The Story of Boulder Dam
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Chapter 1

THE setting of this story is in the southwestern United States, a picturesque land of high mountains, deep canyons, and scorching deserts, of Joshua trees and giant cacti, of bighorn sheep and Gila monsters. The chief character is the treacherous, destructive Colorado River.

Third longest river in the Union, the Colorado rises high in the snow capped mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, zigzags southwest for 1,700 miles, and finally pours into Mexico's Gulf of California far to the south.

The Colorado's drainage basin is vast. It covers 244,000 square miles, one-twelfth the land area of the United States. Tributaries extend their tentacles through seven of the large Western States.

The Colorado is mighty. It slashes through all in its path. It has gouged the rock of the mesas into gorges and chasms. One of the gorges, the Grand Canyon, is world famous, a titanic cleft over 200 miles long, a dozen miles in breadth and a mile deep.

South of the canyons the Colorado makes its way through the hottest and driest region in the United States. The temperature reaches more than 120 in the shade. Rain is almost unknown all summer long. There, dry as bone and shimmering in the heat, is an American Sahara.

Looking down the Colorado River toward Marble and Grand Canyons from the bluff at Lees Ferry, Arizona

The Exploring Spaniards Come

Exploring north from Mexico the Spanish conquistadors were the first white men to penetrate this forbidding land of aridity. They were surprised to find it peopled with Indians. They found that the Indians had attained a high civilization. The evidence was in imposing ruins of communal architecture unexcelled in the Old World. There were well-constructed four-storied apartment houses containing as many as 800 rooms.

How did the Indians manage to exist in this desert? The mystery was soon solved. The exploring Spaniards encountered canals and ditches which guided life-giving water from the stream into fields of corn, beans, and squash.

The art of irrigation had made it possible to establish the earliest civilization in the United States.

One of the first of the exploring Spaniards was Conquistador ??? Alarcon. He was the first white man to view the Colorado. He ventured up the reddish-brown stream 150 miles. He was followed 2 years later by ??? Cardenas, who discovered the Colorado's Grand Canyon.

It was a difficult terrain to explore, or to obtain food or supplies. Cardenas never succeeded in descending the sheer walls of the precipitous Grand Canyon, and the other explorers and missionary priests who followed him were also discouraged by the seeming inaccessibility of the river in the canyon section. To explore the deep gorges seemed almost hopeless. It was two centuries before a crossing was discovered.

So well did the river keep its origin from prying eyes that in early times none knew for a fact whether it was a river or a narrow swift-running strait separating California from the mainland. It was also said in the old days that the Colorado was subterranean for hundreds of miles. To venture downstream by boat in the Colorado's higher reaches was reputed to mean sure death.

A Dangerous Obstacle

To most who had found the river blocking their path the Colorado had been a dangerous obstacle, to be passed over or circumtoured as quickly as possible. To the curious few who had visions of tracing the stream's course, the Colorado quickly revealed that the dream was not the deed.

In 1846 war with Mexico gave New Mexico, Arizona, and California to the United States. In 1849 the discovery of gold at Sutter's mill in California brought adventurers pressing against the east bank of the Colorado. They poured across the river at two widely distanced points. One crossing was near Yuma, not far from the Mexican border, about 100 miles from the river's mouth. The other was "The Needles," 200 miles farther north.

When the land drained by the river became a part of the United States, the feeling grew that it had to be explored. In 1857 the War Department dispatched Lt. J. C. Ives to the task, instructing him to proceed up the river by boat as far as navigation was practicable. He succeeded in ascending in his boat Explorer only as far as the head of Black Canyon, a few miles below the confluence with the Virgin River. This was about 400 miles from the mouth of the Colorado.

In his report to the War Department, Lieutenant Ives said:

"The region last explored is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours was the first, and doubtless will be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by Nature that the Colorado River along the greater portion of its lone and majestic way shall be forever unvisited and unmolested."

