The Great Pyramid of the Boise River — the tallest dam on the face of the Earth, staggering and monumental — overshadowed even the feats of the Pharaohs as an icon of human triumph. So said a man named Moses at the 1915 dedication of Arrowrock Dam.
Gov. Moses Alexander, a Bavarian-born Jew, tipped his hat to “the strength of the people” and led the faithful in song. “My country ’tis of thee,” he sang in tune with Idaho farmers. Before them the arching Goliath shot streams through cast iron valves. One million tons of concrete. Two hundred sixty rail car loads of sand and Portland cement. Plugging and pooling the granite canyon for 18 slackwater miles, Arrowrock held enough water for 200,000 settlers on 240,000 sagebrush acres — enough water, said Alexander, to bloom the Garden lost to the fall.
Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015, marks 100 years to the day since the epoch of high-rise concrete dawned at Arrowrock Canyon, forever transforming the West. Plenty since that time has been said about dams as engines of progress. Less has been said about the revenge of technological systems — their costs and consequences, and the judo trick through which a system designed for a lofty purpose sometimes flips the results.
The Snake River Plain with its fertile valleys once seemed ideal for irrigation, but to unlatch the purse of Congress, the bombast had to be strong. Engineer Frederick H. Newell, the founder and first director of the U.S. Reclamation Service, saw in the Arrowrock project a masculine future of pulleys, wheels and bearings, a future in which the slide rule would replace the rifle as a means of social control. Manly feats of muscular science framed the local reporting. “It had been a man’s task,” said Boise Capital News after the dam’s dedication. Newell’s colossus, added the Idaho Statesman, was “strong,” “firm” and “robust.”
Through Arrowrock, the engineers preached a gospel that Theodore Roosevelt called Bull Moose Progressivism. Its higher purpose, said Newell, was “to bring about a condition whereby that land shall be put into the hands of the small owner, whereby the man with a family can get enough land to support that family.” Settlers responded in a rush to the Boise Valley as the Great War in Europe pumped the demand for Idaho crops. Even when prices fell, when the dream went sour and dust took back the valley, the commissioner of reclamation defended the engineering, calling dams “an unquestioned success.”
Today with Anderson Ranch and Lucky Peak plus three big dams on the Payette River, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Boise-Payette Project claims $1.2 billion in annual yield from cattle and crops. Add $13 million from hydroelectricity and $30 million from beaches and boating. Add $170 million for allegedly sparing the valley damage from river erosion and floods.
Karl Ames of Boise, a bureau engineer and spokesman, seemed perplexed by my request for Arrowrock cost-benefit data. “Imagine the valley’s economy without Reclamation’s infrastructure,” Ames said. Yes, the feds fronted the construction money, but the return on that investment, says Ames, has been one-hundred-fold.
But always there are mirages in deserts. An official history of the Boise Project details the tonnage of concrete. No mention is made of Heartbreak Row, the project’s hard-luck nickname; nothing about the summer of 1917 when the failure of the main canal destroyed Canyon County’s wheat crop; nothing about the boosterism that oversold the amount of available water, or about the defection of Arthur P. Davis, once Arrowrock’s chief engineer, who later denounced his former employer for “blasted hopes” and “misrepresentations.” In 1924, as Davis vented in Salt Lake City, the U.S. Fact Finding Commission presented an audit of the battered bureau. Everywhere below federal dams the commissioner found “shacks instead of houses … bareness instead of comforts; cold instead of warmth … mortgages and foreclosures instead of growing bank accounts.”
New mega-marvels of mass at Boulder Canyon (Hoover), Grand Coulee and Shasta mostly restored the bureau’s standing. In the Eisenhower years, however, battles at Hells Canyon and Echo Park laid bare the dam economics. Free-market hawks cried foul on the bigger-is-better bias in the bureau’s cost-benefit data. In 1977, President Carter unveiled a hit list of dams to be decommissioned. Public hearings blasted tycoons and cattle barons who posed as threadbare farmers in order to siphon the subsidized water meant for small-acreage farms. In 1982, the Reagan administration renegotiated the quid-pro-quo: Big farms could still get water but the feds would clamp down on their loans.
Gaps, however, remain between the law and its implementation. “Deadbeat Dams” (2015) depicts the bureau as a ham-handed giant, its “nobility” a glutton for pork. “We need to stop catering,” says author Daniel Beard, a Clinton-era commissioner of reclamation. Otherwise, urban populations will suffer. The Boise River, dewatered, will wander like a lazy bayou. Trout streams will stagnate and die.
“We set out to tame the rivers,” wrote Marc Reisner in “Cadillac Desert” (1986). “We set out to make the future of the American West secure; what we really did was make ourselves rich and our descendants insecure.”
For richer or poorer, the 1915 sensation still freights a heavy tonnage of hope and fear and scientific conjecture. For Gov. Butch Otter and five irrigation districts, the hope is that the feds will cover the cost of 74 vertical feet added to the aging dam. For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the fear is that failure to raise the dam would endanger housing in the crowded floodplain. For Idaho Rivers United, the conjecture is that riverfront easement would tax the environment less than raising the dam.
Arrowrock at 100 remains a beast and a benefactor. Mythic, the structure remains much like Moses saw it: a sublime manifestation of cultural and political values, a pyramid to which all Boiseans contribute a stone.
Todd Shallat, Ph.D., directs the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University.