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Agency Made the Desert Bloom, But at a Price

Environment: The Bureau of Reclamation has irrigated the West for 100 years. Critics say it has also wreaked havoc with habitats and economies along the way.

June 16, 2002|JEFF BARNARD | Associated Press Writer

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — When President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Reclamation Act of 1902, he gave a new government agency the unambiguous charge to go forth and make the desert bloom by bringing water to family farms.

The idea, says University of Oklahoma historian Donald J. Pisani, was to boost the West out of the depression of the 1890s by helping populate the vast empty lands with yeomen farmers.

A century later, the family farms are mostly history, and the Bureau of Reclamation is looking at a much more complicated world, balancing endangered species against large-scale agriculture, industry, growing cities, and Indian tribes.

As the bureau prepares for its centennial celebration Monday in Las Vegas near its proudest achievement, the towering Hoover Dam, not everyone touched by federal water projects is ready to eat cake.

"The bureau has done everything it could to do one thing and one thing well, and that is deliver water to farmers," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. "But it completely wrecked some of the region's most important rivers" and the fishing economies that went with them.

"That's what happens when 19th century policies collide with 21st century needs," said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The bureau has failed to change its policies to meet the real needs of the West. And I don't mean just environmental needs. The environmental, economic and community needs of the 21st century."

Back when nature was for conquering and the effects of turning whole watersheds upside down was not understood, the bureau produced some of the nation's greatest engineering achievements.

Its 180 water projects in 17 Western states include the Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border and the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, both on the Colorado River; the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington; and the sprawling Central Valley Project in California.

The bureau is the nation's biggest wholesale water supplier, providing 10 trillion gallons of water to 31 million people annually.

That water, much of it subsidized, supplies one of every five Western farms, producing 60% of the nation's vegetables and 25% of its fruits and nuts. The bureau's 58 hydroelectric plants generate 42 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.

The bureau's goal in the early days was expressed by Franklin Lane, Interior secretary from 1913 to 1920, who said it was a crime to let one drop of water flow unused to the sea.

"In the end you look at the West as a kind of laboratory experiment that is still going on where you have a lot of disquieting signs something is terribly wrong," said Pisani, a keynote speaker at bureau festivities in Las Vegas.

In 1984, waterfowl deaths and deformities at Kesterson Reservoir in California were traced to the toxic metal selenium, concentrated in the water by bureau projects.

Forty years after construction of Glen Canyon Dam, scientists are trying to figure out how to reverse the damage to the Colorado River: shrinking beaches, declining native species, invasion of alien fish and plants, and erosion of archeological sites.

Wild salmon runs in the Northwest and California have plummeted, in part from habitat lost to bureau projects.

Last summer, the bureau's long-standing dedication to irrigating 220,000 acres of the Klamath Basin straddling the Oregon-California border crashed into the Endangered Species Act. With drought making water scarce, the bureau had to cut off water to most of the 1,400 farms to protect endangered suckers and threatened salmon.

Bureau Commissioner John W. Keys III characterized the water shutoff -- the first in the bureau's history -- as the agency's biggest challenge since the 1976 collapse of Teton Dam in Idaho, which killed 11 people and destroyed 4,000 homes.

It is not a new problem. The Truckee-Carson Project in Nevada ran into similar issues in 1909.

San Francisco swells fought the bureau's plan to build a dam on Lake Tahoe so more water could flow down the Truckee River. The Paiute Tribe on Nevada's Pyramid Lake opposed diverting more water from their kokanee salmon fishery. Urban boosters in Reno and farmers around Fallon, Nev., clamored for more water.

Ultimately, many of the farms failed, and the city of Reno became the primary beneficiary, Pisani said. It was an outcome repeated throughout the West.

"Ironically, the Bureau of Reclamation, when it provided Hoover Dam, contributed far more to the growth of Los Angeles and the industrial development of the West than [to] agricultural development," Pisani said.

The bureau's last big project authorization came in 1968 for the Central Arizona Project, and the agency is now searching for a new mission, said Pisani.

Commissioner Keys counters that the bureau has no doubt about its mission, which is to maintain its old projects, build new ones, and develop new sources of water, such as desalinated seawater and treated wastewater.

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