Water and Paper

IMG_4983A few weeks ago, I wrote an update to New Mexico’s Gila River saga:

This month, the year-old state agency in charge of planning and operating a diversion on the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico had to officially disclose its concept and location for the project. And while some of the plans still remain murky—not to mention complicated and expensive—in many ways, it feels like history is repeating itself.

Almost 50 years ago, on June 14, 1967, four couples fired off a telegram from Las Cruces to Sen. Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington. Called “Scoop” by his pals, Jackson chaired the Senate committee looking at a bill to authorize the Central Arizona Project, a system of dams, canals and aqueducts on the Colorado River and its tributaries.

The bill would grant New Mexico some new water rights and also call for Hooker Dam. Planned for the Gila River, its reservoir would back into the nation’s first wilderness area, designated in 1924.

In the telegram, the couples registered their opposition to the dam. They complained that a lack of information was discouraging public participation. Building Hooker, they wrote, would violate the Wilderness Act.

That wasn’t the only note Scoop received about the dam. Postmarked from California to New Jersey, telegrams and letters arrived from across the nation. They came from groups like the Texas Ornithological Society and the Methodist Church in Montana. Tucked into a file at the National Archives in Washington DC, the stack is more than 4 inches thick.

Flipping through the folders of correspondence between congressmen and reading the congressional record helped me trace the path of the law that eventually authorized the Central Arizona Project. It was one of those experiences that made me grateful for paper–and the institutions that value preserving the minutiae of history.

I expected to find copies of the bill and its amendments. And while the letters between congressmen helped me understand underlying issues and state-to-state politics, it was the letters from constituents that reminded me of what one of my favorite professors at UVa, Tico Braun, always called the “intimacy of history.”

I loved seeing those telegrams (which despite the stuttery language and all-caps print seem far more  interesting than emails), feeling the indentation of type into thin paper, and deciphering people’s handwriting. Even though looking at iPhone photos of those tactile treasures isn’t nearly as fun as paging through the stack of papers, I thought I’d share some of those telegrams and letters from the late 1960s.

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I really want to post all of them, but I’ll avoid that temptation. Instead, I’ll leave you with a letter from David Brower about expenses and a Wall Street Journal editorial from 1967:

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P.S. If you’re viewing this post on an iPhone or iPad, it’s entirely likely these images are upside down or sideways. It seems to be an issue with loading iPhone photos on a WordPress site. And frankly, trying to fix the problem makes me love paper, handwritten letters, and manila file folders even more than I did this morning.

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