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How Has Hoover Dam Impacted Growth Of American West?


How has the Hoover Dam affected the development of western cities like San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix? We speak to the author of "colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century."

Michael Hiltzik will be discussing and signing copies of "COLOSSUS: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century" tonight at 7:30 at Warwick's in La Jolla.

TOM FUDGE (Host): I’m Tom Fudge, standing in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you’re listening to These Days in San Diego. The Hoover Dam is to America what the pyramids were to Egypt and what the aqueducts were to Rome. More than four million cubic yards of concrete were poured into that structure. Hoover Dam rises 700 feet above bedrock and spans the Black Canyon, holding back the Colorado River. It was named for President Herbert Hoover, but lots of people claimed it as a symbol of power and progress. It did change life in the west, but it did some harm as well, and it may no longer represent progress. Joining me to talk about the Hoover Dam is Michael Hiltzik, who’s written a book about it. He is a Los Angeles Times business columnist and he’s author of the new book, "COLOSSUS: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century." He joins me by phone, and Michael Hiltzik, thank you very much.

MICHAEL HILTZIK (Author): Well, thanks for having me.

FUDGE: And, listeners, if you have any questions about the Hoover Dam or some of your own impressions of it, you can call and join our conversation, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. And, Michael, I hate to start with such a big question but why was the Hoover Dam built? What was the point of it?

HILTZIK: Well, the interesting thing about the development of the dam is that it was really inspired by a disaster in the San Diego area, and that was the great flood of 1905, which inundated the Imperial Valley, created the Salton Sea out of what previously had been just the Salton Sink, and threatened what was already two billion dollars a year in fruit and vegetable growing. What had happened was that the canal that fed Imperial Valley from the Colorado River had been so poorly engineered that the river burst its banks and was raging out of control. Now once the – once that problem was corrected and it took $3 million of work from the Southern Pacific Railroad to get the river back in it’s path, President Theodore Roosevelt went to Congress and he said, you know, we have to tame the Colorado, we can’t have floods like this, and the only entity that’s big enough and reliable enough and rich enough to do the job is the federal government. So that was the beginning of the campaign to build this dam.

FUDGE: Okay, so it was flood control, to a large extent.

HILTZIK: It was flood control and the provision of a reliable supply of irrigation water.

FUDGE: And some people may not realize that Hoover, referred to in the name of the dam, was President Herbert Hoover. Now when did he get involved in the building of the Hoover Dam?

HILTZIK: Well, Hoover had a long history with this project. It started in 1922 when Congress asked the 7 states of the basin, including California, Arizona, Nevada and the four upper states to get together and negotiate a compact to apportion the waters that would be made available by building a dam and creating this enormous reservoir. Now these are 7 states that were mutually suspicious of each other. They’d been squabbling over the river for decades at that point.

FUDGE: And they still are, of course.

HILTZIK: And, well, and they still are, which is part of the story. And to get them to sit down and negotiate an interstate treaty, President Warren Harding, who was president at the time, assigned his Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover, to come in and act as, let’s say, adult supervision.

FUDGE: All right.

HILTZIK: So Hoover actually arranged to get the compact drafted and he did do that.

FUDGE: And you – in your book, you describe the Colorado River, and it’s an interesting description because if you go there and look at it expecting this to be a mighty river, that’s not necessarily what you find, right?

HILTZIK: Well, you don’t find that anymore. The Colorado River in its pristine state was one of the most willful, violent rivers, unpredictable rivers, in the continental United States. It could slow to a trickle and then hours later it could be at flood level. Well, now, of course, it’s the most fully exploited river in the United States. There are 7 or 8 dams on it. Very little water on the Colorado actually makes it all the way to the Gulf of California, which was where the delta is, because all of that water is used, it’s stored, it’s in reservoirs and it’s used for irrigation, it’s transported to cities like San Diego and Los Angeles for city dwellers, so it’s barely a river anymore.

FUDGE: It’s interesting when you live in this age of environmental awareness to look at comments of people back in the old days who were saying that it was absolutely a sin that the Colorado River was allowed to create a delta and flow into the ocean. We got to be using this water, right?

HILTZIK: Yes, you know, one of the interesting facets of this story is that in those days, going back to the teens and the twenties, the beginning of the last century, conservation as a movement had a very different meaning from what it does now. In those days, conservation really meant exploiting natural resources to the utmost extent. Today, it means trying to preserve them in their natural state. But in those days, the idea was we have these natural resources, we have all this water flowing from the mountains to the Gulf of California and yet we’re not making use of it, and we should be doing that.

FUDGE: And my guest is Michael Hiltzik. He’s a Los Angeles Times columnist, and he’s author of a new book called "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century." By the way, he’s going to be discussing and signing copies of "Colossus" tonight at 7:30 at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla so you can make a note of that. Let’s take a call. We have a caller, Jim in La Mesa. Go ahead, you’re on the show.

JIM (Caller, La Mesa): Good morning. Hey, I was curious about a few things. One is how long did Lake Mead take to fill? And, secondly, I understand that none of the water actually makes it into the Sea of Cortez anymore and that there’s a desalinization plant at the border to clean the water up for use in Mexico?

