Deadbeat Dams

The subtitle of Daniel P. Beard’s whistle-blower expose, Deadbeat Dams, indicates the breadth and depth of his piercing analysis—“Why We Should Abolish the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation and Tear Down Glen Canyon Dam.” As a former Commissioner of the “Bur Rec,” as some of us like to call our government’s dam-building agency, Beard is an expert whose words should be heeded. In just a hundred and forty insightful pages, Beard argues for a radical, logical rethinking of water resources issues and policies. That’s not an oxymoron. Beard’s ideas may sound radical, but they are absolutely logical—common sense, twenty-first century solutions to America’s water problems.

There are several reasons to applaud Deadbeat Dams. First, of course, is the expertise of its author. Not only has he personally and professionally grappled with the issues, but he also has intimate knowledge of both the science and the politics that dictate our uses of water in the West. Second, his conversational style conveys complicated disputes in accessible ways. He is particularly adroit when using analogies and when pinpointing factions with facetious labels. Those who benefit most from current water allocations, for example, he calls the “Water Nobility.” He balances their successes against taxpayer obligations, making a convincing financial case for the ideas he advocates.

Another important feature of Deadbeat Dams is its trajectory. Sometimes books like Beard’s turn into rampages that unearth a plethora of ills but offer no solutions. Even though he attacks a number of water policy “sacred cows,” he inevitably suggests ways to ameliorate the situation. Deadbeat Dams ends with a ten point program for change, “ten basic reforms explained in earlier chapters [that] will help channel that emotional outrage in a productive way, and result in better water policy decisions in the future.” They include suggestions to stop catering to the Water Nobility and to stop subsidizing water delivery.

Beard also advocates the two reforms mentioned in his subtitle, to phase out the Bureau of Reclamation and to decommission Glen Canyon Dam. Individual chapters of Deadbeat Dams articulate the reasons both of these things should be done. He also makes a strong argument for the necessity of sound science, not only when considering how climate change is altering the amount of available water in the West but also when analyzing how water problems might be alleviated. He calls for innovation, too, disputing the necessity for more large-scale water projects and proposing small-scale alternatives that should be considered. Above all, Beard is conscious of the taxpayer. Time and again he points out how the taxpayer ends up footing the bill for projects that benefit only the Water Nobility. Future water decisions should and must be more cost effective than the pork barrel projects of the twentieth century.

Needless to say, this Edward Abbey enthusiast happily embraces what Daniel Beard has written. I do so, however, by insisting that any reasonable taxpayer or any American citizen cognizant of water resource issues will find Deadbeat Dams provocative and sound. Beard wisely balances the needs of agriculture against the needs of urban dwellers, and suggests many conservation measures that might be taken by both farmers and city folk. In sum, Deadbeat Dams is a book of common sense, full of ideas that every one of us ought to consider.   – Ann Ronald

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