1966: A Case Study in Congressional Leadership

1966: A Case Study in Congressional Leadership

1966: A year that the U.S. Congress demonstrated leadership that is unknown in the Congress of 2015

In the fall of 1966, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to build a massive nuclear-power-desalination plant off the coast of Orange County, California. Had that authorized program been acted upon in subsequent years the present water crisis in the state would not exist today. The members of Congress who pushed through that legislation understood that while the then under construction State Water Project would begin delivering water in 1972, that by 1990, new sources of water would be required to meet the needs of the state’s growing population.

The following excerpts are from the Congressional Record from September 13, 1966 through October 4, 1966. It can be found in Legislative history: Saline water conversion act, Volume 6, Parts 1-2, page 669-683

Here is the description of the House bill as printed in the Congressional Record for September 13, 1966:

HR 17558. A bill to amend Public Law 89-428 to authorize the Atomic Energy Commission to enter into a cooperative arrangement for a large-scale for a large-scale combination nuclear-power-desalting project, and appropriations therefor, in accordance with section 261 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended; to the joint committee on atomic energy.

Both the House and the companion Senate bill passed nearly unanimously. Then the Vietnam war exploded, environmentalism began taking over the nation, and the economy was transformed into a gambling casino. And like the North American Water and Power Project, which was also moving through the Congress at that time, after the assassination of President Kennedy the nation changed, for the worse.

Introducing the Senate bill on September 13, 1966, was Thomas H. Kuchel, a Republican from California. He said:

…I am pleased to introduce a bill (S. 3823) to authorize the Department of the Interior to participate in the construction and operation of a massive desalination plant and nuclear power generating facility to be built off the coast of southern California….

It will provide southern California with 150 million gallons of fresh water per day…. it will more than double the combined capacity of all the salt water conversion plants in the world today.

This bill is the outgrowth of a Federal desalination program extending back over 15 years. It is the fruition of the cooperative efforts of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Department of the Interior and the Atomic Energy Commission. On August 18, 1964, these agencies signed a contract authorizing a wide study of a huge nuclear fueled sea water conversion plant which would provide large quantities of electric power. The objective was a plant capable of producing 150 million gallons of water per day, enough to supply a city the size of Boston or San Francisco.

One of the more interesting aspects of the report was Bechtel’s recommendation that the complex be placed on a manmade island about 3,000 feet off-shore from Bosa Chica State Beach in Orange County….

Responsible authorities estimate there will be 50 million people in California before the turn of the century.”

Included in the Congressional Record by Senator Kuchell was a draft of the authorizing legislation from the Secretary of the Interior, Steward L. Udall, which included the following:

The present plan is to build the desalting plant in two phases. The first phase will develop 50 million gallons per day of fresh water– the second will produce another 100 million gallons per day….

We believe the proposed legislation represents a dynamic step forward in the development of processes for the economical conversion of saline waters for beneficial consumptive use. We consider this proposal to be of paramount importance in the effort to find new ways and means of conserving and increasing the water resources of the Nation. We recommend its immediate consideration and approval.”

On September 21, 1966 the Senate “debate” continued, and again Senator Kuchel spoke, saying:

Here the government and the people of the United States, by the participation authorized in this legislation, will be able to lead the way toward solving a water shortage problem which exists not alone the State from which I come, but throughout the United States, and across the seas in other countries….

Our objective in building this saline water conversion plant is not to supply my State with an immediate supply of water. Massive as the plant will be, it will provide only 168,000 acre-feet of water annually to a State which now draws more than 5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River each year.

Our present sources of water, augmented by State water project water, which will be available in 1972, will meet our needs until approximately the year 1990. However, our planning for the next increment of water to meet the needs after 1990 must begin immediately, as experience has demonstrated it takes at least 25 years to move a new major water development from the initial planning state to the operating stage.

This legislation has the recommendations of all Federal agencies and State agencies, and represents, I think, a new milestone in the progress of mankind in solving the never ending struggle to find sufficient water to maintain life and [ensure] progress.”

Here are some of the remarks of Congressman Richard T. Hanna, California Democrat introducing the House bill (H.R. 17676) on September 13, 1966:

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, which distributes water throughout southern California, has agreed to support and cooperate in the project. One of the main points in favor of the project is that it is a water source independent of the flow of river and aqueduct systems, and, in an emergency, it might well prove more valuable than any of us are now predicting.

This will be the world’s largest desalinization plant. It will be a show-place of great interest to the people of the many areas around the world, and in our own country, who are in need of water and power, and to those who see the day rapidly approaching when this need will arise.

The President of the United States has asked Congress to approve this project. The distinguished chairman of the committee on Interior and Insular Affairs has agreed to introduce a companion measure. It is my hope that we can act with dispatch and thereby assure the earliest possible completion of this most worthy project.”

Senate Bill 3823 passed the U.S. Senate on September 21, 1966. The amended bill S. 3807 passed the Senate on September 29, 1966. And on October 3, 1966 the House passed the Senate version (S. 3807) as its own. The House vote was 316 yes; 1 no; and 115 not voting.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law in May, 1967. In August 1967, then California Governor Ronald Reagan signed Assembly Bill 1782, authorizing the plan to proceed.

This was followed-up by the State of California in 1969, with a report by the California Department of Water Resources in Bulletin No. 134-69, issued in June of that year, titled, “Desalting– State of the Art.” Following a lengthy section on nuclear-powered desalination we find the following:

Looking to the future, it is expected that the technology needed to build dual-purpose nuclear systems will exist  so that single-unit large-scale sea water desalters can be built for operation in the early 1980s. It is further anticipated that light water reactor nuclear-steam supply systems will be utilized in plants built in the 1980s. Breeder reactors will begin to take over power production from water reactors in the late 1980s, and by the mid-1990s, dual-purpose plants will more likely be supplied with energy more from breeder reactors.Rapid strides are being made in controlled fusion.  While we do not know today the role, if any, fusion will play in supplying energy tomorrow, its role should be clear before the Twenty-first Century arrives. The odds for the economic success of fusion by the year 2000 are often Judged as about even. Whole new vistas should be opened up to us 31 years hence, when the Twenty-first Century commences. The year 2000, in terms of technological developments, is really a long distance away. There is certainly time for some so-called far-out predictions to materialize and for new or unexpected developments to take place. The three-fourths of us living today who will still be alive then must be prepared for the vast technological, medical, and sociological changes that most surely will take 

That exemplifies the optimism about the future that used to govern this nation. It is time to restore it.

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