The History of NAWAPA: Reviving the Spirit of John F. Kennedy

By Michael Kirsch

The history of NAWAPA has recently been made available for the first time, captured in the feature film, “NAWAPA 1964” which consists entirely of Senate Correspondences of Senator Frank Moss, published news reports, speeches and TV broadcasts, all taking place between 1962-1973. See

“Man’s dependency on an adequate supply of fresh water is an indisputable fact. It is equally a fact that there is an insufficiency of such water and that this insufficiency has been particularly felt in the Western United States. Many efforts have been and are continuing to be made to solve the problem of limited water supply, and although great strides have been achieved, so great is the problem and so important its solution that it now has become imperative that consideration be given to what at one time seemed unachievable proposals. The time has passed during which this problem can be solved through traditionally local or piecemeal approaches. The solution must be equal in magnitude to the problem.” -Frank E. Moss, Chairman, Special Subcommittee on Western Water Development 1964

In the Spring of 1964, a United States Senate Special Subcommittee on Western Water Development was formed to evaluate a plan that newspapers in the U.S. and Canada were soon heralding as the most ambitious public works project in history: the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA), the brainchild of Donald McCord Baker and Hillman Hansen, two engineers working out of Ralph M. Parsons’ engineering firm in California. Headed by Utah Senator Frank “Ted” Moss, the committee published a comprehensive report by October of that year, titled “A Summary of Water Resources Projects, Plans, and Studies Relating to The Western and Midwestern United States.” The report found that if all the projects studied or authorized by Federal and non-Federal agencies were to be implemented, they would have amounted to 3,151 projects, storing 2.7 billion acre-feet; in comparison, the NAWAPA project would entail 369 separate projects, storing a total of 4.3 billion acre-feet, and, therefore, warranted a full engineering feasibility study.

On September 1965, Moss introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 55, calling for NAWAPA to be referred to the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian organization with a mandate to resolve boundary water issues. A similar resolution was introduced six days later in the House by Rep. David King as House Con. Res. 488. The measure received wide publicity, and judging from Moss’ correspondences, it enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress, as well as from citizens in the U.S. and Canada who wrote to Moss volunteering their efforts to help organize for it. Among the co-sponsors of the NAWAPA resolution was Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who wrote to Moss, “I am glad to join you as a co-sponsor of S. Con Res. 55 expressing the sense of Congress that the President refer to the International Joint Commission the subject of the North American Water and Power Alliance… This proposal deserves careful study and consideration by both the United States and Canada and has applications to the East as well as the West.”

Moss actively organized for joint action between the U.S. and Canada, and participated in several high profile debates with Canadian officials on the project. Despite vocal opposition from some quarters, favorable opinions on NAWAPA from Canadian legislators reached as high as Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who stated publicly that water diversion from the Arctic could be “one of the most important developments in our history.”

However, official government action on NAWAPA stalled, especially as the U.S. was sucked into heavy combat in Vietnam beginning in November 1965. This coincided with a retreat from the pro-development programs of the Kennedy era, including the beginning of massive cuts to NASA’s budget, and a halt to new starts on dam projects. Therefore, while the Canadian government became increasingly favorable to the idea of NAWAPA in 1966-1967, the context surrounding NAWAPA was transforming; this new context became the determining factor in its outcome, regardless of any actions taken by its proponents.

Any hope of a return to Kennedy’s “New Frontier” outlook, was effectively dashed with the June 6, 1968 assassination of his brother Robert following his victory in the California Democratic Presidential primary election, which followed on the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. only two months earlier. A new cultural pessimism began to set in, typified by the “Limits to Growth ideology of the environmentalist movement and its oligarchical sponsors. The truth of man’s inherent ability to improve upon nature was replaced with cries of overpopulation and demands to “leave nature alone,” codified in legislation that specifically banned the kinds of water transfer measures outlined in NAWAPA. (1)

If Kennedy Had Lived

The original NAWAPA proposal was conceived at a time when the meaning of “conservation” implied mankind’s utilization of the principles and material of the biosphere in which he lives, to improve upon it—it did not imply that man should leave nature as he finds it. During this time, in the wake of the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, it was a well-understood maxim, that mankind’s continued investment toward discovery and utilization of technology, would allow for continually increasing consumption, production, and population growth. This was a time of Great Projects, the dawning of the age of peaceful nuclear energy, and the bold optimism typified by John F. Kennedy’s Apollo program. Though the goal of landing a man on the moon was achieved within the timetable Kennedy prescribed, his commitment to the broad physical-economic advancement of the United States went unfulfilled in the wake of his assassination. This commitment can be seen in his 1961 bill for an investment tax credit to spur high-gain industrial growth, in conjunction with the technological driver of the space program, as well as his position on the development of water resources in the West.

