In Utah, the second driest state in the nation, water is everything. With it, we can settle valleys, grow crops, raise children and support industries. Without it, no growth is possible.
So it’s little surprise that from the beginning the Salt Lake Chamber was involved in water issues. The earlier Chamber called for a multi-state irrigation conference in 1891. The Commercial Club fought to protect the watersheds in the early 1920s, and the Chamber tried to find new sources of water throughout the last century. It’s safe to say that during the 100 years of the Chamber’s existence, hundreds if not thousands of its volunteers wrestled with the city’s water problems.
Still, two achievements stand out. It played a major role in the creation of the Metropolitan Water District in Salt Lake City and later in the development of the Central Utah Project.
During the 1930s, note historians Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen, the most serious problem next to the Great Depression itself was water. Drought brought Utah Lake to an all-time low in 1930, followed by yet another drought year. A bond election to build a dam in Big Cottonwood Canyon failed. Legal issues made drilling for water questionable. Salt Lake’s Mayor, John F. Bowman, proposed a plan to drill anyway, but his own water advisory committee refused to endorse it and the Chamber produced a plan of its own.
The plan was first presented to the Chamber’s Board of Governors, then headed by attorney Harold P. Fabian. As presented by Paul Keyser, the resolution called for “the immediate purchase of all available water and water rights in the Little Cottonwood project” and rights under at least five hundred acres of land in the Murray Artisan Basin. It urged that conduits be built to either or both supplies of water.
A resulting conduit from the Murray basin solved the supply problem temporarily, but the drought continued and by 1935, city attorney Fisher Harris (not the former Commercial Club head who died in 1909) complained that the city’s water system was a patchwork, and “nothing has ever been done to improve it until an emergency arose.”
The solution to this piecemeal approach came with the creation of the Metropolitan Water District. “Whose idea was it to create a master water development program for Salt Lake Valley? Gus Backman’s” said the Deseret News years later. “As a result we have the Metropolitan Water District which insures Salt Lake County an adequate supply of water, for both home and industrial use.”
Under presidents Paul Keyser and W. E. Ryberg, the Chamber helped lead the fight to create the Metropolitan Water District, working with Mayor Louis Marcus. This allowed the city to incorporate a water district and made it possible to participate in the Deer Creek project. It was a tough battle, passing by only 647 votes on August 15, 1935. The Deseret News commented that the vote was indirectly an endorsement of the Deer Creek reclamation project. “The water district, distinct from the city corporation, will have authority to contract in behalf of Salt Lake to pay, with other water users, the construction cost of the federal reclamation project.”
The mayor told the paper that for the first time, Salt Lake would get a program that “will end water famines and remove the only force that can prevent the growth and prosperity of the city.”
The News said the vote “was declared to be the most important city election ever held. This issue was decided by the votes of less than 10 percent of the adult residents of the city.” Mayor Marcus wrote a letter to the Chamber’s Board of Governors thanking them for its help in establishing the water district. (Marcus himself served the Chamber in another capacity as director of the newly revived Covered Wagon Days in 1931, forging relationships that undoubtedly helped both him and the Chamber.)
Hundreds of people applied to be one of the six non-paid directors of the district. Herbert S. Auerbach, a member of the Chamber who also served as chairman of the mayor’s Water Advisory Council beginning in 1931, became the Metropolitan Water District’s first chairman. He served from 1935 to 1940, during which the city, state, and Chamber lobbied hard to get the government to also pay for building the aqueduct from Deer Creek. Governor Henry H. Blood eventually wore down the federal government. The resulting aqueduct from Deer Creek cost $5.5 million–well more than the $2.65 million spent on Deer Creek and its canal system.
Historians concur in the importance of the Metropolitan Water District. “The significance of this cannot be overstated, for it provided Salt Lake City with access to a well-designed, long-term water supply, provided ready financing so that the project could be accomplished quickly, and saved the people of the city $140,000 annually in interest payments,” write Alexander and Allen. The Deer Creek Dam was begun in 1938, completed in 1941 and by that time, “due to the influx of wartime industries, the wisdom of such long-range planning was clearly evident.”
