Themed Playlist: Film, Water, and Politics in the American West

From Tyler Parks (University of St Andrews):


Film, Water, and Politics in the American West


For nearly as long as there has been cinema, there have been films promoting and celebrating the massive water projects that have transformed the American West. To some extent, the early ones simply continued the practice – inaugurated by the government surveys of the 1860s and 70s – of using photography to attract settlers and industrialists to the region. Perhaps even more importantly, photography was viewed as a highly effective tool for promoting the surveys and keeping them funded. Similarly, the filmmaking of the US Bureau of Reclamation was for a time principally devoted to ensuring that its engineers would continue to be able to dream up and design more enormous dams and reservoirs, as well as complex transport systems to move water over vast distances across difficult terrain.


However, there was often an implicit argument in these films, beginning during the depression and picking up speed with the New Deal, that government could be relied on to create projects that would serve the public good. So, as much as some of the rhetoric used in them is objectionable to contemporary ecological sensibilities, they were often shaped by utopian ideals about clean energy and public ownership of resources. Such ideals are relatives to those of many ‘progressives’ of today, who also clearly recognize that the tendency (omnipresent in the films) to reduce all things non-human to resources is a major problem, as is the impact many dams have had on people, animals, and ecosystems.


I’ve included four films by institutions (the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bonneville Power Administration) that continue to produce moving-image promotional materials, many of which can be viewed on their YouTube accounts along with selected older productions. I’ve also thrown in one experimental film that explores landscapes altered by California water projects, James Benning’s El Valley Centro (1999), and a recent documentary on San Francisco and its water based on the work of a notable environmental historian, Sarah Elkind.



Official Opening of Los Angeles Aqueduct (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, 1913)


This film principally documents the opening events during which water began to flow to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. The completion of the aqueduct marks the beginning of grandiose water projects that dramatically reshaped the West. The intrigues surrounding its building are legendary. They include William Mulholland misleading the public into believing a water crisis was at hand; an official from a federal institution, Joseph B. Lippincott of the Bureau of Reclamation, clandestinely taking action on behalf of Los Angeles to stall a federal irrigation program in the Owens Valley; and a land syndicate composed of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the city grabbing up property in the San Fernando Valley in the expectation that excess water would wind up there. That said, Mulholland still believed at the time this film was made that there would be enough water for both the city and the Owens Valley. In it, we thus see a man with little sense of the consequences of what he has accomplished, the spiral of water projects making way for urban population growth that requires further water projects, etc… After the ‘christening’ of the aqueduct, an intertitle announces, ‘Forty Miles of Snow Covered Sierra Nevadas, showing never ending source of supply’, perhaps to reassure viewers Los Angeles now had all it needed. However, within two decades, with the construction of Hoover Dam, the city would play a decisive role in shifting water from the Colorado River to the cities and farmland of Southern California.





Boulder Dam: The Pictorial Record of Man’s Conquest of the Colorado River (United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, 1931)

‘Boulder Dam’ has been officially known as Hoover Dam since 1930. However, because the New Deal Democrat Harold L. Ickes headed the Department of the Interior from 1933 to 1946 and intensely disliked Republican former president Herbert Hoover, the names Boulder Dam and Boulder Canyon Dam remained in circulation until 1947. Such political antagonism has often characterized debate around massive federally funded water projects in the US. However, it is not characteristic of the ‘reception’ of Boulder/Hoover Dam. Boulder Dam the film was part of a massive public relations push orchestrated by the Bureau of Reclamation to associate the building of the dam with national progress. The campaign not only overwhelmed and silenced the voices of critics, but also contributed to the restoration of Depression-era American’s grand vision of their nation’s future. The legacy of this campaign persists. Even now, when the intensive damming of US rivers is widely criticized on environmental and even economic grounds, Hoover Dam has maintained its status as sublime emblem and tourist destination. As for the film, despite the bombast of its subtitle, it is happily less concerned with extolling the conquest of nature than earnestly detailing the labour, materials, and technologies necessary to construct the dam. In context, the excitement of the narration seems less a promotional put-on than a reflection of the genuine surprise and astonishment of even those responsible for building it. That said, throughout the 1930s Boulder Damremained at the centre of the Bureau of Reclamation’s strategy of using film to show ‘the immensity of engineering structures in their surroundings of great natural beauty’ in order to ‘foster good will toward the cause of Federal reclamation’.





The Columbia: America’s Greatest Power Stream (US Department of the Interior, Bonneville Power Administration, 1949)

The Columbia: America’s Greatest Power Stream is a revision of an earlier film, Hydro: Power to Make the American Dream Come True (1939). Hydro was clearly modelled on the extremely successful New Deal documentaries directed by Pare Lorentz: The Plow that Broke the Plains (1931) and The River (1937). However, it hardly compares in terms of poetic appeal or critical edge. It is much more obsessed with generic rhetoric about ‘putting idle resources’ to work than conveying the need for scientific, coordinated development to avoid the environmental disasters of the recent past. TheColumbia is preferable because it is more of a mess, inadvertently baring the contradictory ambitions of the varied supporters of the river’s damming. Part of that mess is the inclusion of songs the Bonneville Power Administration paid Woody Guthrie to write in (well-placed) hopes they could be used to promote public power and fend of the criticism of private utilities. The film uses voiceover to try to make us see the river purely in terms of resources to be developed. However, watching it now, we see a lost landscape, transformed by the building of further dams and the exertion of tighter control over the river. Whatever the promotional aims of the film (and they are obvious enough), in it we find a vision of a different, less ‘tame’ Columbia that might even be made to exist again – the salmon are another story.

