February 23, 2012
The land west of the Mississippi has always been notoriously dry and uninhabitable, even by the nomadic native American tribes in pre-settlement times. The Eastern Colorado Plains, like much of the Westlands, receives little rainfall each year and relies on irrigation for farming purposes. However, these plains are also among the most fertile in the country and consist of “very deep, well drained, slowly permeable soils” (Colorado Agriculture). The South Platte and other such rivers have provided a source of water for agricultural irrigation purposes, but some water is still lost to neighboring states, and the demand for water had led some resource managers to seek out new means of procuring the increasingly valuable resource. The South Platte flows from the Eastern slopes of the Rockies in a northeasterly direction towards Nebraska. The North Platte joins the South Platte in Nebraska after passing through northern Colorado and Wyoming. The two rivers form the Platte mainstem and eventually join the Missouri River in Omaha, NE. Along their journeys, the rivers deliver much-needed irrigation benefits to otherwise parched regions.
In Cadillac Desert, Mark Reisner documents the history of the Narrows Project, a proposed dam project that would flood Weldon Valley and give more water to several large farms. He does not go much into the details regarding which farms benefit, but he outlines the stories of individuals from all walks of life who are for and against the project. Emerging first in 1908, the proposal drifted in and out of the spotlight during the next seven and a half decades, gaining the most attention towards the end of that period. The Narrows was authorized in 1944, and its proponents began their attempt to drum up local support thereafter. It can be assumed, based on Reisner’s later anecdotes on the politicization of water projects, that the beneficiaries of the Narrows Project might be powerful farmers with financial clout. The project was proposed during a time when dams were less associated with environmental degradation and more with development. The Teton Dam had not yet collapsed, and the West was booming agriculturally. Human ingenuity had thus far provided solutions to nature’s impediments, and those with the means to do so fully intended to take advantage of the technology that was available. While farmers may enjoy the direct benefits of a new dam, some of the politicians involved with the project would take advantage of the economic boons.
The graph below tracks the overall increase in agricultural outputs in the USA. It is assumed that big farms in the Eastern Plains wanted to capitalize off this growth in outputs via additional irrigation from the Narrows Project.
The Narrows Project ultimately failed to pass in 1983. A number of factors led to its rejection. Growing awareness of the environment during the 60s and 70s severely hindered the ability of the state government and the Bureau to garner support for the dam. The Endangered Species Act prevented the construction of dams that would negatively affect endangered or threatened species, the Teton Dam disaster occurred in 1976, and further research on the foundation of the proposed Narrows Dam were all important factors in the dismissal of the project. It is unclear why comprehensive geological assessments were not carried out prior to 1976 for the Narrows Project, but C. J. Kruiger and others took note of the porous, disjointed fragments that made up the dam site and were able to recalculate the projected flow figures. Upon finding that the amount of water that reached farmers would likely be maybe a fifth or so of the figures that the Bureau touted, (in conjunction with the fact that farmers would be paying for the amount that left the dam rather than the amount they received) the project lost even more credibility.
The role of ecologists, geologists, and other environmentalists was much larger in the Narrows Project case than in the past. Lessons learned from the Teton Dam, ecological threats, social issues (i.e. relocation), geological surveys, and the growing environmental movement worked together to prevent the Narrows Project from passing. The environmental and political issues that cropped up contributed to the formation of the Platte River joint collaborative, an initiative that sought to provide a politics-based solution to resource issues that plagued the riparian areas around the Platte River. Because the Platte River crosses state borders, the venture could prove useful in creating joint legislative initiatives that aid in managing the whole watershed.
Despite the many environmental risks the dams contained, different stakeholders benefited from the dam project passing in particular Glenn Saunders and Richard Lamm. Glenn Saunders, who was a prominent water lawyer, benefited from the dam projects passing because it allowed him the opportunity to control water from the mountains of Colorado, which is where the water in the state originates. The most particular case of who benefited from the dam project being passed was that of Richard Lamm. Lamm, as stated by Reisner, had established himself as an environmentalist and had taken actions such as prohibiting the Winter Olympics from occurring at Denver (416). However, it can be shown that Lamm benefited from the dam project passing due to the fact that he wanted an increase in agriculture growth. The water that would be gained from passing the dam project would ensure that the agriculture business would flourish and provide Colorado with an economic boost, even if it was at the cost of the environment.
As it is reiterated in the article above, it is these economic benefits and gains that come from the construction of the dam that many proponents, mainly Lamm and Sherman, kept pushing the decision to establish more dams despite the severe environmental ramifications. As Reisner states, the desire to establish a more stable agricultural industry came as a result of agriculture being the the only source if economic gain during the last 125 years in Colorado. In addition to boosting agricultural production, the creation of a dam provided a means by which to prevent development from businesses, in particular, the oil companies, as the particular energy source that was desired was oil shale. The creation of the dam served as a protection against development which would have prevented an economic stability for the state of Colorado.
This post is authored by Annie Guo ’12 majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in International Relations and Mabel Nevarez ’12 also majoring in Environmental Studies.