The Legacy Of Dam Architect Floyd Dominy

Correction May 5, 2010

Our story incorrectly said that David Brower was the founder of the Sierra Club. John Muir founded the Sierra Club. David Brower was executive director of the Sierra Club from 1952 to 1969. Our story also incorrectly reported that a quote from Brower came from an interview in 2002. Brower died in 2000. The quote was actually from an earlier interview that was included in "Moving Waters," a documentary released in 2002.

The architect of the last great era of Western dam construction, federal water official Floyd Dominy, died last month at the age of 100. Charismatic and politically well-connected, Dominy is credited and widely criticized for pushing through the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The man who transformed the arid West with massive dam irrigation and hydroelectric projects died last month. Floyd Dominy served as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation under four presidents, and he's best known for the Glen Canyon Dam that plugged the Colorado River. While conservationists considered that project an environmental disaster, Dominy called it his crowning jewel.

Elizabeth Arnold has this look back.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: He was brash, intimidating and relentless. A cigar-puffing, larger-than-life figure who believed a free-flowing river was a useless river. His purpose, he said, was to give life to a parched land. In this 1997 PBS documentary based on the book "Cadillac Desert," Dominy was downright evangelical.

Mr. FLOYD DOMINY (Former Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation): I have no apologies. I was a crusader for the development of water. I was the messiah.

ARNOLD: Dominy was shaped by his boyhood on a failing farm in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl. His first job, as a county agent in Wyoming, was to help ranchers build rolled earth dams to ensure water for livestock. He built 300 in a single county. His rise in the Bureau of Reclamation was rapid due to his tenacity and persuasiveness with Congress, which kept the money flowing for his projects.

Among his most prominent were the Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge and Navajo Dams in the upper Colorado River basin, and the Trinity River part of California's Central Valley Project. But Glen Canyon, the most contested dam in America, was his legacy. More than 70 stories tall, it stores and regulates water flow, generates electric power and created cities, farms and golf courses in the desert - not to mention Lake Powell.

In the radio series "Moving Waters," Dominy says damming rivers was a way to improve nature and human society all across the West.

Mr. DOMINY: So this is why Glen Canyon is necessary, so you could capture the San Juan and the Escalante and the Green, and all the rest of them. For example, the city of Albuquerque couldn't depend on its 110,000 acre feet of water unless it had the storage capacity in Glen Canyon Dam.

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: John Muir founded the Sierra Club; David Brower was executive director of the Sierra Club from 1952 to 1969. Also, Brower died in 2000. The quote was actually from an earlier interview that was included in "Moving Waters," a documentary released in 2002.

ARNOLD: But Glen Canyon also flooded a vast canyon landscape, and thousands of years of indigenous culture and natural history. In this 2002 interview, David Brower, who founded the Sierra Club, says his organization's support for Glen Canyon, in return for the bureau passing up on others, was his greatest failure.

Mr. DAVID BROWER (Founder, Sierra Club): We found out later that it was a mistake to vote and that we'd been led down the primrose trail, that there would be enormous damage to the river. And the next year, we withdrew our support. Thats a story I'd rather forget.

ARNOLD: While conservationists lamented the effect of Western water projects on the environment, Dominy remained true to his cause throughout his life, arguing that produce from the dammed and irrigated West enhanced the health of all Americans, and that the resulting reservoirs have drawn more visitors than the national parks combined.

In 1969 Dominy resigned from his post and retired to a farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where he raised cattle, made some ponds, and built his last dam. He was 100 years old.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.

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