel-ready" projects to absorb the additional money. Only one stood out, already authorized by Congress, approved by Calvin Coolidge, and nearly designed and engineered: the great dam on the Colorado.

Hoover's successor, Franklin Roosevelt, instinctively recognized the power of great public works to inspire and encourage. Within a year of his 1935 dedication, three more dams would be under construction in the West, all ranking with Boulder Dam as among the world's grandest. (The dam was christened with Hoover's name by his friend and interior secretary, Ray Lyman Wilbur, at its 1930 groundbreaking, renamed "Boulder Dam" by the Roosevelt Administration, and restored to its original name by a Republican Congress in 1947.) The New Deal's Tennessee Valley Authority would eventually encompass 29 hydroelectric dams. FDR began to see himself as the nation's premier dam builder, calling constantly for more projects, like a man under a spell. Seven more dams would rise on the Colorado itself, exploiting it so completely that its once mighty flow into the Gulf of California has been reduced today to a brackish dribble, runoff from Mexican farms.

Hoover Dam inspired more than irrigation works. Even before its final concrete was poured, construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was under way, involving some of the same contracting firms working in the Colorado gorge. The power of America's concerted will and financial resources, demonstrated so decisively by the raising of the dam in such inhospitable conditions, would continue to assert itself over the succeeding years. This was true in times of acute crisis, as after Pearl Harbor, at D-Day, and in the Manhattan Project; and in times of more placid if not entirely tranquil aspiration, as during 1950s and 1960s, which bequeathed us the interstate highway system and the moon landing.

The rationale for nationalizing public works is largely a sound one: in our mobile, interconnected world even regional infrastructure projects produce nationwide benefits. Westerners and Easterners, Northerners and Southerners fly in and out of each others' airports and ship and receive goods over roadways and rail lines binding the nation together from the rocky coast of Maine to the Pacific shore. Who would begrudge the coastal communities of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and Texas the federal assistance contributed to the efforts to combat the Gulf of Mexico oil spill?

But as the residents of the West well know, the price is a loss of local self-determination. The Colorado River Compact—the interstate treaty that cleared the way for Hoover Dam in 1922 by balancing the water rights of the seven states of the Colorado basin—created a precedent for federal oversight of the river. But its full implications did not become clear until four decades later, with the Supreme Court's 1963 ruling in Arizona v. California.

In that decision, nominally concerned with a dispute between those two states over water rights on the Colorado, the Justices awarded the authority to apportion surpluses and shortages from federal reclamation projects to the Department of the Interior. Farm regulations, urban growth policy, industrial development—on these and myriad other issues, any state that depended on water from a federal reservoir henceforth would have to defer to Washington. This was so astonishing an expansion of federal power over the states that the liberal Justice William O. Douglas excoriated the majority for what he labeled "the baldest attempt by judges in modern times to spin their own philosophy into the fabric of the law."

And so Hoover Dam, born in an effort by Southern California farmers and ranchers to bring willful nature under control, became the instrument by which they ceded control over their destinies to a higher governmental authority. A new set of internecine conflicts over water—between cities and farms, big cities and small towns, wet regions and arid zones—would be decided not in the chambers of state capitols and city halls, but in Washington, D.C. That situation continues to this day: For the citizens of the seven states of the Colorado watershed, the most important cabinet appointee in any new administration is not the secretary of defense or state, but the secretary of the interior.

For all that, Franklin Roosevelt envisioned the Boulder Canyon Project in a way that his predecessor Herbert Hoover would have found entirely alien: as a symbol. The dam signified not only man's mastery over nature, Roosevelt observed, but also a people's ability to find greatness by coalescing into a social and economic community.

Roosevelt was fully alive to the totemic significance of what he called "the greatest dam in the world," its elegant machine-like beauty and alabaster majesty. He understood the spell it would cast on every visitor: Hundreds of thousands of visitors had preceded him, peering over the canyon rim during the construction phase at the ant-like workers 700 feet below; afterwards, a million tourists a year would heed his call "to come to Boulder Dam and see it with your own eyes."

Movie companies would set their melodramas against the improbable backdrop of the exploding cliffsides and pouring concrete; novelists would nudge their plots into motion with mysterious events unfolding in the dam's shadows; advertisers would pose their models against its elegant lines; poets would sing of its flawless beauty.

The United States after the construction of Hoover Dam was very different from the United States that built it. The nation was transformed from one that glorified individualism into one that cherished shared enterprise and communal social support. Public construction projects put millions of people to work creating long-lasting community improvements—hospitals, schools, parks and bridges such as New York's Triborough (now Robert F. Kennedy Bridge) and the San Francisco Bay Bridge. From the end of the war to the 1970s, America's economic growth was broad-based and income inequality suppressed, and socially inclusive federal policies such as civil rights, affirmative action and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society were enacted with popular, if not unanimous, support.

To be sure, that change was not all the making of the dam itself; Social Security, the Works Progress Administration, and other New Deal programs forged in the crucible of Depression all played an essential role, as did four years of war. But the dam remains the physical embodiment of this great transformation, a remote regional construction project reconfigured into a symbol of national pride.

Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. This essay is adapted from "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the American Century," due out from Free Press in June.