Research Teaser

Discovering: Why Echo Park Dam Must Be Stopped

Front page of an anti-dam brochure issued by the Council of ConservationistsFront page of an anti-dam brochure issued by the Council of Conservationists in 1955.

by Lea Clark
student, History 363
Fall 2012

Large bold capital letters grab all readers' attention immediately, "WHY ECHO PARK DAM MUST BE STOPPED." It looks like a very important notice. You ask yourself, do I know why the dam at Echo Park was unwanted? The Council of Conservationists did, along with many other environmental groups that were working diligently to prevent the permanent human impact on this beautiful natural area located in Dinosaur National Monument. This document, found in the papers of Mark Harvey, is a copy of a brochure produced by the Council of Conservationists. It details the facts about the controversy surrounding Echo Park Dam in layperson's terms, so that every ordinary citizen could fight to protect nature in the National Park System. It made it easy to believe that anyone could have an impact. You too, it challenged, could take action to protect the environment.

The brochure describes exactly where the dam would be placed in the national park and indicated that the opposition included conservationists, engineers, and many citizens who did not oppose the building of all dams, only this dam in particular. The dam's intended purpose, to provide a secure supply of water and to generate power, gets broken down by a rebuttal that there was no need for extra power and the dam could be easily built elsewhere. A quote from Interior Secretary McKay says, "About 1200 people visit the monument each year. Three million people need water. Which is most important?" The Council of Conservationists claimed this quote to be one of the "most deliberately inaccurate statements ever made by an official of the United States government." The brochure declares that the dam's intent was not to allow any irrigation, so the millions who need water don't actually get to use it, and gives a more accurate figure of 70,000 visitors to the park in 1954.

Page two gives you a map of the area and statements of the growing opposition to the dam. The conservationists explain that this "invasion" of the National Park System will not stop with Echo Park, and that "seventeen specific invasions, in nine national parks and monuments, have been planned." If you haven't been convinced yet, a beautiful image of Echo Park greets your eye on the following page, but the subtext brings you back into reality, "Tomorrow it could be mud flats and barren ground."

These pictures and declarations were enough to inspire many concerned citizens write to their congressmen, but there is more to learn still. Reading on you will discover that the research from an evaporation study was hidden for so long that the House committee would not see it in time to shape their decision. This study proved that the dam was not going to be as productive as promised. Bold letters proclaim that the dam would never be able to repay its initial building costs, which are stated to be "as much as 15 billions, and we mean FIFTEEN BILLIONS" in taxpayer money. The cost of the first phase of the project is stated to be able to pay off the deficit for 1955. Which would you rather the money be spent on?

The reason for the protection of Echo Park was clear. How could you help protect this precious national park? The brochure has an answer, "WRITE TO YOUR SENATORS AND YOUR CONGRESSMEN TODAY." Here's your chance to make the effort.

Oh, but one last bit of information has been withheld for the end. Reading on you find "A TIMELY WARNING ABOUT UNNECESSARY DAMS," a special endnote for readers who may not have been totally convinced. Elmer Peterson describes the dangers of big dams, "The death of many an empire - Babylonia, Carthage, Rome, Greece - is registered in the sedimentation of its rivers and canals, simultaneously with the erosion of its slopes." Peterson goes on to warn that Russia, "Our potential enemy," has tested dam bombing with success. One final statement shows Peterson's intent, "The death-dealing nature of the explosion as such would be only a part of the menace, for the water, rushing from the broken dam, would be instantly contaminated by radio-activity from which there could be no escape." If you aren't convinced by that mental image, you will walk away, but in 1955 few citizens of the United States who read brochures like this one would walk away from that frightful declaration. The Council of Conservationists did what it had to do to grab readers' attention, and today, we can still happily recreate in the proposed spot for the Echo Park Dam.

Source: Council of Conservationists, "Why Echo Park Dam Must Be Stopped," brochure, 1955, folder 15, box 3, Papers of Mark W. T. Harvey, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University. Copy of original at the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

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