He articulated this vision in a series of dam dedications on two western states tours in 1962 and 1963. (2)

On August 17th and 18th, 1962, two months before defusing the nightmare scenario of the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK took a short trip to the West to dedicate three great projects of reclamation, leading him to declare that year the banner year for reclamation. Indeed, 1962 saw the most new and largest project starts since the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.

Kennedy first stopped in South Dakota to tour and dedicate the Missouri river’s Oahe Dam, which at that time would be the largest earth-fill dam in the world.

“When we are inclined to take these wonders for granted, let us remember that only a generation or two ago all the great rivers of America, the Missouri, the Columbia, the Mississippi, the Tennessee, ran to the sea unharnessed and unchecked. Their power potential was wasted. Their economic benefits were sparse. And their flooding caused an appalling destruction of life and of property…this nation began to develop its rivers systematically, to conserve its soil and its water, and to channel the destructive force of these great rivers into light and peace. And today, as a result of this, the face of this nation has been changed. Forests are growing where there was once dirt and waste. Now there is prosperity where our poorest citizens once lived. If there is one outstanding story among all this which indicates the kind of progress we can make working together, it’s the story of the REA….

“This is not a choice between spending and saving, for REA is a form of saving, as is this dam, hours and lives, saving farms and saving and returning to our Nation’s Government every dollar loaned, with interest, in taxes on new appliances and new equipment, and new farm income. This program and so many like it have returned to the public treasuries many times the entire cost of the program.

“The question which confronts us is… the whole question of our resource development in the western United States in the 1960’s. …Surely a continent so rich in minerals, so blessed with water, and a society so replete with engineers and scientists can make and must make the best possible use of the bounty which nature and God have given us, public and private, federal and local, cooperative and corporate.

“If we can apply to the challenges of the sixties the same principles of efficiency, cooperation, and foresight, which made this great dam possible, the same principles which cause American technicians to be sought out the world over to assist in developing the Nile, the Volta, the Mekong and the Indus Rivers, then we can look to a happy future….I don’t want to see the United States second in space or in the development of power resources. And I think it’s most appropriate in this great decade that we light the entire country….” —Oahe Dam, August 17, 1962

Later that same day, Kennedy flew to Pueblo, Colorado, to dedicate the Fryingpan-Arkansas reclamation project, which involved a trans-mountain tunnel system, transferring water between the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds. This powerful speech continued the theme of a multi-generational perspective fornational planning.

“I don’t think there is any more valuable lesson for a President or member of the House and Senate than to fly as we have flown today over some of the bleakest land in the United States, and then to come to a river, and see what grows next to it…and know how vitally important water is. I hope that those of us who hold positions of public responsibility in 1962, are as farseeing about the needs of this country in 1982, and 1992, as those men and women were 30 years ago who began to make this project possible…

“This is an investment in the future of this country, an investment that will repay large dividends. It is an investment in the growth of the West, in the new cities and industries which this project helps make possible.

“…And I hope that in the 1960’s we will commit ourselves to this same kind of mutual effort, and not regard those projects which aid our cities as inimical to Colorado or those projects which help our farmers as taking it way from our cities. Because that concept of the moving ahead of a great country on a great errand is what I think can give this country its leadership in the future as it has in the past.

“Every Member of Congress, everyone in the executive branch from the President on, in the field of national resources, has to plan during their period of administration or office for the next generation, because no project that we plan today will be beneficial to us. Anything we begin today is for those who come after us. And just as those who began something years ago make it possible for us to be here, I hope we’ll fulfill our responsibility to the next generation that’s going to follow us.” —Pueblo, CO. August 17th, 1962

The next day Kennedy was in Los Banos, CA to dedicate the San Luis Dam project, part of the massive California State Water Project initiated under Governor Pat Brown.

