Science  /  Journal Article

When the Government Tried to Flood the Grand Canyon

In the 1960s, the government proposed the construction of two dams in the Grand Canyon, potentially flooding much of Grand Canyon National Park.

In the 1960s, western politicians and federal bureaucrats were formulating what would become the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which brings water from the river to central and southern Arizona. To provide the power needed to move the water, they proposed the construction of two hydroelectric dams in the Grand Canyon. The chosen locations were outside the protected parts of the canyon, but the reservoir created by one of the dams would have flooded a significant part of Grand Canyon National Park.

Initially, debate over the plan centered on disagreements among western politicians—notably a push by California congressmen to ensure that their state wouldn’t lose out on its allotments of Colorado River water. But soon after, the Sierra Club and other conservation activists began appealing to politicians and the public to save the canyon. By 1966, national publications like Reader’s Digest and Life magazine were reporting on the issue, bringing the idea of conserving natural wonders to many citizens for the first time.

“The movement to save the Grand Canyon from inundation began to resemble a national referendum on conservation,” Pearson writes. “Sacks of letters from ordinary citizens, a great preponderance of which opposed the dams, arrived daily on Capitol Hill.”

For some in the federal government, all this came as a shock. Prior to the controversy, Pearson writes, the Department of the Interior and other related agencies had spent six decades building massive construction projects that irrigated the dry West, transforming millions of acres. During that time, few politicians had stood in their way and the majority of citizens had generally supported the policies.

“Now it faced growing opposition, not just from a handful of environmental extremists, but from ordinary Americans,” Pearson writes. The reputation of the department shifted “from that of a heroic government agency which brought life and prosperity to an arid wasteland to that of a villain who would desecrate the country’s natural wonders so that a few special interests could profit.”