The Hoover Dam

The Hoover Dam, 1941.


Eighty-five years after its completion, Hoover dam is still considered an engineering marvel. It is named in honor of President Herbert Hoover, — who played a crucial role in its creation.

For many years, residents of the American southwest sought to tame the Colorado to prevent flooding and provide irrigation to transform the arid region into fertile cropland. The greatest obstacle to constructing a dam was the issue of water rights allocation among the seven states of the Colorado River drainage basin. It became evident after meetings held at San Diego, Tucson, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and Denver that a formal agreement for the equitable apportionment of the water between the states was needed.

Herbert Hoover had visited the Lower Colorado region in the years before World War and was familiar with its problems and the potential for development. Upon becoming Secretary of Commerce in 1921, Hoover proposed the construction of a dam on the Colorado River. In addition to flood control and irrigation, it would provide a dependable supply of water for Los Angeles and Southern California. It would recover its cost through the sale of the hydroelectric power it generated.

The Colorado River Commission when they signed the Colorado River Compact in Santa Fe, NM on November 24, 1922.


In 1921, the state legislatures of the Colorado River basin authorized commissioners to negotiate an interstate agreement. Congress authorized President Harding to appoint a representative for the federal government to serve as chair of the Colorado River Commission and on December 17, 1921, Harding appointed Hoover to that role.

When the commission assembled in Santa Fe in November 1922, the seven states still disagreed over the fair distribution of water. The upstream states feared that the downstream states would be allocated the vast majority of the water due to their rapidly developing agricultural and power needs. Hoover suggested a compromise that the water be divided without individual state quotas. The resulting Colorado River Compact was signed on November 24, 1922. It split the river basin into upper and lower halves with the states within each region deciding amongst themselves how the water would be allocated.

Bills calling for Federal funding to build the dam were introduced by Congressman Phil D. Swing and Senator Hiram W. Johnson between 1922 and 1928, all of which were rejected. The final Swing-Johnson bill, titled the Boulder Canyon Project Act, was largely written by Hoover and Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work. The bill passed on December 18, 1928 and President Herbert Hoover signed a proclamation on June 25, 1929 making the Compact effective. 

Appropriations were approved and construction began in 1930. The dam was dedicated in 1935 and the hydroelectric generators went online in 1937.  In 1947, Congress officially "restored" Hoover's name to the dam, after FDR's Secretary of the Interior tried to remove it. Hoover Dam was built for a cost of $49 million (approximately $760 million adjusted for inflation). The power plant and generators cost an additional $71 million. The sale of electrical power generated by the dam paid back its construction cost, with interest, by 1987.

Today the Hoover Dam controls the flooding of the Colorado River, irrigates to over 1,500,000 acres of land, and provides water to over 16,000,000 people. Lake Mead supports recreational activities and provides habitats to fish and wildlife. Power generated by the dam provides energy to power over 500,000 homes. The Hoover Compromise still governs how the water is shared.