What does the dam tell us about the government's ability to do big things?
It was such a big job that no private concern could have done it by itself. It needed the government to oversee it. But there's a downside to that. The people who most benefited from the dam also lost a large measure of local control of their own destinies because the federal government, to this day, plays a key role in managing the resources—mostly the water—that's provided by the dam. This is something that was never anticipated. When the first ideas came up from [California's] Imperial Valley to build a high dam on the Colorado, they thought it was going to secure and supply water that they would control. In fact, they lost control. That's one of the real lessons of this. When you have the federal government coming in and playing such a key role in financing and designing and facilitating the construction of a major piece of infrastructure that has importance locally, regionally, and nationally, you're not going to escape the influence of the federal government in managing that infrastructure.
As BP struggles to cap the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, are there any lessons from the Hoover Dam's construction?
I find it really interesting that the principal criticism we hear today about the federal role is that it hasn't played enough of a role. I think that's an attitude that dates from the dam. The government's reach now is accepted as being so broad and so wide that we now assume the government can come in and fix things. But if you look at how the Hoover Dam was built, the government provided the investment, but the technology on the ground was really in the hands of a consortium of private construction companies, who were experts on various pieces of the whole.
What would the West look like without the Hoover Dam?
There would have been real limits, much earlier, on the growth of major metropolitan centers that depend on water. Los Angeles would probably be smaller. San Diego would be much smaller. The state of Colorado—a lot of its agriculture and the growth of Denver—is dependent on the Colorado River. Salt Lake City is dependent on the river. It's just inescapable. We face the limits, but it's still an enormous amount of water. And it's fully exploited.