The “Messiah” of the Desert?: Floyd E. Dominy and Water Conservation in the West

Concern over the future of water in the West is growing. Record breaking droughts and rapidly growing cities where water is already scarce has strained the current water infrastructure to its limits. The current path appears unsustainable, so in the words and imagery of W.B. Yeats, will the “centre…hold“?

I grew up in a small town in the Big Horn Basin of Northwest Wyoming. It’s a desert that has been nourished by the visions of people like William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and John Wesley Powell––my hometown actually bears Powell’s name. There’s another figure though, one I was unaware of until recently, who arguably did more to shape the current state of water in the American West than any other figure. He’s responsible for the dams named Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge, and Navajo. His mark is everywhere across the West, and he made it clear that he knew his impact.

Floyd Dominy (left) shaking hands with President Lyndon Johnson (right). Box 8B. Floyd E. Dominy papers, Collection No. 2129. American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Floyd Dominy was Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation from 1959 to 1969 and donated many personal and career files to the American Heritage Center after his retirement. At the age of 90, Dominy, during an interview with High Country News in 2000, expressed that the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell were his crown jewels.

Glen Canyon Dam under construction. Box 8A, Folder 4. Floyd E. Dominy papers, Collection No. 2129. American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Lake Powell has been a recreation and agriculture boon. Box 27 of Dominy’s papers contain remarks made Lady Bird Johnson in 1966 at the Glen Canyon Dam dedication: “[S]ome 3 million people have visited Lake Powell in the short time since Glen Canyon Dam has been built, whereas only a handful of hardy river runners had ever experienced its natural marvels in all the years past.” She also pronounced that the dam symbolized the “winning of the West.” This statement couples uncomfortably with her quoting of Daniel Webster just a couple paragraphs later, “What do we do want with this vast worthless area––this region of savages…” and her justification of the quote by claiming the “West was indeed an inhospitable land, no one yet realized the vastness of its resources.”

Misunderstood in these statements was that, for many, the land was not “worthless.” It held memory––the lives, history, and power of Native Nations and peoples for whose home this is. Remarks from Dominy and First Lady Johnson contain the brutal philosophy of Manifest Destiny, a rallying cry of the 19th century maintaining that white Americans were divinely ordained to settle and capitalize on the entire continent of North America. Remnants of that philosophy continued to echo into the 20th century and still reverberate today.

I’ve come to realize the very creations that have allowed for the American way of life in the West are faltering, and the vultures are circling. The dams and water projects of Dominy and other western visionaries are now viewed by many as ecological and social disasters. Dominy considered himself to be the Messiah of the West. If his prophecies and miracles were to fail, and some already have, the “centre [will not] hold.”

My home would not exist as it does without Dominy. However, when I run along the canals this summer and see the water flowing from a reservoir just outside of our nation’s first national park, I’ll see poisoned water. Water poisoned by states and a nation that continue to erase Native peoples and abuse Mother Earth.

To learn more about Dominy and western water conservation, see the Floyd E. Dominy papers at the American Heritage Center.

Post contributed by University of Wyoming student Cody Akin.


This entry was posted in conservation, environmental history, Hydroelectric power, Uncategorized, water resources, Wyoming history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The “Messiah” of the Desert?: Floyd E. Dominy and Water Conservation in the West

  1. Charlie Williams says:

    Department of Wreck the Nation.

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