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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Taming the Colorado River: Hoover Dam turns 75

Air Date: Week of

Hoover Dam straddles the Arizona-Nevada border on the Colorado River. (Photo: http2007)

The Hoover Dam was dedicated 75 years ago on September 30, 1935. The following years saw the Western US transformed from uninhabitable desert to cities and farmland. Pulitzer prize winning journalist Michael Hiltzik wrote the new book “Colossus”, which documents the history and impact of the Hoover Dam, and spoke with Jeff Young.


GELLERMAN: September 30th marks the 75th anniversary of the dedication of Hoover Dam. When it was finished in 1935 it was by far the largest dam in the world and considered one of the country’s 7 modern civil engineering wonders, celebrated in films like this 1950s era documentary.

[DOCUMENTARY: “Build a dam in the wilderness, and the world will build a path to it. For many centuries, this was a lonely canyon, unseen and untouched by man. Scorched by a desert sun. Scolded by an angry river slashing its way to the mother sea. Now it lies peaceful and silent, except for the gentle hum of a hydroelectric power plant. The bubbling up of water as it leaves mighty turbines. The cheerful sounds of America on-the-move to see this multipurpose reclamation project man built in black canyon.”]

GELLERMAN: Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the LA Times. His new book “Colossus” documents the history and importance of Hoover Dam. Michael Hiltzik spoke with Living on Earth’s Jeff Young.

A view from the control tower as concrete is poured to build the Dam in February 1934. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

YOUNG: Now the full title of your book is “Colossus: The Hoover Dam and the Making of The American Century.” Why that subtitle?

HILTZIK: Well my thesis, the theme of the book, really is that this project really made America. Hoover Dam provided the water and the power that really allowed the west to grow. And, because the west grew to this extent, really the nation changed.

YOUNG: Tell me a bit about the dam, and the Colorado River, and what is so exceptional about both.

HILTZIK: It’s a beautiful structure, it’s the epitome of machine-age architecture from the 1930’s, and it was a tremendous engineering achievement then. It still stands, head and shoulders above, much of the engineering that we have today. This dam was twice the size of any dam that had ever been built at the time. It required more concrete than had ever been poured in all the dams that the US government had built up to that day. It had to be invented as it went up, because existing construction methods and equipment weren’t adequate to do the task.

Colossus; Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.

Even concrete-- concrete had to be reformulated, new formulas had to be found because mass concrete had never undergone the stresses and strains that this dam was going to undergo. And, this was all done at a time when the United States was under great stress, economic crisis, political uncertainty, and yet the country came together to build it, and it still serves us, today.

YOUNG: Toward the beginning of your book, you have this quote that really stood out to me because it says so much about how people viewed the world back around the early years of the last century. And, I was wondering if you could read that for us. This is from Woodrow Wilson’s Interior Secretary. Who was he?

HILTZIK: His name was Franklin K. Lane. Just to put it in context, this was an era where the word ‘conservation’ didn’t mean the way we think of it today. It meant putting natural resources to use for mankind. The way he put it was, “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.” And, of course the most sinful river of all, was the Colorado.

YOUNG: The sinful rivers? Wow.

HILTZIK: The sinful rivers.

YOUNG: Did they curb that sinful river? The Colorado?

Hoover Dam straddles the Arizona-Nevada border on the Colorado River. (Photo: http2007)

HILTZIK: Well, they achieved a lot in curbing it. But, the river still is willful, some would say it still is sinful. Certainly, the people who lived downstream of the floods in the 1980’s, they would consider it still very sinful. The people’s who lived in the basin, long before Europeans got there, used to think of the river as a dragon because it was so unpredictable and so violent. And, it still has a way of flicking its tail at us even today.

YOUNG: And, the big idea here is to put water to best use for us. But, I was shocked to read in your book how much water we end up wasting, simply because we create these impoundments and allow for evaporation.

HILTZIK: That’s right. There’s a tremendous amount of evaporation, a tremendous amount of loss. Lake Mead, the reservoir of Hoover Dam, occupies the hottest part of the hottest region. It’s the Nevada and Arizona desert. Engineers have measured that twenty percent of the river is probably lost to evaporation each year. On a single weekend, enough water evaporates to serve 17 thousand households for a year.

The white ring around Lake Mead shows how far the water level has dropped since the lake was created. (Photo: loop_oh’s photostream)

YOUNG: And, what becomes of the river after we’ve had our way with it. With the dams, with the impoundments, with the diversions, with the canals. What’s left of the Colorado by the time it finally limps out to the sea?

HILTZIK: The Colorado is probably the most heavily exploited river in North America, possibly in the world. There are six dams downstream from Hoover Dam, now. And of course, one major dam, at least, upstream- Glen Canyon Dam. And that water, every molecule gets used over and over and over again. And, by the time the river reaches it’s delta, it’s barely more than a trickle. This used to be a river that reached the delta with such violence that it could wreck boats in the Gulf of California with its tides. Well that doesn’t happen anymore, it’s barely a trickle. And, the quality of that water is heavily compromised by agricultural chemicals, and salt and silt.

YOUNG: With climate change beginning to show its affects in the American West, what do you think is in store for Lake Mead and the other impoundments on the Colorado as the snow patterns, the snow pack in Colorado begins to change?

Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the LA Times and author of “Colossus; Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century”.

HILTZIK: Well, that’s a very good question. We have a good sense of what’s in store, because it’s been happening for at least ten years, and in some cases, even longer. The snow pack, which feeds the Colorado and eventually feeds Lake Mead, has become very erratic, the droughts have gotten longer. There’ve been studies by the National Academy of Sciences and other experts who say there are going to be more periods of violent flooding on the Colorado, and more periods of drought. Well, that’s very hard to manage.

YOUNG: So much of what you write about resonates with us today. Conflicts about how we are going to generate our power. Conflicts about how we are going to distribute water in arid regions. Whether big public works projects can get us out of an economic crisis… these could be today’s headlines!

HILTZIK: That’s right, well, they are today’s headlines. We’re going to be reading these headlines more and more as the years go on because this crisis is not going to go away, it’s only going to get worse. And, we need to be much smarter about how we use resources. Hoover Dam created a tremendous resource, a great economic boon to region and to the nation, but it’s a boon that really needs to be husbanded, and treated with a great deal of respect.

YOUNG: Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, and author of “Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.” Thank you very much.

HILTZIK: My pleasure.



Bureau of Reclamation on the Hoover Dam


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