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Yet for decades, no crises developed, because water was stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead during wet years and released slowly to meet downstream needs during dry years. Droughts always ended, and the reservoirs always refilled, at least until the drought that began in 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the dams along the river.
That lack of flow during the drought quickly turned disagreements over how to divide surplus water into hardball negotiations over how to manage shortages, which brought me to Boulder City to visit the federal Bureau of Reclamation, a part of the Interior Department.
The bureau’s offices sit high on a hill overlooking the town the federal government built after Hoover Dam laborers revolted against some of the harshest working conditions documented in U.S. history. They faced temperatures as high as 119 degrees in 1931 while living in tents with their families, who had to haul drinking water from the river by hand. Mothers wrapped their babies in wet sheets to prevent them from being overcome by the heat in the unrelenting desert sun.
They worked — some 5,500 men in all — for scrip redeemable only at the company store of the construction firm managing the project for the U.S. government until Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933. They first blasted tunnels to divert the river around the construction area for the dam and then spent years building the dam itself, pouring sections of concrete 660 feet wide at the base and tapering off as the structure rose 726 feet up the cavernous walls of Boulder Canyon. Workers built a railroad line to bring needed supplies to the site and an on-site steel plant to roll the pipe needed to make the dam and its power generators work.
The project took less than five years, killing 112 workers in the harsh drive to complete it. When it finally was finished, FDR journeyed to the distant desert in 1935 to dedicate the dam — with its elaborate Art Deco–style flooring and doors throughout its interior — before a statue of winged angels on the Nevada side.
The landscaping of the Bureau of Reclamation’s office building in Boulder City consists of natural desert vegetation and rocks. The Mediterranean-style structure, with light-colored stucco walls and a red-tiled roof, is impeccably maintained in this town, today a tourist gateway for 10 million recreational users of Lake Mead each year.
Bob Walsh, the bureau’s spokesperson, drives me out to Hoover Dam, a monument of engineering ingenuity and, as he explains, the cornerstone of a network of projects that have made the Colorado “the most regulated river in the world.” Walsh, a tall, friendly gray-haired man who has spent his career with the bureau, points out the white “bathtub ring” below the dark walls of the canyon as we approach the lake. The ring reveals the drop in the water level since the drought began in 2000, leaving the docks of recreational marinas on dry land and exposing the ruins of an old Mormon farming town that was inundated when the reservoir was filled.
Since 2000, almost half the water has been drained out of Lake Mead to supply the lower states and Mexico. Upstream, Lake Powell is one-third full. Bureau scientists and engineers project that even a return to normal precipitation in the sprawling river basin will never refill Lake Mead, but only stabilize it at a level 40 feet lower than today. They project, too, that it will take decades of normal precipitation for Lake Powell to refill. Only record wet weather will fill the reservoirs sooner, because unlike in the past, when not all of the river’s water was needed by people, today more is needed than flows even during a normal year.
Unless the Southwest can successfully manage its growth-driven water shortage, the bureau’s projections foretell of a day in my lifetime when Hoover Dam — in less than 100 years after it was built — could become but an idle curiosity, a ruin like the ancient pyramids of Egypt.
After touring the mighty dam, with its humming generators and rumbling water pipes deep within solid concrete walls, Walsh and I return to the bureau’s office on the hill to meet Bob Johnson, the lower Colorado regional director.
“We’ve had a record drought,” begins Johnson, gray-haired with a well-trimmed mustache and a deep desert tan, while sitting on the comfortable leather sofa in his office below a Department of Interior emblem proudly mounted on the wall. “In the 100-year record [of precipitation], we’ve had the five worst consecutive years of drought.”
Even though the winter of 2004-05 was a good precipitation year, he says, water officials along the river remain nervous because “more water is getting used; there’s no question about it.”
Until 1995, he explains, the lower-basin states did not use all the water they were entitled to, but when the Central Arizona Project came fully online to ship water to booming Phoenix and Tucson, pressure grew to end deliveries of water to California to which Arizona was entitled but could not use. The states then agreed with the bureau in 2000 that California would phase out the use of that water under a “soft landing,” Johnson says, and use no more than its allotted 4.4 million acre-feet. “Then the drought hit.”