You can view the film here:



Operation Glen Canyon (US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, 1962)

By the time Glen Canyon Dam was being built, the Bureau of Reclamation was above all building dams because its leaders and engineers existed to build dams. And, if they didn’t do it, they feared their rivals, the Army Corps of Engineers, would. Operation Glen Canyon details activities in the four years leading up to laying the first concrete for the foundation. It opens with a compelling aerial shot that carries us through the canyons of the Colorado, the canyons, we can assume, to be inundated with the completion of construction. Music fit for the opening of a tense A-list Western plays. Then some dynamite (dynamite kills in Bureau films). Then the narrator cavalierly informs viewers that the dam site ‘borders on the vast space of the Navajo reservation’, without mentioning that that the land in fact belonged to the Navajo until 1958, when the Department of the Interior claimed it and granted the Navajo the same amount of land in exchange. This exchange of ‘equal’ plots of land had many negative consequences for the Navajo and indeed a major legacy of dam building in the US and elsewhere has been – and continues to be – the displacement of indigenous groups and disruption of their ways of life. To make things worse, Operation winds up promoting the building of a dam in the Grand Canyon, which comes to seem one of its main objectives. It’s an arrogant film, one that seems connected to the head of the Bureau, Floyd Dominy’s, obsession with writing promotional material boosting recreation on the reservoir it would create, Lake Powell. Bizarrely, it concludes with images of rangers on a boat in Glen Canyon, while the voiceover imagines the delights to be had once this exceedingly pleasant stretch of the Colorado becomes submerged beneath a reservoir. Best viewed while keeping in mind that there are currently serious calls for the draining of a vastly diminished Lake Powell and the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam.





El Valley Centro (James Benning, 1999)

El Valley Centro is the first part in Benning’s California Trilogy, each film from which contains 35 2½-minute static shots accompanied only by direct sound. It focuses on the Central Valley, particularly the lower part, the San Joaquin, a region of semi-arid desert that has been converted into some of the most profitable farmland in the world. In doing so, it documents a landscape in large part produced and maintained by two expansive water projects, one federal, the Central Valley Project (CVP), and one state-run, the California State Water Project. The CVP, supervised by the Bureau of Reclamation, has above all been concerned with bringing water to the Central Valley. While Bureau projects were only meant to provide cheap irrigation water to small farmers, the CVP has provided some of the wealthiest corporate agriculture operations anywhere water heavily subsidized by taxpayers. While the film doesn’t make clear its political rationale, the preoccupation with water is evident throughout. At the same time, as always, Benning is concerned with catching the feel of each location, with showing the ‘natural’ beauty to be found even in places subject to intensive human manipulation. As much as I appreciate how El Valley Centro prompts and provides space for viewers to attend to the intricacies of place, those with a greater historical sense of the region will see more and better. The sections on the lower San Joaquin in Richard White’s recent book California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History (2019), for instance, can deeply alter one’s sense of what there is to be seen in Benning’s film.

The film is available to watch on YouTube:



Water in the Wilderness: Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco Bay (Jim Yager, 2018)

I came across this film on the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s (SFPUC) YouTube account and was surprised at the complexity with which it eventually engages difficult questions about San Francisco’s water (and hydroelectric) supply. It turns out it wasn’t produced by SFPUC, but funded by the San Francisco Arts Commission – which ‘envisions a San Francisco where the transformative power of art is critical to…building infrastructure’ – and the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a non-profit think tank whose members ‘believe in the power of government as a force for good’ in solving ‘the big problems cities face’. It’s a straightforward documentary with many talking heads that generally seems shaped to fit the Ken Burns model. What makes it worth watching is the commentary of some of the people interviewed, particularly Sarah Elkind, an environmental historian whose research on urban-water systems partially inspired the film. She expresses quite clearly the problem the film wants to address: We are ‘going forward into this period of Global environmental challenge not trusting the kinds of institutions that solved the problem before’. It’s relatively uncritical take on the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley, then part of Yosemite National Park, to provide San Francisco with a constant water supply reflects the fact that it wants to emphasize the power of local government to solve difficult problems. That said, it is hardly a song of praise to Hetch Hetchy, the controversy over which was one of the formative events in the history of environmentalism in the US. While many of the interviewees are critical of the initial decision to dam the valley, which Elkind points out was in large part motivated by other potential sources having been claimed by speculators, the consensus offered is nevertheless that people in the city – and beyond – still need the water and that losing the hydroelectricity produced as it descends from the Sierras would compromise designs for a future of sustainable energy.



Tyler Parks is Associate Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. He researches and writes about film and the environment, the politics of global art cinema, and East Asian cinema. At present, he is preoccupied with examining contemporary ‘ecocinematic’ approaches to the American West alongside histories of promotional/educational filmmaking about water projects.

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