FUDGE: Well, let’s start with the first question. How long did it take to fill Lake Mead?

HILTZIK: Well, it took several years. And Lake Mead has only rarely has ever been at its maximum level, and when it does get to its maximum level, that’s usually because the reclamation bureau, which controls these facets, did it deliberately. So it took probably 5 or 6 years to fill to the point that the reclamation bureau thought was suitable. Occasionally, it’s let the level go higher, mostly to test the spillways and things like that. In terms of how much water gets to the Sea of Cortez or the Gulf of California as, you know, it’s known by both names, you’re right, almost none of it does, and the water that does make it through the delta is, at this point, just runoff from Mexican farms. Now you may be aware that the apportionment of the water between the United States and Mexico has been a political controversy between these two countries for decades. Well, we thought we had settled it with a treaty in the 1940s but now that we have projects like the relining of the All American Canal, which is going to keep more water on this side of the border, there’s more political protest from Mexico. Now I’m not really familiar with the desalination plant on the border but it is true that the Mexicans are constantly complaining that we, on this side of the border, exploit this river so thoroughly that the quality of the water that’s left to them—and they do have a right to it—is very poor. It’s full of chemicals, it’s heavily salted, it’s very hard to irrigate with it.

FUDGE: One of the interesting parts of your story has to do with construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. How many people participated in building that dam and how long did it take?

HILTZIK: Well, if you look at the entire construction period, which lasted essentially from early 1931 into 1936, so we’re really talking about 5 years, about 10,000 men were actually at work at one point or another on the project. The peak employment at any one point was a little bit over 5,000 men. And, of course, these were all, or almost all of them, had been unemployed. Hoover Dam, what was then known as the Boulder Canyon project, was one of the very few truly reliable sources of employment certainly in the west during the Depression.

FUDGE: And Boulder City was the place where they all lived?

HILTZIK: That’s correct. Boulder City was originally designed as the work camp or the residential camp for the workers on the dam and their families, and it had been designed originally as sort of a quintessential Midwestern American small town, almost a fantasy town. They – the government imported plants from the Midwest and the east because they didn’t want to use desert plants which would be natural, and they laid it out in a grid as though it was a little small town in Iowa.

FUDGE: Huh. Sounds a little bit like Palm Springs today.

HILTZIK: It is a little bit like Palm Springs. And now, of course, it’s basically a suburb of Las Vegas.

FUDGE: Uh-huh. Let’s go to Gordon in Del Mar. Gordon, go ahead. You’re on the show.

GORDON (Caller, Del Mar): Hi, Tom.


GORDON: Michael, I’m curious to know about the naming of the dam. I understand it was called Boulder Dam at one time and that there was quite a bit of political in-fighting over the naming of the dam. And I’m not clear when it finally came officially to be known as Hoover Dam. Can you help us with that?

HILTZIK: Sure, I can. That’s a good question, and it’s a very interesting and rather amusing part of the story. Originally, the project was known as the Boulder Canyon project and that goes back to the 1920s, and that’s because the original designers planned to place the dam in Boulder Canyon in the Colorado. Now the ultimate site of it is not Boulder Canyon, it’s Black Canyon, which is about 20 miles downstream and a more suitable site. In 1930 when Interior Secretary Ray Wilbur came out to the desert for the groundbreaking—now Herbert Hoover was already president—Ray Wilbur was one of his close personal friends, they’d been friends at Stanford. He was a great admirer of his boss, the president. He came out for the groundbreaking, gave a speech and at the end of the speech, without any warning and to everybody’s surprise, he said, by the way, I’m going to name this great project after the great engineer in the White House, Herbert Hoover. Now that was controversial then because a lot of people who had helped to get the dam developed and approved by Congress thought that Hoover hadn’t really played a very positive role. In any event, Hoover’s name went on it and then in 1933, after Franklin Roosevelt’s administration came into office, his Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes, who was a Republican but an enemy of Herbert Hoover, erased Hoover’s name from the dam and renamed it Boulder Dam because he thought, well, it’s in Boulder Canyon, this is appropriate. That name stayed on the dam until 1947 when a Republican Congress, a Republican majority was in Congress for the first time in 14 years, Hoover’s name, you know, Hoover had gained some of his reputation back, especially because of his humanitarian actions after World War II, so the Republicans voted to put his name back on the dam. Harry Truman, who was a friend of Hoover’s, got out of the way and ever since then, the official name has again been Hoover Dam.

FUDGE: And the naming of the dam is interesting in light of the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt really tried to make that dam – associate that dam with his policies, which, of course, were very different from Herbert Hoover’s.

HILTZIK: That’s correct, and there is some ironies in that part of the story as well. Hoover launched the dam project in 1930 because he needed some way to combat unemployment. During the 1932 presidential campaign, Roosevelt attacked him for it. There were several speeches in which Roosevelt, the candidate, attacked Hoover, the president, for his spendthrift ways, pre-deficit spending which is, of course, very ironic given what the New Deal eventually brought us. But once Roosevelt was in office, he understood that this project had become really a project on a national scale, that it was successful, it was the center of attention, people all over the country were following its progress. And he was determined to appropriate the project for the New Deal as the symbol of what an active, proactive, federal government could do. So he actually came out to the river to dedicate the dam in September of 1935. In fact, you know, one of the things we’ve tried to do with the book is mark the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt’s dedication of the dam at the river in September 1935. And, by the way, it was a full day of festivities that day, on September 30th, and Herbert Hoover’s name never got mentioned even once.

