BuRec: an agency that tamed rivers and made a few mistakes | SummitDaily.com

BuRec: an agency that tamed rivers and made a few mistakes

John Krist

Hoover Dam has never hosted a party as extravagant as the one on June 17. It lit the desert sky with lasers and fireworks and featured a fancy catered dinner for 2,200 celebrants, including Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, several governors, members of Congress, state and local legislators, and an assortment of engineers, bureaucrats and lobbyists.

The high-powered audience came to the desert canyon on the Nevada-Arizona border to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a pivotal event in the history of the West: the signing of the 1902 Reclamation Act. It gave birth to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and thereby shaped the modern landscape of 17 states.

There is scarcely an aspect of the region’s political, cultural, economic and physical geography that has not been influenced in some degree by the public works authorized by the Reclamation Act and carried out by the mammoth government agency it spawned.

But the party at Hoover Dam celebrated more than a piece of legislation and a revolution in civil engineering. The gathering implicitly celebrated as well the blend of myth, denial, determination and paradox that is the very soul of the West. For just as the Reclamation Act is the purest statutory expression of our attitudes regarding land, nature and society that guided settlement in the West, BuRec, as the agency has come to be called, is the institutional embodiment of those attitudes.

BuRec has built more than 600 dams and reservoirs at a cost the General Accounting Office has calculated to be $21.8 billion. By its own accounting, the bureau operates 58 power plants that generate 40 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year and light 6 million homes.

BuRec delivers 10 trillion gallons of drinking water annually to more than 31 million people. It provides irrigation water to 140,000 farmers whose 10 million acres of cropland produce 60 percent of the nation’s vegetables and 25 percent of its fruits and nuts.

Reclamation water grows potatoes in Idaho, wheat in Montana, pistachios in California; it created agricultural empires in fertile valleys and lured settlers into arid, high-elevation lands where farming remains as risky a gamble as the dollar slots in a Vegas casino.

Reclamation dams drowned thousands of miles of rivers, extinguishing their beauty and often their native wildlife, to create lakes where 90 million visitors a year boat, swim and pursue non-native fish.

Reform-minded lawmakers have, in recent years, tried to force the agency to rethink its approach – to reconsider the subsidy it provides to farmers who buy its water at a discount, to inject reality into the Enron-style accounting it historically has used to justify uneconomical projects, to consider allowing rivers to occasionally behave like rivers for the benefit of fish and other wild animals driven to near-extinction by its dams. But there was precious little of that sort of language heard during the formal events of June 17.

In his speech that evening, Reclamation Commissioner John W. Keys III declared, “Reclamation projects remain symbols of American spirit and innovation to this day,” and he noted approvingly that “without Reclamation, the West – and indeed our nation – would not be what it is today.”

His talk referred to the environmental consequences of BuRec projects but once, and only in the sense of building yet again: “We must consider developing new, environmentally sound water supplies.”

A few contrary voices could be heard. But they were confined to a parking lot near Hoover Dam. A small group of environmental activists had trekked there to draw attention to the destructive aspects of BuRec’s work. They were not allowed inside the invitation-only party. And before the event, such groups as Taxpayers for Common Sense had taken issue with it, asserting, “This anniversary is not a celebration but a time to pause and reflect on the need for real reforms in a flawed system.”

The critics had a point. The century of reclamation celebrated recently is a century in which American taxpayers shoveled billions of dollars into the West, underwriting the manipulation of a region paradoxically proud of its independence. It is a century in which the value of real estate development and farming trumped the value of tribal and commercial fisheries, wild rivers, wild creatures, wild landscapes. It is a century in which money and political muscle overcame climate, topography, logic and especially gravity.

Some of those achievements deserve to be celebrated; others do not. They certainly deserve to be contemplated. If a $600,000 party at Hoover Dam turns out to be the catalyst for honest introspection by a region generally reluctant to examine itself, then it will have been worth the price.

John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is senior reporter and columnist for the Ventura (Calif.) Star.

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