The Colorado River
Another war over water wound its way through the long decades, and in this one the stakes were much higher. Its battles played out on a national stage. It involved Utah, its western neighbors, governors, presidents, Congress, and even the Supreme Court. Literally thousands of politicians, lawyers, engineers, and civic volunteers fought in its skirmishes. This was the struggle to win Utah’s rightful share of the region’s life-giving river, the Colorado.
A short history offers some perspective. At first, explorers doubted that the Colorado would ever be tamed, but in the early 1900s Utah’s water engineers began advocating plans to harness it. In 1922, after much groundwork, representatives from Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona, and California–the seven states served by the Colorado–met in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to draft the Colorado River Compact. That divided the water equally between the Upper and Lower Basins, with Utah in the Upper Basin. Years later, in 1948, the four Upper Basin states signed the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact giving Utah 23 percent of that allocation.
That cleared the way for a basin-wide reclamation plan, which was submitted to Congress in 1954. It called for four major dams and eleven projects. A stiff battle ensued, but finally, in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law and work on Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge dams could begin.
One of those eleven participating projects was the Central Utah Project, crucial to Salt Lake City.
In this long battle the Chamber had its own important role, providing continuity in a fight that ate up decades. The Chamber helped marshal public support, provided testimony, gave moral support and direction, and provided volunteers.
Gus Backman, a soldier in the battle during all of his tenure at the Chamber, wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune on the Chamber’s fiftieth anniversary that the organization provided funding to “set up for the study of the Colorado River development, and 14 years ago
Backman was a leading figure in organizing a group called the “Aqualantes,” a grassroots organization that raised thousands of dollars in 1955 for a national publicity campaign and congressional lobbying effort under the direction of David W. Evans, Salt Lake advertising executive.
A 1952 editorial in the Deseret News gives an insight into the intensity of their feelings. Gus Backman, in his role as executive secretary of the Chamber, had just been appointed temporary chairman of a committee to study all water projects in the state.
Under the heading, “Water Thieves Beware–Gus is on the Job,” the News said, “Mr. Backman is realistic about Utah water. To come to the nubbin, he is not only sharply aware but he preaches sharply that not a drop of Upper Colorado water can do Utah any good once it has gone down river beyond the borders of Utah. Any scheme…which permits an ounce of Upper Colorado Water to get away from this state before it has done its full useful service here, is water lost to Utah forever.” The News said the committee should not let any public official “in Washington or elsewhere forget it.”
And so the fight wore on. In 1960, Jay R. Bingham, then the executive director of the Utah Water and Power Board, paid tribute to the thousands who had been engaged. “The successful effort to secure authorization of the giant Colorado River Storage Project was one of the outstanding examples of organized effort of the citizens of the state and surrounding states. Civic clubs, chambers of commerce, cities, counties, irrigation companies, businesses, and groups organized as Aqualantes and Grass Roots supporters waged nationwide information campaigns. State leaders capitalized on this support and the preparatory work done over the years.” He paid particular tribute to Governor George D. Clyde, who as a water engineer presented much testimony, and to the Utah’s Congressional delegation and party officials.
Among the many he also praised was “Gus Backman, veteran executive secretary of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, [who] took the cause before national organizations which traditionally were unfavorable to federal expenditures for Western development.”
Looking back on the Chamber’s first fifty years, Backman took some pride in noting that “The water resources division of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce has provided leadership in water development throughout the state, and has at all times assisted water agencies of the state and city in the development of this most important resource.”
It was an obligation that the Salt Lake Chamber could hardly avoid, even if it had wanted to. That we often take our water for granted is a testimony to how well they did.
Sources: Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen, Mormons & Gentiles,” (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Co., 1984). Craig Fuller, “Central Utah Project” in Utah History Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press: 1999), 82-85. Thomas G. Alexander, Utah the Right Place (Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs-Smith, 1995). Deseret News. 16 August 1935; 11 September 1935; 2 February 1952; 15 May 1972; 6 June 1963; 16 May 1972. Gus Backman, Salt Lake Tribune 50-year edition, Salt Lake Tribune, 17 February 1952. Jay R. Bingham, “Reclamation and the Colorado,” Utah Historical Quarterly 28 (July 1960) 233-251. “In memoriam of Herbert S. Auerbach,” Utah Historical Quarterly 13 (January, April, July, October 1945) v-viii. Board of Governors minutes, 13 March 1931; 9 September 1935, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Water news clipping file, Utah State Historical Society.