In 1869 Maj. J. W. Powell of the Geological Survey achieved the hitherto impossible. He succeeded in leading a river expedition down through the canyons of the Colorado. His expedition traveled from the Green River in Utah down to the Virgin River in Nevada, a few miles above where Lieutenant Ives had been stopped. He covered a thousand miles of unknown rapids and labyrinthian canyons. He became the first white man to gaze up at the sheer walls of the Grand Canyon and live to tell of it.

The Colorado explored, active investigation of the river took the next natural step—the attempt to make it useful. In 1875 Lieutenant Borklane mapped out a route for a canal to irrigate southern California's rich but arid land. Construction on the canal began about 20 years later and in 1901 the first water from the Colorado River poured from Imperial Canal, looping through Mexico, into southern California's Imperial Valley. A desert was metamorphosed into a garden with an all-year-round growing season.

Boat in which Lieutenant Ives traveled up the Colorado River from its mouth to the head of Black Canyon. Copy of an illustration in the Ives report

Flood . . . and Drought

Like all other western desert streams, however, the Colorado ran hog-wild each spring. Fed by rapidly melting mountain snows, it swelled to a torrent which swept over its banks and inundated the country for miles around.

The rich, fertile Imperial Valley is a deep saucer, 250 feet below sea level at the lowest point. Lapping along the rim of this low-lying valley was the Colorado, ever menacing. In 1905, only 4 years after the river had been tapped for its life-giving waters, the disaster came. The Colorado burst its banks.

For nearly 2 years the swirling coffee-colored flood ran amuck, slashing through the Valley's sunny fields and flourishing communities. The finally laid bare the mud-caked havoc wrought by the angry Colorado—ruined farm land, destroyed homes—highways washed away, railroads wrecked. A permanent memento was left in the form of a huge lake nearly 300 square miles in area which today is labeled on the map as Salton Sea.

The Reclamation Service had recently (June 17, 1902) been established by the Congress to develop the arid West by regulating and conserving its most valuable natural resource, water. Here was a Gordian knot to untie.

Protection of the lands lying below the elevation of the Colorado had required the building of levees. Each year the river with its silt-laden floods tore at these. The levees were built higher and stronger. To prevent another disaster such as that of 1905, about $1,000,000 was spent on the Ockerson Levee. It was barely completed in 1909 before the Colorado crashed through. Failing to find an opening into the Imperial Valley, the Colorado swirled westward into what is known as Bee River to Volcano Lake. On this new course the river flowed for 10 years, kept there by another expensive levee system.

Failing to smash this new levee the Colorado deposited millions of tons of silt in its channel, lifting itself still higher. The fight went on year after year.

The defensive measures became more and more oppressive. The cost of maintaining the levees rose to approximately $500,000 a year. Even this large expenditure did not eliminate the menace. About 100,000 people lived in fear that the river might overwhelm them.

On the other hand, there were occasions when the river ran dry. Men walked out on the riverbed and conferred about the emergency. Their crops were withering and dying for lack of moisture. Their livestock must be slaughtered to save drinking water for their families, if this drought should be extended. They were hauling precious water from 100 miles or more away

It was a vicious cycle of flood amid drought. Both extremes threatened the lives and homes of the people of the Southwest who depended on the whims of the unmanageable Colorado.

The Bold Decision

This was the problem pondered by Reclamation engineers. Their study brought a strong and bold decision. There was only one solution: Put the wild Colorado in complete harness. Control it . . . once and for all time.

Could it be Done?

Dammed and under control the Colorado would have vast value. Uncontrolled and unregulated it had very little. The quick run-off and the absence of summer rains made any large irrigation or power development uncertain and unprofitable unless the river could be controlled. Nor could the river be depended upon as a source of water supply for cities. Also, further development by mere irrigation was infeasible—already more land had been canalized than could be irrigated by the natural flow of the river during periods of low discharge.

The area tributary to the Colorado River is composed roughly of an upper basin and a lower basin. The dividing line falls at Lee's Ferry, Ariz., a few miles south of where the river enters Arizona from Utah. The upper basin covers the drainage area in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico; the lower basin covers the area in Nevada, Arizona, and California.

The two basins are about equal in area and are separated by what is known as "the canyon region." The canyon region is a 400-mile bottleneck ??? through which the Colorado has battered since the mists of time. The gorges begin below Lee's Ferry and end with Black Canyon, just below the confluence with the Virgin River.

