Sierra Club Helps Block Dams on the Colorado River Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After five years of intensive lobbying by the Sierra Club, the commissioner for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recommended against building more dams on the Colorado River. The fight led to increased public awareness concerning environmental and preservationist issues. It also led to a tenfold increase in the Sierra Club’s membership during the controversy.

Summary of Event

When, on the final day of his presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson signed an executive order creating Marble Canyon National Monument, he ended forty years of fantasies about development of the Colorado River for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. From its headwaters in the Colorado Rockies on the Continental Divide to the point where it discharges into the Gulf of California, the Colorado River drops 14,000 feet and passes through uniquely beautiful sandstone canyons that are visited annually by thousands of tourists. Until January 20, 1969, those tourists included a steady stream of engineers and dam designers attracted to the canyon in hope of completing the process begun with the construction of the Hoover Dam. Sierra Club Environmental organizations;Sierra Club Colorado River dams Dams [kw]Sierra Club Helps Block Dams on the Colorado River (Jan. 20, 1969) [kw]Dams on the Colorado River, Sierra Club Helps Block (Jan. 20, 1969) [kw]Colorado River, Sierra Club Helps Block Dams on the (Jan. 20, 1969) Sierra Club Environmental organizations;Sierra Club Colorado River dams Dams [g]North America;Jan. 20, 1969: Sierra Club Helps Block Dams on the Colorado River[10170] [g]United States;Jan. 20, 1969: Sierra Club Helps Block Dams on the Colorado River[10170] [c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 20, 1969: Sierra Club Helps Block Dams on the Colorado River[10170] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 20, 1969: Sierra Club Helps Block Dams on the Colorado River[10170] [c]Environmental issues;Jan. 20, 1969: Sierra Club Helps Block Dams on the Colorado River[10170] Brower, David Dominy, Floyd Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;environmental policy Udall, Morris K. Udall, Stewart L.

As the major river system in the American Southwest, the Colorado had been the object of attention from the Interior Department’s Department of the Interior, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. since the turn of the century. Over millennia, the fast-running river had carved a deep, V-shaped channel through the sandstone rock. This channel presented, at least to an engineer’s eye, innumerable sites ideally suited to the construction of high dams. Government officials in California, Arizona, and the other southwestern states had been trying to divide up the river’s water for purposes of agricultural irrigation and municipal water supplies for cities as far away as Los Angeles even before construction workers poured the first concrete for Hoover Dam. Whatever the outcome of the political maneuvering, the Bureau of Reclamation engineers knew that a series of dams and reservoirs would be the only way to ensure sufficient water to meet future demands on the river, with Hoover Dam serving as the first of the truly high dams. (Hoover stands 776 feet high and for many years was the tallest dam of its type in the world.) Bureau of Reclamation engineers had been prospecting for dam sites almost since the day the bureau was organized in 1902, but it would take decades of negotiations before the various states involved could reconcile their competing claims on the water.

Arizona officials, for example, tended to view Hoover Dam with dismay, not awe, as they witnessed both water and electrical power from the facility being sent west to Los Angeles rather than east into their own state. Thus, while Bureau of Reclamation officials viewed Hoover Dam with pride—it was the most ambitious project undertaken by the bureau in its brief history—state and federal authorities continued to quarrel over how much water should go where.

By the 1950’s, the irrigation schemes and political negotiations had crystallized into one grand design, the Colorado River Storage Project Colorado River Storage Project . The act creating the CRSP authorized construction of four major dams on the Colorado and its tributaries: Flaming Gorge on the Green River in Wyoming, Curecanti on the Gunnison River in Colorado, Navajo on the San Juan River, and Glen Canyon on the Colorado River itself. The Bureau of Reclamation originally wanted to build a different high dam, the Echo Park dam, that would have inundated part of Dinosaur National Monument, rather than the Glen Canyon. Organized protests from vigilant environmentalists forced the bureau to scale back its plans. Wilderness preservation groups, including the Sierra Club under its new executive director, David Brower, managed to gain a wide public hearing. Even the normally conservative Saturday Evening Post published a strongly worded article (later republished in Reader’s Digest) chastising the Bureau of Reclamation for attempting to build a dam in Dinosaur National Monument. Faced with an angry public, the bureau canceled its plans for Echo Park and substituted Glen Canyon.

