An agency that built the West – and controversy

On its centennial, Bureau of Reclamation stirs reverence and wrath for water policies.

The history of the American West is written in water, and no federal agency has had a greater role in writing it than the US Bureau of Reclamation.

It's responsible for monumental government projects: the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams, massive irrigation systems in California and Arizona, 58 hydroelectric plants. The bureau's 180 projects in 17 states provide water for 31 million people and generate electricity to power more than 3 million homes.

"The West has literally grown up around Reclamation projects – the farms, the cities, the way of life," says John Keys, the bureau's commissioner.

But the agency's centennial, being celebrated this week, is highlighting its problems as well as its accomplishments.

The country's premier water law – signed by President Theodore Roosevelt when Arizona and New Mexico were still territories – was meant to "reclaim" natural areas such as wetlands for farmers and other commercial development, opening the sparsely-populated West and encouraging migration just a few years after the Superintendent of the Census had declared the frontier officially closed.

The law's main beneficiaries were meant to be small family farms. But developers and big corporations have benefited most from it, and it spawned battles that continue to this day. Some of the conflicts (such as the one over the Colorado River) have international implications, while others (such as the Klamath Basin in Oregon and California) pit environmental protection of endangered species against struggling farmers and native Americans.

At the same time, in some critics' eyes, costly water projects have amounted to huge corporate subsidies. Initially, water users were to repay construction costs within 10 years. That was increased to 20 years, then 40 years, and finally to an indefinite period based on the "ability to pay."

"The agency has become one of the main purveyors of pork to western agribusiness," says Steve Ellis of the government-spending watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington.

As they have done for decades, environmentalists also criticize the bureau.

"The bureau has dewatered many ... significant Western rivers like the Rio Grande and San Joaquin," says Barry Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Nothing demonstrates its antiquated policies more dramatically than the fact that the Colorado River ... often no longer flows to the sea." In some areas, projects have led to salinity problems in the soil or concentrations of the toxic metal selenium.

Native Americans, whose treaty-based water rights predate most other water claims, say they, too, have been hurt by Bureau of Reclamation policies.

"The bureau has caused the collapse of salmon and other native fish species on almost every Western river, abrogating tribal fishing-treaty rights and with no consideration of cultures that have depended on fishing for their livelihoods for millennia," says John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo.

Others are more charitable.

"There really was a pretty high level of idealism," says University of Colorado historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, speaking of the bureau's first few decades. Uncle Sam thought it right to help farmers succeed in the arid lands out beyond the 100th meridian – especially during the Depression.

Hydroelectric dams in the West helped power factories that produced aluminum for combat aircraft during World War II. And the cold war accelerated the push for economic development – especially in defense industries.

But in recent years, says Dr. Limerick, "few agencies have gone through a greater shift, and nobody's lamenting the glory days of dam-building."

For example, of the bureau's five regional directors today, only one is an engineer. One is an economist and another is a biologist – a major symbolic change for an agency known through most of its history for a muscular approach to subduing nature.

Among the fundamental reasons: Heightened public attitudes (and activism) on the environment, and stingy federal budgets.

"It was David Stockman, much more than David Brower, who was responsible" for the change, says Limerick, speaking of Ronald Reagan's budget director (Mr. Stockman) and the famed environmental activist (Mr. Brower).

Bureau officials acknowledge a change in methods, if not mission. There's more apt to be pressure to take out old dams than to build new ones. And, as with the US Army Corps of Engineers, there's more emphasis on restoring wetlands and other wildlife habitat areas.

"We are employing such strategies as water banking, voluntary water transfers, improving water conservation and management, improving and developing water treatment technologies, and contingency planning for drought," Reclamation Bureau chief Keys said at a centennial ceremony at Hoover Dam this week. "And, we must consider developing new, environmentally sound water supplies in the process."

Such rhetoric – and the political conflicts that prompt it – reflect broader issues that come as the old West of settlement and exploitation fades, and the new West of urbanization dominates.

"Even if its rhetoric was about family farms," Limerick says of the Reclamation Act of 1902, "it was really family suburbs that came out ahead."

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