A comprehensive plan of development required detailed data from both upper and lower basins. Bureau of Reclamation engineers examined a total of 70 possible reservoir sites in the two basins.

The most suitable sites in the upper basin were found to be the Flaming Gorge site on the Green River in northern Utah with a probable storage capacity of 4,000,000 acre-feet; the Juniper site on the Yampa River in Colorado, with 1,500,000 acre-feet; and the Dewey site on the Colorado in eastern Utah with 2,270,000 acre-feet.

The chief defect of the proposed reservoir sites in the upper basin was their smallness. None was large enough to regulate the river. Another disadvantage was the distance from where regulation was most needed. They were hundreds of miles away from the irrigable fields of Arizona and California. Again, there were too many tributaries below them which might cause destructive floods.

The lower basin had two good sites. They were Boulder Canyon and Black Canyon. Each had the huge capacity of over 30,000,000 acre-feet, but the engineering problems were equally tremendous.

Sketch of Black Canyon, made by Lieutenant Ives in 1857

The Black Canyon Site

The engineers favored the sites in the lower basin. The Bureau of Reclamation intensified investigations there. Engineers made geologic and topographic surveys, starting in 1919. Investigations showed that certain conditions favored Black Canyon over Boulder Canyon. The depth to bedrock was less, the geologic structure was better, and a dam of smaller dimensions would give the same reservoir capacity. From 1920 to 1923 the engineers actually lived in Black Canyon, diamond drilling and testing the rock.

The rock had to offer an unquestionably sound foundation. It was to support the highest dam the world had ever seen.

In Black Canyon these Reclamation engineers hoped to build a dam so high it would create a reservoir large enough to store the entire flow of the Colorado River—including all its savage floods—for 2 whole years.

The proposed dam would be located below the large tributaries, and be able to control them. It would create a power head within transmission reach of the great power markets of southern California. It would be in the midst of a heavily mineralized region in Nevada and Arizona where low-cost power could produce strategic metals.

The surveying engineers faced the most trying working conditions. Waves of heat reflected from the canyon walls sometimes raised the temperature to 130 in the shade. Cloudbursts washed away roads leading to the camps. High winds leveled the tents. Sudden floods wrecked drill barges.

In 1924 the Bureau of Reclamation submitted eight volumes of painstakingly accumulated field data to the Secretary of the Interior. The report emphasized the possibility of a high dam at Boulder or Black Canyon (also called Lower Boulder Canyon) in the lower basin. There, it was shown, in either of these deep canyons on the Colorado about 400 miles from its mouth, a large storage dam could master the river.

A report of the Senate Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation in March 1928 agreed that "The overwhelming weight of opinion favors the Boulder or Black Canyon site . . . Natural conditions at this point are extremely favorable for the construction of a great dam at a minimum of cost."

A board of consulting engineers also reviewed the attributes of the two sites. It agreed with Reclamation engineers that Black Canyon was the better site.

The locale for the greatest piece of engineering work in the world was settled.

Engineers and the general public had been referring to the future structure as Boulder Dam. The name clung, despite the decision to build the great dam in Black Canyon, and became fixed by usage.

In mastering the Colorado, the engineering was but one phase of the problem. Another—the legislative phase—had also to be solved.

The most difficult legislative aspect was the equitable division of the water.

The people who lived in the Colorado River Basin were dependent on the river. Wherever they lived, their right to use Colorado River water for irrigation was far more valuable than their title to the land.

(click on image for a PDF version)

Dividing the Waters

To determine these water rights and protect them against conflicting rights or claims was much more involved than the mere establishment of land titles. The land was fixed, but the water coming from the melting snows fluctuated with every change of temperature and in every month of the irrigation season.

The rights to the water which flowed down the sides of Fremont's Peak into upper Green River were determined by Wyoming laws which governed diversions from the river as long as it was within the boundaries of that State. When the river passed into Utah it became subject to the laws of Utah, and in succession to those of Nevada, Arizona, and California. The laws of New Mexico applied to the San Juan tributary. Beyond the international boundary, Mexico made claims.

