Damming the Past

Natural History, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Damming the Past


The movie light I hold in one hand plays graffiti-covered wall in the dark, concrete building. A scrawl in balloon letters, "The Lord Cometh," reminds me of spray-can wisdom I have seen on a hundred subway cars. I float slowly through the flooded hallway, walking on the index and middle finger of my free hand. Tiny clouds of silt puff up as I leave my odd paw prints. Another ghostly form, that of my diving partner, rises effortlessly toward the ceiling. He prepares to snap a picture of the illuminated words.

The building was probably a foundry. The Lord may have been here, but he's gone now. We linger for a second photo, then we too move on. Gently, silently but for the sound of our exhaled breaths splashing on the ceiling, we glide through a series of doorways devoid of doors and propel ourselves through a glassless window. On emerging, we are in the light of day, subdued by the twenty feet of water between us and the air above.

What does it take to cover sixty square miles of New Mexico desert with water? Sometimes, an act of God, but in this case it was the Bureau of Reclamation. In 1911, Burec cameth and made rise the waters of the Rio Grande to create the Elephant Butte Reservoir and Recreation Area. The Southwest is full of these improvements on nature. They harness indolent rivers for electrical power, allow people to live in flood plains, and convert desert scrub into profitable farmland. Regaining the surface, I am reminded that they also insure the popularity of the outboard engine. Protective of the student divers under my supervision, I make obscene gestures at boaters who come too close to our diver warning flags.

I have visited many of these watery worlds. From 1975 to 1980, I led a National Park Service study of major water-impoundment areas in the United States, mainly in the arid Southwest. Other researchers were charged with assessing loss of habitat and scenic values. My task was to determine if the federal money allocated for salvaging archeological sites was being prudently spent.

The dozens of large reservoirs built by the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Tennessee Valley Authority, and others throughout the country impact river valleys, usually the locus of past human activity. The scope of this phenomenon is hard to convey. The combined surface area of just two of the artificial lakes on the Colorado River, lakes Mead and Powell, for example, is more than 500 square miles, or about half the size of Rhode Island. Sizable portions of these two lakes are deep enough to cover the Washington Monument. Beneath them now lie some 2,000 known sites of the Anasazi--the ancient ones--ranging from the ruins of pueblos to scatterings of stone tools. The sites identified in surveys before the valleys were flooded probably represent only a fraction of those actually present. Apart from the value archeologists attach to these remains, one can only imagine what living Indian peoples must feel when they see their heritage, including sacred sites and ancient landscapes, obliterated.

Even as the dams were being built, the American preservation community managed to impress upon Congress that archeological remains are irreplaceable. This sometimes elusive point was easiest to establish with politicians from regions where the loss of impressive ruins would be noticed by their constituents. One piece of legislation in the early 1970s authorized the spending of up to one percent of the entire cost of a new reservoir on salvage archeology. Large-scale excavations of the most dramatic sites in the deepest parts of the about-to-be lakes seemed the remedy of choice.

The result, however, was warehouses full of artifacts needing expensive curating, from sites dug for the wrong reasons. A reaction to this process was taking shape in the archeological profession about the time our study began, culminating in the formation of the American Society for Conservation Archeology. …

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