One of the best developments for the environment in the West has been the quiet but deep revolution in federal water policy. Over the course of the past quarter century, we have moved from a dam-and-reservoir, build-at-any-cost mentality to a multifaceted approach that respects all that we need from, and love about, rivers.
Floyd Dominy, the charismatic long-serving U.S. Commissioner of Reclamation, epitomized the old approach. Dominy passionately supported the giant dams that created hydropower and stored water for irrigation and municipal use.
Up to a point, he was right. In the arid West, the scant rainfall was too little for farming and the cities needed projects to reach distant rivers.
In Dominy’s era, views on water were steadfastly utilitarian. Nature had to give way to progress.
Rivers were engines of development; recreation, wildlife, and beauty were of no moment. After rafting down the Grand Canyon, Dominy exhorted, “It was boring! You can’t see out from the bottom of a canyon.”
Westerners’ views began to change. Water projects were too expensive and the public chafed over sacrificing rivers and canyons.
Dominy mostly got his way, but when he left office in 1969 his plans to dam the Grand Canyon and build other grandiose projects lay on the shelf.
A fit embodiment of the change in the Bureau of Reclamation is Mike Connor, Reclamation Commissioner from 2009-2014. Earlier this year, he was elevated to Deputy Interior Secretary, the second highest position in the Interior Department. He will carry most of his water portfolio to his new job.
Connor grew up in Las Cruces, graduated from New Mexico State University, and obtained a law degree at the University of Colorado, where he published an important article on Colorado River water flows.
After serving as a lawyer in Interior, he spent several years on the Senate Energy Committee staff.
A listener, he earned respect for his careful, fair work. Eventually, also known for grasping the big picture in the complex arena of Western water, Connor was named commissioner.
Connor’s collaborative leadership at Reclamation was notable.
In a time of low flows in the West, he emphasized conservation, rather than traditional projects, as a source of “new” water. Planning was needed to respond to climate change – extreme warming is predicted for the Colorado River basin.
He was instrumental in securing a comprehensive package of water and energy conservation grants in Colorado and other basin states.
Connor also was a leader in achieving a great initiative, “Minute 319,” a 2012 amendment to a U.S.-Mexico treaty on the Colorado River.
The Colorado River Delta, the lower 100 miles of the river, has long been a metaphor for over-development of water in the Southwest.
By the mid-20th century, the delta, once a wonderland of green lagoons lush with vegetation and rich with wildlife, had gone dry due to massive U.S. diversions. Minute 319 addresses many concerns on both sides of the border, including a return of flows to the delta.
U.S. and Mexican scientists and policy makers worked feverishly to find a way to overcome legal and institutional obstructions.
The effort to revive the delta, and perhaps even the Sea of Cortés beyond it, began last month when gates at Morelos Dam opened to release a “pulse” designed to mimic high spring flows.
For days, the flow made slow progress as much of the water sank into the dry riverbed. Doubters worried that water would never reach the heart of the delta.
Then, on April 9th, it did.
To rousing cheers, sweet nourishment arrived at Laguna Grande, a key restoration site.
Can water regularly reach the delta and the sea? We don’t know yet. But we do know that hardly anyone would have even thought to ask the question 20 years ago.