The laws of six of the States were in harmony in that they recognized the right to appropriate the water, take it out and apply it to beneficial use. They were also in general agreement on the methods of determining how much water could be beneficially used, and the means employed to regulate diversion.

California's laws were different. California had enacted and put into operation a code of laws recognizing appropriation by beneficial use but also sought to retain its modified common-law doctrine of riparian rights, the right of a landowner to the water contiguous to his property whether or not he uses it. California's doctrine of riparian rights conflicted with the laws of the other six States.

It was thought also that the normal flow of the Colorado might be insufficient to supply all the uses projected by both basins, and when the idea of a great storage dam in the lower basin began to take shape the upper basin States became alarmed. They felt that the dam would enable water users in the lower basin to assert a right to all the unappropriated water above. Not as against existing uses, they said, but as a menace to future development, especially if power were combined with other uses. All the water might not be used for irrigation, but all could certainly be used to generate power.

In the meantime Arizona was formulating projects of her own, such as the irrigation of a large area of the lower Gila River basin and some land in the vicinity of Parker on the Colorado.

Crystallization of issues was a slow process. The States had approached the problem individually. The conception of a division of the water between basins instead of among individual States was a gradual development.

In 1920, at a meeting of representatives of the Governors of the Western States, a proposal for an interstate compact was endorsed. Each of the seven States of the Colorado Basin authorized the appointment of commissioners.

The Commission was presided over by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover on behalf of the United States. After a series of meetings in Washington, D. C., and at various places in the Colorado River watershed, the Colorado River Compact was initialed by representatives of the seven States on November 24, 1922.

The compact adopted Lee's Ferry as the point of division between the upper and lower basins and effected an allocation of water between the two basins, leaving to future adjustments the division of water within each basin.

Black Canyon—site of Boulder Dam

The Boulder Canyon Project Act

On December 21, 1928, the Boulder Canyon Project Act, presented to Congress in the Swing-Johnson bill, became law.

As finally passed, the Boulder Canyon Project Act: Approved the Colorado River Compact and made provision that in the event only six States should ratify, the compact should become effective as a six-State compact, provided California was one of the adhering parties, and provided also that California should agree to limit her use of water to the benefit of the other six States; authorized the construction of a dam at Black Canyon or Boulder Canyon; authorized construction of an All-American Canal connecting the Imperial and Coachella Valleys with the Colorado River; and authorized the expenditure of $165,000,000 for construction.

Six of the States ratified the compact. Arizona declined.

According to Charles B. Ward, chairman of the Arizona-Colorado River Commission, "The reasons for Arizona's refusal to ratify the seven States' compact were (1) Arizona objected to the inclusion of the Gila; and (2) while the prior appropriations doctrine would thereby be destroyed between the two basins by the allocation of waters to each of them, yet it would remain in full force and effect as between California and Arizona, and that while the upper basin States had escaped the danger which they had feared by California appropriating a great amount of water through the All-American Canal that it intended to build, yet the same danger would still confront Arizona."

The authorization for the great damn listed the following purposes:

(1) river navigation and flood control; (2) irrigation and domestic water supply and the satisfaction of present perfected rights; and (3) power.

The act established a unique method of financing construction. It established a special fund designated as the Colorado River Dam Fund. This fund was to bear somewhat the same relation to the Treasury as a subsidiary might have to a parent corporation. To this fund the act authorized the transfer from the Treasury of $165,000,000.

A condition precedent to the construction was that the Secretary of the Interior should provide for revenues adequate to insure operation, maintenance, and amortization. These revenues were to repay, within 50 years, all advances for the construction of Boulder Dam reimbursable under the act, with interest. They were to come mainly from the sale of power to be generated at the dam.

The necessary contracts for the sale of power for payment for the great dam were speedily arranged and concluded.

The stage for the drama was now set. The engineers could go to work.

The Bureau of Reclamation had a job, which would draw to the uttermost on its quarter of a century of experience and skill.

Drill barge exploring Hole 1-4, testing thickness of lava in the Colorado River bed

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008