Hoover Dam's Big Government Lessons

Author Michael Hiltzik looks at the governmental implications of the dam.

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The sprawling cities and suburbs of the American West would not exist as they do today without the Hoover Dam, author Michael Hiltzik says. But without the dam, they might also have been spared many problems that have come with decades of population growth. In his new book, Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist traces the development of the dam from its beginnings under then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover through its construction to the troublesome energy issues it has spawned today. The longtime Los Angeles Times reporter recently spoke with U.S. News about the dam's legacy and the lessons that can be taken from it in an era of big government. Excerpts:

You argue that the Hoover Dam "simultaneously built the West and confined it in a straitjacket." What do you mean?

Hoover Dam provided the water and the electricity to fuel the growth of the metropolitan West. The cities that depended in one way or another on the resources of the dam are Los Angeles, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Phoenix. The straitjacket side of it is that the growing populations of these big cities quickly outgrew the capacity of the Colorado River to serve their needs. So the people who were attracted by the promise of resources faced limitations on further growth and became locked in a conflict with each other over who should get first call on the water and how it should be apportioned.

Did the dam impede these states' abilities to think of other ways to access water and electricity?

It's more that the dam encouraged them to think of water from the Colorado as an unlimited resource. And it impeded what might have been an inclination to look to other resources, or to look to a more efficient use of the resource. And this is something that we are now coming face to face with. There's enormous conflict in California right now over whether they should open the pumps for certain farmland or keep them closed so that the water can flow to the salmon fisheries.

Was it right to build the dam?

This is something that an old history professor of mine used to call "looking at the armpit of history." It was inevitable that the dam would be built, because there was a need to control the Colorado to provide a protection against regular flooding. The Colorado is a really wilful, unpredictable river in its natural state.

In presiding over the dam's construction, President Franklin Roosevelt aimed to appropriate it as a symbol of the New Deal. How successful was he?

Very successful. Roosevelt saw that it would be a great idea to identify himself with it. He did this by going out there and dedicating it, but it was a Republican project almost from inception. President Theodore Roosevelt proposed in 1907 that the federal government play the key role in developing the Colorado River. The seven-state compact negotiations took place under President Warren Harding, who appointed his commerce secretary, Herbert Hoover, to supervise the negotiation. The bill to build the dam was passed in Congress under President Calvin Coolidge, who then signed the bill around Christmas of 1928. And then President Hoover—who didn't want a high dam because he didn't believe that government should be generating electricity when there were private utilities to do it—ended up launching it because he was under tremendous pressure to create a federal public works program to address unemployment in 1930.

Many of the dam's proponents did not believe Hoover's name belonged on it. Why?

One reason was that Hoover had such an equivocal role in the development of the dam. Toward the end of his life when he was writing his memoirs, he took a lot of credit for aspects of the development of the dam that he didn't really deserve. He claimed to have written the legislation, which wasn't true. He claimed to have written the seven-state compact agreement that apportioned the river's water, which wasn't true. Hoover foresaw a low dam much further down the river and one that had no role in hydroelectric generation. He thought hydroelectric generation was something that private enterprise really was responsible for and government had no place in that business.