The Bureau of Reclamation wanted to follow construction of Glen Canyon Dam Glen Canyon Dam with two other dams that would have “tamed” the Colorado for hundreds of miles. Both dams would have been located between Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam. One, Bridge Canyon Bridge Canyon Dam (also referred to as Hualapai Dam), was planned for a site in the Grand Canyon National Monument, despite legislation forbidding such development. Proponents of the dam suggested that only one logical way existed to avoid violating the law that forbade development in a monument: eliminate the monument. Arizona politicians such as Congressman Morris K. Udall, who saw Bridge Canyon as a vital component in the plan to bring water to his state, argued that the monument status for that section of the Colorado should be abolished as the area was small, remote, and ordinary.

A stereoscopic photograph of the Colorado River flowing through Marble Canyon in 1872.

(National Archives)

The second site, Marble Canyon, Marble Canyon lay in an even more vulnerable area, a section of the Colorado River not protected by any regulations other than those regarding federal reserves. Much of the site was either under the ownership of the Bureau of Land Management or was part of the Navajo Indian Reservation. Both were managed, in other words, by the Department of the Interior, the cabinet department that also included the Bureau of Reclamation. According to Morris K. Udall, both dams were needed not simply to provide water storage but also for hydroelectric development. Arizona hoped to build an ambitious aqueduct project—the Central Arizona Project (CAP)—to move the water from where it was, the Colorado River, to where it was needed, in the agricultural region surrounding Phoenix. Phoenix was situated, however, a long way from the river. The project required massive infusions of money to build the canals and pumps necessary to lift the water out of the canyon and over the mountains to irrigate the cotton fields in the Valley of the Sun. Sales of electricity from the Bridge and Marble Canyon dams would be used to underwrite the CAP. On January 21, 1963, the same day the Bureau of Reclamation sealed the diversion tunnels for Glen Canyon Dam and began filling the reservoir, Secretary of the Interior Stewart K. Udall formally announced plans for Marble Canyon Dam.

Floyd Dominy, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, knew some environmentalists would protest, but he was not worried. Brower, executive director for the Sierra Club, had testified in favor of Glen Canyon Dam in the 1950’s. He had since changed his mind about any additional dams on the Colorado. Glen Canyon had been a compromise to save Dinosaur National Monument, but for Brower and the Sierra Club, the days of compromising had ended. Under Brower’s leadership, the organization launched a massive Save the Grand Canyon movement that garnered support from all levels of society.

Full-page advertisements ridiculing the Bureau of Reclamation’s claims that reservoirs would make previously difficult to reach areas more accessible to visitors appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. When the Internal Revenue Service rescinded the Sierra Club’s tax-exempt status, claiming that advertisements that asked “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer to the ceiling?” constituted attempts to influence legislation, public support for the Sierra Club increased dramatically. By 1967, Secretary Udall was ready to reverse himself. The Johnson administration withdrew all plans for Marble Canyon and put plans for Bridge Canyon Dam on indefinite hold. Congressional debate over the Central Arizona Project continued until 1968, when authorization legislation finally passed specifically excluding any new dam construction. Electricity required would be obtained from coal-fired power plants. Finally, on January 20, 1969, Johnson signed the executive order creating Marble Canyon National Monument National monuments, U.S.;Marble Canyon , putting an end to dam-builders’ dreams of high dams on the Colorado.


The battle over the CRSP proved to be the turning point for environmental preservation versus hydroelectric development on the Colorado River. First with Echo Park and then with the Bridge and Marble Canyon dams, environmental activists managed to outwit and outlast the dam-builders in the Bureau of Reclamation. Previous encounters had been less successful. A young Sierra Club had mounted a futile opposition to the Hetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite National Park in California. Echo Park, while definitely a turning point in environmental preservation, had involved a trade-off: Glen Canyon instead of Echo Park. With Bridge and Marble canyons, the environmental movement made it clear it would not trade off one piece of the river to save another.

In addition, the controversy over Marble and Bridge canyons deeply affected the attitudes of various policy makers involved in the process. While some Western state politicians, such as Wayne Aspinall of Colorado, remained determinedly in favor of water projects, others, such as Morris Udall and Stewart Udall, changed their minds. Both Udalls had been vehemently prodevelopment when the debate over the proper use of the river’s water began. During the course of the debate, however, the Udalls made the transition from conservationists to preservationists.

The Udalls were not alone. The debate over the Colorado marked a change in the way many Americans viewed the environment. After decades of seeing the environment only as a source of raw materials to be exploited for development, more and more members of the general public were ready to agree with the Sierra Club and David Brower that enough was enough. A project would no longer automatically be seen as “progress” simply because a technology was feasible or a dam was buildable. By rejecting dams in the Grand Canyon, the public had agreed to set a limit to growth in the Colorado watershed. With the reservoir for Glen Canyon Dam providing the last large artificial lake on the Colorado, the amount of water supplied to cities and agriculture had been capped. Planners of the Central Arizona Project had envisioned a series of dams that would store several years’ worth of water in case of drought. Now, downstream users had to face a different reality and plan accordingly.

