Dam Killers: President Carter's Review of Reclamation Water Projects and the End of the Big Dam Era

Thursday, January 7, 2010: 3:40 PM
Del Mar Room (Marriott)
Adam R. Eastman , University of Oklahoma

As WWII drew to a close, the Bureau of Reclamation, fresh from its experience building Hoover, Shasta, and Grand Coulee dams proposed constructing new grandiose projects to bring even more irrigated land into production.   In the following decades, Congress approved many of these projects.  However, the planning and construction of these projects—which coincided with the dawn of the modern environmental era—raised concerns among individuals, organizations, and other government agencies.  Aided by a host of new environmental laws they fought to stop construction of many projects.  After failing to stop the projects in the courts, environmental critics found a sympathetic ear in President Jimmy Carter.  Desiring to slash a massive budget deficit, Carter proposed Congress cut funding to projects with the worst environmental, economic, and safety concerns.  Dubbed the “hit list”, the controversy fueled intense debate on the merits of federal water development projects.   Ultimately Congress rejected the President’s budget proposals and funded all but one of the Bureau of Reclamation water projects under review.

Political scientists studying the event have concluded that Carter not only failed to cut the projects, but his proposals burned bridges with Congress, and crippled the balance of his presidency.  Rather than focus on failed tactics, this paper examines the long-term success or failure of the Hit List by showing that reclamation critics successfully convinced Congress and the Reagan administration to later cut and restructure these projects, largely along the lines proposed by Carter.  The debate surrounding these projects—as understood through newspaper accounts, court and government documents, and oral histories—demonstrates where, why and how these efforts proved successful.

<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation