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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Bureau of Reclamation and
Hoover Dam

Before the building of Hoover Dam, the Colorado River was dangerous and unreliable.  Melting snow in the mountains caused damaging floods during the late spring and early summer.  Unpredictable flash floods could occur in any season.  By mid-summer, the river’s flow was barely enough to supply the farms in southern California and Arizona that depended on it.

In 1905, the Colorado River flooded rich, irrigated farmland in the Imperial Valley in southern California.   It caused enormous damage and permanently flooded thousands of acres.  Over the next 20 years, Congress spent over $10 million trying to protect Imperial Valley farmers from floods.

Reclamation engineers began to study the Colorado River soon after passage of the Reclamation Act in 1902.  They were looking for places to build dams to store the water from the annual spring runoff, releasing it gradually during the summer for irrigation.  Initially the agency built some relatively small dams on the river’s tributaries.  By the early 1920s, most people thought that building a big dam on the lower Colorado was the best way to store water to irrigate the low-lying valleys of Arizona and southern California and to protect them from floods.  By this time, too, developers in Los Angeles and other rapidly growing cities in Southern California had added their powerful support for the project.  They saw the dam as a potential source of water and hydroelectric power for homes, businesses, and factories.

In 1922, the seven states of the Colorado River Basin met to decide how to divide the waters of the river.  Herbert Hoover, at that time the secretary of commerce for Republican President Calvin Coolidge, led the discussions.  Most of the states were afraid California was going to get more than its fair share of the water.  Ultimately, they managed to agree on a document, called the Colorado River Compact.  The compact estimated that the river’s annual flow would be 16.5 million acre-feet, allocated 7.5 million acre-feet each to the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin, and set the amount of water each of the states in the Lower Basin would receive.  The compact also committed the U.S. government to providing some of the water to Mexico.  Some states were not happy about the compact; Arizona did not ratify it until 1944.  It did permit planning for the dam to proceed, however.

Also in 1922, congressional representatives from California introduced a bill to authorize Reclamation to build the big dam on the lower Colorado.  However, it took six more years before Congress passed the Boulder Canyon Project Act.  The new law laid out four goals for the new dam:  prevent floods, improve navigation on the river, store and deliver the Colorado’s waters, and generate electric power. 

Reclamation’s engineers were looking forward to designing the huge dam.  By this time, they were among the most knowledgeable and experienced dam builders in the world, but even they had never done anything this big.  Hoover Dam would be the highest dam in the world, far taller than anything they had built so far.  The lake it created would be the largest in the world.

The proposed dam would be so tall and the pressure of the water it held back so great that many people were worried.  They weren’t sure that even Reclamation’s engineers had enough knowledge and experience to make the dam strong and safe.  Others wondered whether the expected benefits would be enough to justify the enormous cost.  Despite these questions, planning and design went forward. 

In March 1931, Reclamation awarded the contract to build the dam to Six Companies, Inc.  Six Companies was a group of some of the largest construction companies in the country.  They joined specifically for this project.  The contract divided the work between Six Companies and Reclamation.  Reclamation engineers designed the dam and created the hundreds of detailed plans and specifications that the contractors would follow.  They paid for all supplies and inspected the contractor’s work.  If the work was consistent with the plans, they approved it for payment.  Six Companies was responsible for converting Reclamation’s designs into actual concrete and steel.  They hired and housed the workers.  They transported supplies to the dam site.  They were responsible for keeping the project on schedule and within budget.

The plan was for construction to start in the fall of 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, which had begun with the stock market crash of 1929.   Herbert Hoover, now president, wanted to start work on the dam earlier, probably as a way to ease high unemployment.  Work actually began during the summer and continued around the clock until the dam was completed in 1935, two years ahead of schedule.  By this time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, had been elected president.

The huge dam on the Colorado captured the imagination of journalists, authors, and filmmakers.  It was conceived and launched under Republican administrations, but for many people it seemed to represent Roosevelt’s New Deal in action.  The New Deal was famous for using public works projects to put Americans back to work.  During a dark time, Hoover Dam seemed to transcend Americans’ fears about the future. In the early 21st century, almost a million visitors a year still come to see the great dam on the Colorado River.

Hoover Dam is 1,244 feet long at the top.  It is 726 feet high from the lowest point of the foundation to the crest.  The dam is 660 feet thick at the base and tapers to 45 feet thick at the top.  Its reservoir was the largest artificial lake in the world for decades and is still the largest in the United States.  The huge volume of water stored in the reservoir weighs so much that it deformed the earth’s crust, causing more than 600 small earthquakes in the late 1930s.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why did many people think something needed to be done to control the Colorado River? What sort of problems did the river create? What benefits would controlling it provide and to whom?

2. Why were congressional representatives from the state of California the leading supporters of a big dam on the Colorado?

3. Why do you think President Coolidge's secretary of commerce led the discussions leading up to the Colorado River Compact? What role might the federal government be able to play in making decisions like this?

4. An acre-foot is the volume of water that would cover one acre one foot deep. Why do you think they used a measure like that, rather than something like gallons? How many gallons of water are in an acre-foot? How much would that weigh?

5. Why do you think Reclamation’s engineers were excited about building the big dam?  What were some of the concerns people had about its construction?

6. How did Reclamation and Six Companies divide the work on the dam?

Reading 1 is adapted from Joan Middleton, “Hoover Dam" (Mohave County, Arizona, and Clark County, Nevada) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1981); Joan Middleton and Laura Feller, “Hoover Dam" (Mohave County, Arizona, and Clark County, Nevada) National Historic Landmark documentation (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1985); William D. Rowley, The Bureau of Reclamation:  Origins and Growth to 1945, Vol. 1 (Denver CO: Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2006); and Donald C. Jackson, “”Origins of Boulder/Hoover Dam:  Siting, Design, and Hydroelectric Power,” in The Bureau of Reclamation : History Essays from the Centennial Symposium (Denver, CO:  Bureau of Reclamation Department of the Interior, 2008), 273-288.


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