The battle over Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon dams also proved decisive for Brower and the Sierra Club. Prior to the debate over the Grand Canyon, the Sierra Club had been a respected but little-known organization with a membership based primarily in California. The organization had taken public positions in the past, such as in 1943 when it opposed the repeal of the Antiquities Act, but Brower’s lobbying activities were far more flamboyant than most Sierra Club members were accustomed to. Brower’s efforts to publicize the threat to the canyon both heightened public recognition of the Sierra Club and altered its image. Membership dramatically increased—from seven thousand to seventy thousand—as Americans wanting to support the Sierra Club’s preservation efforts joined the organization. At the same time, the increasingly politicized image of the group disturbed many longtime members. In 1969, a majority of the board of directors voted to remove Brower from his position as executive director. Despite the growth in membership, conservative board members were convinced Brower was alienating too many powerful people in business and government. After sixteen tumultuous years with the organization, Brower was fired.

Brower responded to termination by founding a new organization, Friends of the Earth Friends of the Earth , that was set up as an overtly political group to lobby in support of legislation. One of Friends of the Earth’s first activities was to organize Earth Day, a mass celebration and demonstration of environmentalism that took place in the United States on April 22, 1970.

In addition, the battle over the fate of the Colorado River demonstrated the value of delaying tactics. When the dams were first proposed, Brower argued that they were unnecessary for electrical power generation. Five years later, even erstwhile supporters of Marble Canyon Dam agreed that it made more sense to generate electricity with a coal-fired steam plant than with a new hydroelectric facility.

Finally, preventing construction of the dams preserved hundreds of miles of the Colorado River for visitors to enjoy as a natural river. The tourists who raft down the Colorado are not experiencing quite the same river that early explorers did—regulation of the river’s flow by Glen Canyon Dam eliminates many of the seasonal fluctuations in water level—but the Colorado is still a natural stream complete with the flora and fauna that can live only on the banks of a wild river. Beavers still build their dens in the riverbanks, and trees and other vegetation native to the Southwest still grow in the side canyons. The creation of Marble Canyon National Monument in 1969 was followed a few years later by an expansion of the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. The Colorado River is now protected from any future development for hundreds of miles. The primary danger to the Colorado ecosystem is too many tourists. With proper stewardship, however, most of the river is expected to remain unspoiled for generations to come. Sierra Club Environmental organizations;Sierra Club Colorado River dams Dams

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cole, Edwin. Listen, Bright Angel. New York: Duenn, Sloan and Pearch, 1946. May be difficult to find but is worth the effort. Colorful historic vignettes make the conditions in the Grand Canyon before any dam development occurred seem very real to the average reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krutch, Joseph Wood. Grand Canyon: Today and All Its Yesterdays. New York: William Sloane, 1968. Combines a history of the exploration of the Colorado River with discussions of geology and ecology of the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Russell. A Story That Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the West. 1991. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999. First published in 1989, this book provides a historical look at the dam and its battled-over canyon. Paints a vivid portrait of the Bureau of Reclamation and the agency’s efforts to dam the Colorado River.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Char, ed. Water in the West: A High Country News Reader. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000. Essays explore the politics of water in the western United States. Includes discussion of the federal bureaucracy, environmentalism, water projects, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Scott K. “Undamming Glen Canyon: Lunacy, Rationality, or Prophecy.” In Stanford Environmental Law Journal 19, no. 1 (January, 2000): 122-203. An extensive, detailed report on the Glen Canyon Dam and Colorado River controversies. Includes comprehensive footnotes with bibliographical references. An invaluable resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearson, Byron E. Still the Wild River Runs: Congress, the Sierra Club, and the Fight to Save Grand Canyon. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002. Argues that the Sierra Club played a far lesser role in shaping the legislative outcome of the Colorado River damming controversy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schrepfer, Susan R., ed. Richard M. Leonard: Mountaineer, Lawyer, Environmentalist. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. An oral history of the Sierra Club and its efforts to fight development on the Colorado River.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sturgeon, Stephen C. The Politics of Western Water: The Congressional Career of Wayne Aspinall. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002. Presents a biographical history of Wayne Aspinall, a prodevelopment Democratic congressmember from Colorado, who was involved in wilderness, environmental, and preservationist legislation in the 1960’s. Aspinall also had been opposed to the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club

Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented

Echo Park Dam Proposal Is Defeated

Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed

Brower Forms Friends of the Earth

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed

Categories: History