by Spencer Howard
Eighty-five years after its completion, Hoover Dam is still considered an engineering marvel. Like many public works it is named in honor of a public official — the 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover — but Hoover’s connection to the dam was much more than the name. Hoover played a crucial role in the creation of the dam.
For many years, residents of the American southwest sought to tame the unpredictable Colorado River. Disastrous floods during the early 1900’s led residents of the area to look to the federal government for aid, and experiments with irrigation on a limited scale had shown that this arid region could be transformed into fertile cropland, if only the river could be controlled. The greatest obstacle to the construction of such a dam was the allocation of water rights among the seven states comprising the Colorado River drainage basin. Meetings were held at San Diego and Tucson in 1918, Salt Lake City in 1919, and in Los Angeles and Denver in 1920. What was needed was a formal agreement for the equitable apportionment of the water between the states.
The state legislatures responded during the early months of 1921 by authorizing their governors to appoint commissioners to negotiate an interstate agreement. Congress authorized President Harding to appoint a representative for the federal government who would also serve as chairman of the Colorado River Commission. On December 17, 1921, President Harding appointed Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as the representative of the federal government.
The seven states disagreed over what constituted a fair distribution of water. The upstream states feared that the downstream states, with their rapidly developing agricultural and power demands, would quickly preempt the lion’s share of the water. Hoover suggested that the water be divided between the upper and lower basins, without attempting to determine individual state quotas. This compromise proved to be the key for reaching an agreement. The resulting Colorado River Compact, signed on November 24, 1922, split the river basin into upper and lower halves with the states within each region deciding amongst themselves how the water would be divided.
A series of bills calling for Federal funding to build the dam were introduced by Congressman Phil D. Swing and Senator Hiram W. Johnson between 1922 and 1928, all of which Congress rejected for various reasons. The last of the Swing-Johnson bills, largely written by Secretary of Commerce Hoover and Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work, was finally approved by Congress on December 18, 1928 as the Boulder Canyon Project Act. The dream was about to become reality.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Appropriations for the project were passed in subsequent years, and construction of the dam began in 1930. Hoover Dam was built for a cost of just $49 million ($760 million adjusted for inflation). The power plant and generators cost an additional $71 million. The sale of electrical power generated by the dam paid back its full construction cost, with interest, by 1987.
Today, in addition to controlling the unpredictable and often devastating floods of the Colorado River, Hoover Dam provides irrigation benefits to over 1,500,000 acres of land in the southwest United States while also helping to provide water to over 16,000,000 people. The waters of Lake Mead also support a variety of recreational uses and provide habitats to a large variety of fish and wildlife, and the dam and lake help to maintain water quality in the lower Colorado River. The low cost power generated by the seventeen power units at Hoover Dam provides enough energy to power over 500,000 homes. And the Hoover Compromise still governs how the water is shared.