Interview with Jack Loeffler | Andrea Polli

Jack Loeffler is a bioregional aural historian, producer, writer, sound artist and musician. Since 1964, he has conducted field recordings west of the 100th meridian and his archive now holds thousands of hours of recordings of interviews, music and natural habitat, and well over 3,000 songs of indigenous and traditional peoples. Loeffler has also produced over 300 documentary programs for radio, scores of soundtracks, albums of music from diverse genres, films, videos, folk music festivals and museums. He has authored five books and is currently working on several projects including the Thinking Like a Watershed aural history project. He is the recipient of a 2008 New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

I first met Jack during a retreat at the Sevilleta Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in New Mexico where we listened to and watched an incredible flock of snow geese pass through together. I wanted to learn more about the history of coal mining and other energy extraction and production in the four corners area. I knew Jack had some personal history with the subject. He was kind enough to grant me an interview in 2012 at his home archive and studio outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Little did I know what else I would learn…

The following interview excerpt highlights Jack’s perspective on water issues facing the arid Southwest and the complex interrelationships between hydrological, geological, cultural, political and economic forces around the Colorado River, in particular the controversial Glen Canyon Dam, from his on-the-ground recollection.

JL: I mean, the complexity of this, Ms. Andrea, is unbelievable. At any rate, going way back in time, actually, I’m going to do that. But in order to do that I’m going to go back to the start. The last part of this book of mine is a transcription for a radio series I did on the Colorado River. The upshot is, in the early 20th century, people who had moved into Southern California from east of the 100th Meridian had wanted to really commence agricultural practices. And so they started looking at the Colorado River. Subsequently they dug a canal from the river to irrigate part of Imperial Valley thinking that during the winter months the river would go down enough so that it wouldn’t flood. And, well, it did. It was an El Niño winter, I guess. The river jumped the bank. The whole river went into the canal and that is what formed the Salton Sea. Did you know about that?

AP:  No, I didn’t know it was part of that.

JL:  It took two-and-a-half years. And it took everybody and his dog plus the Southern Pacific Railroad to get the river back into its supposed channel. Now the channel shifts over geologic time, but that is what resulted in [the formation of] the Salton Sea. It also set the tone for plumbing the Colorado River. Subsequently, in 1922, a group of people from the seven states that are adjacent [to the Colorado River], that are in the watershed, met at Bishop’s Lodge and Tesuque. They were presided over by Herbert Hoover, who was then Secretary of Commerce. It was determined at that point…that the river yielded about 17 million acre-feet[1] per year for purposes of dispersal of [the river’s] waters, which is what the whole thing was about. That it be divided between the Upper and Lower Basin. The dividing line was to be at Lee’s Ferry, which is west of where Vernon’s house is.

AP:  That’s near Glen Canyon.

JL:  Yes, eighteen miles downstream from Glen Canyon Dam. As a matter of fact, those eighteen miles are what is left of Glen Canyon. Now I had hiked down into Glen Canyon back before it filled. I have a dear friend, Ken Slipe, who is now getting up there, who had been a second generation river runner through Glen Canyon and, boy, he was really blown away. Ed Abbey was totally blown away.

AP: Everyone I’ve talked to at the Grand Canyon thinks the Glen Canyon Dam was just the worst thing possible.

