Las Vegas Sun

December 22, 2014

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Bureau has birthday bash at Hoover Dam

The workers who built Hoover Dam in the 1930s were used to the explosions that thundered through Boulder Canyon to make way for the dam.

On Monday night some of those same workers again heard the sound of explosions reverberating through Boulder Canyon, as the Bureau of Reclamation celebrated its centennial by lighting up the sky over Hoover Dam with fireworks.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton joined Gov. Kenny Guinn and a crowd of more than 2,000, including current and former Bureau of Reclamation employees, to celebrate the agency's role in bringing water and power to the Western United States.

Norton called the bureau's history "a century of progress, a century of making the arid west bloom."

"(The Bureau of Reclamation) has changed the course of rivers, filled irrigation ditches, enabled new communities and fed a hungry nation," Norton told the crowd assembled at the base of the dam, the agency's premier project.

Guinn said that the Bureau of Reclamation's legacy is seen in mammoth structures like the 726-foot Hoover Dam.

"Hoover Dam is often defined as one of the wonders of the world," Guinn said. "Before the Bureau of Reclamation built the dam Las Vegas was little more than a hot and dusty railroad stop between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City."

Carl Hoffman, a 94-year-old who helped design the dam, said Guinn was right with his characterization of Las Vegas in the early '30s.

"This is the thing that made the West," Hoffman said. "When I came in 1933, Las Vegas was just a whistle-stop."

Hoover Dam meets the domestic water and irrigation needs of more than 18 million people in Nevada, Arizona and California. The dam generates 4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, enough to serve 1.3 million people.

While Hoover is a major project, the Bureau of Reclamation operates a total of about 180 projects in 17 Western States, providing water to about 33 percent of the population in the American West. Dams and Bureau of Reclamation power plants generate more than 34 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.

While the electricity and water provided by reclamation projects is easily identifiable, protesters argued that the projects can harm ecosystems and destroy environments.

About 40 activists parked a dump truck full of Colorado River sediment on the Arizona side of the dam Monday morning.

Owen Lammers, executive director of Living Rivers, an organization dedicated to preserving natural environments, said that dams stop rich sediment needed by plants and animals from traveling down river.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John Keys, said that he understood the concern and that the bureau is looking at ways to address the problem.

"The dams are here," Keys said. "We're not going to spend money to decommission dams, but we will spend money to find ways to adapt."

The Bureau of Reclamation has experimented with flow releases on the upper Colorado River designed to replace sediment in the Grand Canyon and build up beaches and areas for plants and animals to thrive. The last releases were in 1996, and they could again be used this winter, Keys said.

Although the protesters were allowed to set up in a parking lot on the Arizona side of the dam, security was tight at the event. U.S. 93 was shut down from noon Monday until after midnight this morning, and guests were bused down to the dam from a staging area about two miles away.

Although security concerns at Bureau of Reclamation projects have moved to the forefront since Sept. 11 the projects themselves continue to run in much the same way they have for most of the last century.

In July 1902, Interior Secretary Ethan Allen Hitchcock established the United States Reclamation Service within the U.S. Geological Survey, to study potential water development projects in Western states. In 1907 the service was separated from the Geological Survey, and an independent bureau was established under the Department of the Interior.

Congress authorized Hoover Dam, then known as Boulder Canyon Dam, to be built in 1928 marking the start of the heyday of reclamation construction of water facilities that occurred during the Depression and the 35 years after World War II.

The Bureau of Reclamation spent about $200,000 for the event, and Water for the West, a non-profit organization of water users and businesses created for the celebration, spent $400,000.

The Bureau of Reclamation's bill went mostly toward security and also included the loss in power caused by the need to shut down some generators Monday while guests ate a dinner of beef brisket and Caesar salad in the dam's two powerhouses.

Some of those in attendance were invited guests and others had contributed $5,000 toward the celebration.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.