Thirty years ago, on September 30, 1935, a month before my fourth birthday, Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam) was dedicated. President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a dedicatory address. Although it was only 2,000 words in length, this speech celebrated the achievement involved in designing and building “the greatest dam in the world” and creating “the largest artificial lake in the world—115 miles long, holding enough water, for example, to cover the State of Connecticut to a depth of ten feet.”
Scarcely a fourth of the way through this address, the President changed direction: “Beautiful and great as this structure is, it must also be considered in its relationship to the agricultural and industrial development and in its contribution to the health and comfort of the people of America who live in the Southwest.”
In the next paragraphs, Roosevelt speaks about “one of the greatest problems of law and of administration to be found in any Government,” which is “to divert and distribute the waters of an arid region, so that there shall be security of rights and efficiency of service” to all of the people who live along the full length of the river and it tributaries and depend upon this water for their livelihood and well being. The President declared that what had been achieved along the Colorado River was inspiring to the entire nation.
He illustrated his declarations by describing devastating floods that had recently swept down the wild river and the bone-dry conditions in California’s Imperial Valley that had resulted in $10,000,000 of crop losses the previous summer because of an unprecedented drought. These conditions, he said, would have been avoided had this dam and reservoir been in place.
Roosevelt applauded the role of the Federal Government throughout this project, including the expenditure of $108,000,000 to build the dam and power houses. He called attention to expenditures by states and municipalities to facilitate the distribution of water and power, including $220,000,000 raised for these purposes by municipalities in Southern California.
The President also celebrated the fact that “throughout our national history we have had a great program of public improvements, and in these past two years all that we have done has been to accelerate that program,” in order to give relief “to several million men and women whose earning capacity had been destroyed by the complexities and lack of thought of the economic system of the past generation.”
Then comes another shift of emphasis. Roosevelt declares that the size of this dam and its impact ought not turn us away from the value of small projects. “Can we say that the great brick high school, costing $2,000,000, is a useful expenditure but that a little wooden school house project, costing five or ten thousand dollars, is a wasteful extravagance? Is it fair to approve a huge city boulevard and, at the same time, disapprove the improvement of a muddy farm-to-market road?”
Roosevelt is clear that in addition to the benefit of these buildings and roads, a further value is that we also “add to the wealth and assets of the Nation. These efforts meet with the approval of the people of the Nation.” He devotes a fourth of his address to detailing the economic benefits to the nation because of these investments of public, especial federal, moneys.
One of the most challenging of his statements, especially in light of political ideology and rhetoric in 2015, is that by this “great national work…we have created the necessary purchasing power to throw in the clutch to start the wheels of what we call private industry” (italics added). If only more people in the political process understood and believed this basic principle of American life!
The unsettling fact of this 80-year celebration is that the well being of the Colorado River and the future possibilities of the life that it has supported for so many years are increasingly precarious. On September 30, 2015, the eve of the anniversary day, a brief “back story” article that I read on-line reported that the water of what was once “the largest artificial lake in the world” has receded so much that St. Thomas, Nevada, a town of 500 that has been covered over by Lake Mead since 1938, is now visible again.
In their book The West Without Water published in 2013, B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roan state that there is “a 50 percent chance that both Lake Mead and Lake Powell could reach ‘dead pool,’ rendering them useless for hydroelectric power or useful water storage as early as 2021” (p. 196).
Happy 80th birthday, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead! Let’s hope that you make it to 90.