How Boulder Dam Power Will Refinance Colorado River Project, 16 October 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the last few weeks, a couple of notable news items have all but been ignored, especially as the midterm elections loom.


One concerns an impending deal between the states of California, Arizona and Nevada about the allocation of water from the Colorado River, as storage in Lake Mead, which sits behind the massive Hoover (originally, Boulder) Dam, is at its lowest recorded levels and is only at 38% of capacity, while Lake Powell is only slightly better at 45%.  By cutting back on diverting water earlier in drought periods than what is done now in a type of “water-rights pecking order,” in which Arizona and Nevada have to make cuts first, California’s share would drop by 4.5 to 8%.

If the plan is realized, the other two states would still have to make their cuts first, but California would do so when Lake Mead is at a higher “trigger” level than is in place now.  Notably, a huge amount, about three-quarters, of California’s allocation goes to southeastern California farm districts, which didn’t really exist until the Colorado was “tamed” decades ago.  The Colorado River basin, however, has been stricken with drought for about twenty years, though a shortage declaration has been narrowly avoided in recent years.


Reporter Bettina Boxall noted that the determination of allocation was done in the early 20th century when what was considered “normal” rain and snow fall and river volume was actually based on an abnormally wet period in the context of a broad time frame.  Given this and the pervasive over-allocation and use of river water, Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides that imported water to the region, observed that, “It’s not sustainable.  We either have to push it [consumption] down or grow supply.”

The other article is about a plan being floated (!) by officials with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power that would create a wind and solar powered pump station twenty miles downstream of the dam that would pump water back to the lake during period of low electricity demand and release it downstream when demand is higher.


The plan would cost a hefty $3 billion and affect downstream communities and water users, but Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti stated that the cost of inaction would be in the hundreds of billions, if not low trillions, of dollars to deal with the ramifications of wildfires, loss of farmland to drought, and other effects, much of which is widely linked to climate change.  With California committed to a zero-emissions mandate in under three decades, the argument for the project is that we can’t wait any longer to deal with a growing problem. As Garcetti added, “we really have the same electricity lines, the same water.  We realize that our fates are tied together.”

It is instructive, then, to look at today’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection, comprising a letter, envelope and pamphlet, the latter issued on 16 October 1928, promoting the idea that the building of Boulder Dam and its hydroelectric component project would refinance the Colorado River project.  The pamphlet was published by what was then still called the Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light, rechristened several years later as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP.)


The letter, dated 30 November and sent to the Peerless Amusement Machine Company of Los Angeles, was from G.G. Young, publisher of William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner newspaper, which reprinted the Bureau of Power and Light’s report for broader consumption.  The missive observed that the report was “made at the request of the Congressional Colorado River Commission” by the bureau and that it “shows conclusively that the power demand in Southern California will pay all charges, principal and interest, on the Boulder Dam project.”

It added that basing future growth in the region on elements like population, industry, bank deposits, postal receipts, building and others were “even more conservative than the figures warrant.”  Consequently, it was averred, it was alleged that the report offered “the soundest possible reasons” why the project “should proceed without further delay.”


On the letter’s reverse is a 1925 statement by the Examiner observing that California was much larger than Britain and Italy, with a fraction (5 million) of the population of those two nations, which then totaled about 43 and 39 million, respectively.  Yet, its land mass had plenty of room for much more and “One California city alone—Los Angeles—is planning accommodations for a city larger than London, with its seven and a half million.”  Today, California has about 40 million people, about where Italy and Britain were in the mid-1920s (the U.K. is at about 65 million and Italy has about 60 million), though Los Angeles has about half the population of London (roughly 4 million to the 8 million in the British metropolis.)


As for the report, it is pretty typical of early 20th century documents that utilize statistical data from the recent past and forecasts of the near future to predict the success of massive public works projects that really came of age at the very end of the prior century through those first few decades of the new one.  Generally, there was an unflagging belief that engineering, planning and large-scale construction of the built environment could “tame” the natural world.

Consequently, the mind-numbing tables, charts and statements that project a sense of authority, abundant evidence, plausible forecasting, and a clear sense of purpose and benefit serve to justify the enormous financial and human resources that went into the Boulder Dam project.


So, tables showed past and estimated future population in Los Angeles (including compared to other major American cities); measured the growth of building permits; showed past and estimated future electric power requirements for the city, Southern California region and state; gave detail on electrical horsepower installed in the state in the preceding fifteen years; and projected costs for the project, among others.

A series of charts showed past figures and projected amounts of the absorption of Boulder Dam power development by the region’s market; outlines the power load serve “illustrating [the[ stimulating effect of an abundant supply of cheap hydroelectric power and the depressing effect of a power shortage;” gave past figures and estimated future population; estimated the increase of kilowatt hours in a variety of load types used in Los Angeles, Southern California, and California; and showed growth in building permits, bank clearings, postal receipts and manufactured products in Los Angeles; and more.


As noted above, however, what was not anticipated was that much of the projections of Colorado River water levels were based on an abnormal normal—that is, the belief that rain and snow fall systematically measured in recent decades was normal and was actually an aberration in the broad expanse of time.  Moreover, the projections of accelerated growth in all the areas shown on the tables and charts could not account, of course, for the turbulence of the Great Depression and the strict measures of World War II, much less the massive development of the region after 1945.

Finally, such a report could also not take into account what we now know about the unintended consequences of large-scale development, the use of natural resources, the effects of pollution and emissions, and how to recalibrate planning to respond to these consequences once they were understood and accepted, provided these latter are.


That’s why a look at this report, filled as it is with technical data, is instructive in comparison with the articles cited at the beginning of this post and reflective of how history does matter in linking the past to the future.  We are clearly at a point in which accepted standards and resulting behaviors from the past, well-intentioned and thoroughly engineered as they are, have to be reexamined and repositioned as we confront new realities.

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