FUDGE: Michael Hiltzik is the author of the book "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century." Michael, in terms of just architectural integrity and accomplishment, what can you say about the Hoover Dam?

HILTZIK: Well, first of all, from an engineering standpoint, it’s a great achievement. At the time it was being designed and built, this was twice the size of any other dam that had ever been built. The construction techniques, the construction materials, had to be invented almost as the dam was going up. They had to come up with new ways to drive tunnels through solid rock. They had to come up with new formulations of concrete because concrete had never been subjected to the stresses and strains that this dam was going to undergo. Now beyond that, the architectural design of the dam is something extraordinary. It’s really an exemplar of what we call machine age esthetics. It’s got very clean lines, beautiful lines that project grace and power at the same time. And that’s the product of the work of Gordon Kaufmann, who was a Southern California architect who was brought in by the government to clean up the original design for the exterior of the dam. And what he created is something that really contributes so much to the effect that the dam has on people who come to see it.

FUDGE: One thing that was interesting to me is that among the people who really loved this dam were socialists and people who had that kind of vision of government. Why was that?

HILTZIK: Well, that’s because they saw it as an example of what men could do if they applied engineering know how and construction skill and sort of a shared goal and did it under what the socialists called collective management. So they saw it as a way to say that, look, this is the community coming together for the community’s own good, and that’s a socialist principle.

FUDGE: And I think you say in your book that this, the Hoover Dam sort of changed the vision of the west from one of rugged individualism to collective accomplishments.

HILTZIK: That’s right because the dam marks the dividing line in the American political philosophy from rugged individualism where, you know, if you were unemployed, you were on your own. Maybe, you know, a community group would help you out. Certainly this was before the era of Social Security and before the era of so many other New Deal programs. But Hoover Dam was part of that change because it was a government program. Now it was one of the first major public works programs in the federal budget that was designed both to put people to work and also to solve a local or regional problem. And that’s a model that we’ve followed ever since and it was a model that didn’t really exist in the 1920s or earlier.

FUDGE: Michael, how did the Hoover Dam change the west? And how did it change this country?

HILTZIK: Well, if you look at – if you compare the west of the 1920s to the west today, obviously, to start with, the 7 states of the Colorado River Basin have 45 million more people today than they did in 1930. And a large amount of that population growth is due to the ability to grow that was created by the water and electricity that’s provided by Hoover Dam. Without Hoover Dam, San Diego, Los Angeles, Salt Lake, Phoenix, Denver, would not be anywhere near the size they are today. And the largest cities on the west coast might well be San Francisco or Seattle, which don’t require water from the Colorado River. So the dam really allowed this tremendous growth in the west to take place. But at the same time, you know, the way I put it in my book is that although the dam built the west, it also confined it in a straitjacket because now that we have these 45 million more people, we’ve now come up against the law of limits, that there isn’t enough water, really, in the Colorado River to serve all of the demands that are placed on it from city dwellers and farmers and advocates of ecological preservation. So we have these conflicts and one of the lessons that the dam has for the nation as a whole is that it’s very easy to over-promise from technological progress but we have to be careful because there are limits. There’s no such thing as an infinite resource anywhere, and we have to make sure when we look ahead that we realize that. We just can’t exploit these things forever.

FUDGE: One last question for you, Michael, are we – is the time of the great dams in this country behind us? Do we – Or do we still see building dams as a practical way to provide resources to communities?

HILTZIK: Well, I think we’ve gotten out of the habit of building dams, in part because almost every opportunity, every site where you can put a dam now has a dam on it. But I think we realize now something that we didn’t know then or that we didn’t appreciate back then, which is that dams are – they’re very expensive. They’re an expensive way to provide water supplies in a lot of contexts. They have environmental impacts that weren’t appreciated in the 1920s and the 1930s that now we have to appreciate. They do damage to local communities, all these sorts of things. And, in fact, there is – major dams in this country, some of them have begun to be taken down. But we now look to other ways to provide water, we look to conservation, we look to recycling, which are efficient and also cheaper than the capital expense of building a dam. Now other countries are still in their dam building phase, especially China, which is building the largest dam in the world now and eventually is going to have to come face to face with the drawbacks of building great dams.

FUDGE: Michael Hiltzik is an LA Times columnist, and he’s author of a new book called "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century." He will be discussing and signing copies of his book tonight at 7:30 at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla. Michael, thank you.

HILTZIK: Well, thanks for having me.

FUDGE: And I’m Tom Fudge. You are listening to These Days. We’re going to take a break and when we return, we’re going to be talking about a new musical composed and performed in San Diego, which has at its center America’s most famous duel, the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, so stay tuned for that. We’ll be back in a minute.


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