On dams, pipes, and western water

When I interviewed Mike Connor, the Bureau of Reclamation’s then-newly minted commissioner, back in 2009, one of his central points was that the era of American dam building was behind us:

Michael Connor, the New Mexican who took over as head of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation three months ago, inherited an empire.

It is an empire built by predecessors like the famed dam builder Floyd Dominy, the man who built Glen Canyon Dam.

But when Connor went back to reread Dominy’s story recently in preparation for a talk, he realized how different things are today.

More than perhaps any other government agency, Reclamation shaped the West. The great dam builder of the 20th century, it is the agency behind Hoover and Glen Canyon dams.

Those days are gone, Connor said in a recent interview. “There was a lot of good,” he said, “and there was a lot of bad.”

This has become a truism, but Barry Nelson (NRDC) and Denise Fort (University of New Mexico), have a new report pondering a followup question that had me smacking my forward because it, in retrospect, seems so obvious. But I’d never quite framed it this way. Are we entering the era of pipe-building instead? Because while there are no more major dam-building projects on the drawing boards, there are a tremendous number of projects in the west aimed at piping large quantities of water hither and yon. From Barry’s blog post on the report:

Today, increasingly, water engineers are proposing to build new pipelines crisscrossing the West, mostly without the storage projects associated with past water projects. (Only three of the projects we examined propose new reservoirs.) This raises a simple question: where will the water come from to fill these new pipelines? In many cases, the answer is far from clear.

From a journalistic perspective, this report highlights a problem with the fact that, while we’ve got reporters at regional papers covering all of this on a project-by-project basis for their local communities, no one’s really looking at the whole thing. That makes this report a useful contribution.

The fascinating full report is here.


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