JL:  Yes, but the whole thing is so tied into each other. What happened was in 1922. What was implicit in that Colorado River Compact which determined the Law of the River, as it is known, was California. They were the ones who instigated this meeting, according to Stewart Udall, who really clarified enormous amounts of all of this stuff for me because he was one of my best pals. And, Jesus, what he had to say blew me away. At any rate, Herbert Hoover was in all likelihood California’s agent. In getting all of this stuff together, it was determined that California would get 4.6 million acre-feet of the 7.5 million acre-feet of the Lower Basin, Arizona would get 2.8 million acre-feet and Nevada would get 300,000 acre-feet. The Upper Basin states would divide the waters amicably between themselves. Arizona didn’t go for this and it took forty-one years, until 1963, before the U.S. Supreme Court actually voted in favor of Arizona receiving its 2.8 million acre-feet plus the tributarial inflows, which basically at that time was only the Gila River which enters the Colorado River at Yuma. However, it was stipulated that Arizona’s [allocation] was junior to California’s, which means that if the river did not yield what it was supposed to, California would get the water and Arizona would not. In the meantime, I just talked to my friend Bill deBuys who is an incredible writer and a good friend. He and Stewart had had a conversation at one point which was very similar to the one that Stewart and I had. Stewart said, “Implicit in the 1922 Colorado River Compact was going to have to be the Colorado River Storage Compact which meant that upstream, in the Upper Basin above Lee’s Ferry, there would have to be a reservoir in order for the Upper Basin states to ensure that over a ten-year period 7.5 million acre-feet per year would come down to the Lower Basin. That meant 7.5 million acre-feet per year, but because the river fluctuates, they put it over any ten year period.” [This] was known as the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP), and that made necessary and inevitable the Glen Canyon Dam.

AP:  Interesting. So the Glen Canyon Dam wasn’t as much about the hydroelectric power as it was about satisfying this water [guarantee].

JL:  That was its first [purpose]. The second thing was the hydroelectric power. Actually, the first hydroelectric dam in the West [is] called the Roosevelt Dam at the Salt River Project, which is at the confluence of Tonto Creek and the Salt River, down in southern Arizona. That was a hydroelectric dam and that really worked. That whole project was [also] established in order to create real irrigation projects down closer to what was to become Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe.

AP:  Some of the people I’ve talked to about what is happening now, about the problem of Glen Canyon Dam, is that people are just too dependent on the power for it to be taken out. Many people agree that it should be taken out water-wise, and for the ecology, but the power, that’s the problem.

JL:  Well, here is another problem, and this is much later in the story. [William] deBuys, in this book, it’s an excellent book…

AP:  Oh, you’ve got it. I’ve got it on my wish list, “A Great Aridness.”

JL:  I’ve given one to Wendell Berry, one to Gary Snyder. One is going to Gary Paul Nabhan. This one goes to Evon Bond who transcribed all of these things. And it is an amazing book. At one point, Bill, for this book, interviewed the Chief Operating Officer of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) who revealed to Bill that there is a strong likelihood that by 2026, a fifty percent likelihood, and with an increasing likelihood each [subsequent] year, that both Lake Powell and Lake Mead will be dry in fourteen years. It could take longer than that, but the upshot is…that is what they are thinking. But to go back to 1956, and the Colorado River Storage Project, I interviewed Floyd Dominy who was responsible for that dam for my radio series “Moving Waters: The Colorado River and the West.” Dominy told me that a lot of people had thought that by getting rid of the purpose up at Echo Park, Dinosaur National Monument, the swap off would be creating the Glen Canyon Dam. He said that’s not true. The dam had to be as close to Lee’s Ferry as possible, that lake, in order to ensure the runoff to the Lower Basin. So it went online. Now what happens with Lake Mead is that it is within fifteen or twenty feet of the surface. If it gets twenty-five or thirty feet down, it will be below the intake for the hydroelectric [function].

AP:  Really? And it’s already fifteen?

JL:  Yes, and it is really close. The same is holding true with Lake Powell. So what would make an incredible research project is the relationship between hydroelectric power and water in the West or electricity and water in the West. [To] people after the Second World War, it was obvious that the Southwest was going to be growing and it came to be regarded as the Sun Belt. So a consortium of power mongers, power plant people, started proposing a whole overlay of coal-fired power plants. We did this map in this book, this magazine article. I wouldn’t even have this, except when my parents died, this was in their…

AP [Looking at the map]:  Whoa, and they’ve done [all] this practically.

JL:  They did the San Juan, the Four Corners, the Navajo. They didn’t do this. That would have been the enormous one, Kaiparowits. But I’m nervous that they might.

AP:  Really? They’re still pursuing this coal-fired power plant?