“This is a fast trip, but if it had no other benefit than to permit us to look at this valley and others like it across the country, where we can see the greenest and richest earth producing the greatest and richest crops in the country, and then a mile away see the same earth, and see it brown and dusty and useless, and all because there’s water in one place and there isn’t in another. I know of no better trip for any President or any Member of the House or Senate, or indeed any citizen, particularly those of us who live in the East, where water is everywhere and is a burden, to realize how very precious it is here in the western United States. —San Luis Dam, August 18th, 1962

The next year, on September 24th-28th, 1963, President Kennedy again toured the country, stopping at 10 different cities, including a stop to dedicate the Hanford Nuclear Facility, as well as two major water resource development projects which were part of the Upper Colorado Basin and California water developments. On the morning of September 27th, a short ceremony was held at the municipal airport of Salt Lake City at which President Kennedy pressed a key to start the first generator at Flaming Gorge Dam in Utah, 150 miles away.

“As I move through the West, especially in this state and other states where water is short, I realize that nearly all of the standard of living which we enjoy in this part of the United States has been due partly to our own efforts, the generation which is now here, but really even more to the generation that went before—the people who started in the early 1920’s, for example, to organize the distribution of water along the basin…

So I think it is essential that we, in the 1960’s, take steps to provide for the kind of country and state that we are going to have 20 years from now, so that we do for our children the same thing that was done for us.”

In this state, this section of the United States, of course, the key is water. And unless we organize every drop to be of service to mankind, this state is going to stand still. You can’t possibly grow once the water level remains the same. Once the amount of water you have available for irrigation and reclamation and power remains the same, this state stands still. So water is the key-the management of water, I think, is the key that will open a very bright future…

“I am particularly glad because Senator Moss has preached the doctrine of the wise use of water with, I think, more vigor, almost, than any Member of the United States Senate. He is chairman of the Subcommittee on Irrigation and Reclamation. He learned this lesson the hard way, as anyone must who lives here…But the important thing to remember is, for 50 years men have been talking about this project. It is now a reality. What are we going to do now so that 50 years from now the people who live in Utah and the United States will feel that in the early sixties we made the proper decision for the management of our resources?” —Flaming Gorge Dam, September 27th, 1963

On September 28th, JFK stopped in Whiskeytown CA, landing by helicopter directly on the dam, during the last day of his tour. The Whiskeytown Dam was the last of 5 Trinity River dams, which completed a section of the California Water Project.

“Water should be used. Land west of the 100th parallelwas never regarded as fertile until some days after the Civil War a few men began to come out here and made determinations of what could be done. And we have moved ahead, and this project is only the most recent. I am proud of it. It was opposed for many years…

For too long this water ran unused to the sea. For too long surplus water in one area was wasted, while there was a deficit nearby. Now, by diverting these waters to the eastern slope, we can irrigate crops on the fertile plains of the Sacramento Valley and supply water also for municipal and industrial use to the cities to the south….And while running their course, these waters will generate millions of kilowatts of energy and help expand the economy of the fastest growing state in the Nation. In these ways, Whiskeytown Reservoir and the Trinity division will add to our natural beauty and will show that man can improve on nature, and make it possible for this state to continue to grow.” —Whiskey Town, CA September 28th, 1963

At Greers Ferry, Arkansas, on October 3rd, just a month and a half before he was assassinated, Kennedy gave the last and one of the most remarkable speeches on national development, and the unity of all the states, polemicizing against those who considered infrastructure development as a mere local issue.

“This dam represents not merely the time of construction; it represents almost 30 years of effort…That is a long view. It is a man’s lifetime, and I would like to see us in this decade preparing as we must for all of the people who will come after us. I would like to see us do what we are doing here, do it in the Northwest, do it in the Midwest, do it in the East…”

“…Those people who say it is ‘pork barrel’—which is more wasteful: the waste of life and property and hope or a multi-purpose project which can be used by all of our people? Which is more wasteful: to fail to tap the energies of that river, to let that water flood, to deny this chance for the development of recreation and power, or to use it and to use it wisely? Which is more wasteful: to let the land wash away, to let it lie arid, or to use it and use it wisely and to make those investments which will make this a richer state and country in the years to come? These projects produce wealth, they bring industry, they bring jobs, and the wealth they bring brings wealth to other sections of the United States.” —Heber Springs, Arkanas, October 3rd, 1963

Four months after Kennedy’s assassination, the plan for NAWAPA, which had been in development for several years, was made public.

 End notes

(1)    Marcia Merry Baker, “NAWAPA’s History and Scope,” Executive Intelligence Review, August 6, 2010.

(2)     JFK Speeches Toward a Nation-Wide TVA.