By Emily Clever
Corruption, greed, scandal and tragedy; things you don’t expect to read in a book about dams and water. I would say all that is missing is a sex scandal, but even that gets a brief mention.
When people think about water problems in the western United States they may consider them a more recent phenomenon. However, the root of the problems go back to the initial settlement of the West. The history of dams and water resources in the West is long and complex, I highly recommend creating a timeline as you read.
One of the prominent beliefs at the time the West was beginning to be settled was that water would follow the people. It is a belief that could be perceived as partially true, people have settled the West and water has followed, but it has not done so through natural processes. The water has followed the people because it has been directed to do so. There was another belief that followed as water was beginning to be diverted for human use, and that was any water that wasn’t being used for human purposes was being wasted. Add in competition between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers for money and projects, mix in some corruption at multiple levels and the result has been a haphazard building of dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, irrigation canals and destruction of large swaths of land.
Corruption and lack of laws being enforced allowed people to amass large areas of land, much larger than the 160 acre plots granted under the Land Act. That gets mixed with ridiculous schemes built by the Bureau of Reclamation. A dam could be built and the electricity provided and water purchased by farmers would be used to repay part of the costs. Through some creative accounting and interest free loans the costs of many if not all the projects would never be repaid. Water was being sold for much less than it cost to provide allowing those who had amassed huge areas of land to get highly subsidized water and grow lucrative crops making those few quite wealthy.
True costs of all these mismanaged projects is much greater than the price tag put on them. Habitat for waterfowl, fish and numerous other animals has been destroyed. Indigenous groups have been moved from their land so that it could be flooded for a reservoir and was considered a benefit of the project. Land has become salt logged making it inhospitable for possible future production. Small farmers have been pushed out of the market while large farming corporations were making large profits using taxpayer subsidized water. Aquifers are being drained and poisoned simultaneously. This book also provides a nice background for next month’s book, The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman.
Chances are you have heard about Oroville Dam since it has been in the news recently due to concerns that it would collapse and unleash a devastating flood. There is an entire chapter in the book covering its history. If you don’t have time to read all 500+ pages of the book, read the chapter Chinatown about the Oroville Dam and it will provide you with a prime example of what was happening with water development. There is also a special on National Geographic titled Water & Power: A California Heist on tonight and may show again before book club if you can’t get the book.
Book club discussion will be held Tuesday night March 28th, 7 pm at the River Action Office 822 E River Drive Davenport, IA.