JL:  Well, just imagine if both Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam stopped generating electricity. What is really ironic is this is one of the great natural gas basins in the world. Natural gas can be fired right into these power plants without screwing up the mechanisms [or] the technology [with] the power to produce far less carbon dioxide in the emissions. Economics is so tied into this. It’s incredibly tied into it. I’ll never understand how tied into it it is, but it is grim.

AP:  The coal industry.

JL:  Yes, the Peabody Coal Company. I just really detest them with everything that’s in me. But the upshot is that they already were looking to the Southwest for mineral resources. So to go back to the story. In 1930, Hoover Dam went online, and also the All American Canal and the California Aqueduct that came out of the Colorado River a little further south, pumping water into the great valleys for irrigation and also up and over the mountains into the Los Angeles Basin for drinking water. Arizona wanted its project from way back when, probably in 1922, when all this stuff was going down. The idea came for the Central Arizona Project (CAP) which would allow water to be pumped up and over the mountains into the central valleys of Arizona, ostensibly, according to Stewart (and I believe him, this is what he believes), for irrigation for agriculture. But I interviewed Dave Brower. Do you know who Dave Brower was?

AP:  No. Sounds familiar.

JL:  He was an incredibly important environmentalist of the 20th century. Some people think he should get the award for the all-time greatest environmentalist. This [photo] is Dave Brower and me, actually. But Brower was with the Sierra Club back in the 1950’s and he was so key to this. He actually voted in favor of the Glen Canyon Dam and [later] regarded that as one of the worst mistakes of his life. I recorded him. He was an old pal. We used to go backpacking. But at any rate, by 1963, it was decided that indeed the Central Arizona Project would work. The way they would get their water would be from hydroelectricity [generated] from two more dams on the Colorado River, one just at the north end of the Grand Canyon and one just at the south end of the Grand Canyon. It was Dave Brower and Martin Litton who stopped that with the Sierra Club. That was their first huge victory because what that would have meant was partial flooding of the Grand Canyon.

AP:  Right. I seem to remember that in the article there was a compromise. Is that true?

JL:  Well, the compromise was where to get the power to fire up the power plant if they couldn’t have those dams. They called them cash register dams. Floyd Dominy [who] was the head of the Bureau of Reclamation [from 1959 to 1969] put in dams all over the place. He was regarded by me an arch enemy back in 1970 because he was really screwing up the works.

AP:  Did you interview him?

JL:  I did. He was, by then, 90-something. In 2001, I went back to Virginia and interviewing him, I ended up liking him. We ended up liking each other which was a surprise to both of us.

AP: Did he regret what happened?

JL:  No, no. But where it came from was that he’d been born in Nebraska and watched the Dust Bowl happen. He realized, following the thinking of John Wesley Powell decades earlier, that if people were going to inhabit the West, there were going to have to be dams built in order to provide irrigation water. So he took that as his cue and his greatest masterpiece was the Glen Canyon Dam. When I interviewed him, there was this awful painting of the Glen Canyon Dam hanging right above him on the wall. It was incredible. He was the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner when Stewart was Secretary of the Interior. He also served under several different secretaries before he finally retired. The only other solution to providing electricity for the Central Arizona Project was this huge coal deposit in northern Arizona known as Black Mesa. The way it would work would be to construct the Navajo Generating Station on the banks of Lake Powell. This is what we fought tooth and nail for three years. It was really a heavy duty three years, I’ll tell you, to try to stop the whole shooting match. It was Arizona plus national politics plus economics versus a handful of Hopi Indians, a handful of traditional Navajo Indians and us at the Black Mesa Defense Fund. We were regarded in those days as the anarchist group in the environmental movement.

Additional excerpts from this interview will appear in future editions of Arid.

Andrea Polli interviewed  Jack Loeffler of Lore of the Land in 2012. Transcribed by Russell Bauer. Copyediting by Greg Esser.


[1] An acre-foot is a volume measure unit of water equal to the surface area of one acre at a depth of one foot.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2012, Perspectives

Comments are closed.