At the memorial service for long-time congressman Wayne Aspinall in 1983, Colorado Governor Richard Lamm said, “you can’t take a drink of water in Colorado without remembering Wayne Aspinall.”
Wayne Norviel Aspinall (1896–1983) was born in Ohio and moved with his family to Palisade, Colorado, in 1904. Within a few years, the Aspinalls were enmeshed in a profitable fruit-growing business. This experience gave young Wayne direct experience with irrigation—lessons that he would never forget.
After earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Denver and enlisting in the army during World War I, Aspinall came home to the Grand Valley, taught school, and returned to Denver for a law degree. Moving back to Palisade, he became enmeshed in local Democratic politics, following the leadership of Grand Junction Daily Sentinel editor Walter Walker and legendary Colorado Fourth District congressman Edward T. Taylor. Aspinall was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives and the State Senate, serving as both minority and majority leaders of the latter body on and off in the late 1930s and 1940s. In 1948 Aspinall challenged incumbent Robert Rockwell for the congressional seat he had won in 1941 following Edward Taylor’s death. Running on a campaign promoting greater federal involvement in promoting water resources, Aspinall defeated Rockwell. He would represent Colorado’s Western Slope until 1973.
Aspinall joined the House Interior Committee and became an expert on public land and reclamation issues. After the Democrats regained control of Congress in 1955, he chaired the Committee’s Irrigation and Reclamation Subcommittee. By 1959 Aspinall became the Chair of the House Interior Committee, a post he would retain until he left Congress. As chair, Aspinall shaped and influenced legislation directly benefiting the American West in general and his Fourth Congressional District constituents in particular. All mining, public land, reclamation, and Native American legislation had to pass through the House Interior Committee.
Aspinall played a direct role in shaping the monumental Colorado River Storage Project of 1956, which authorized Flaming Gorge, Curecanti, Navajo, and Glen Canyon Dams and Reservoirs. In 1964 he allowed the Wilderness Act to pass his committee, but not before building in safeguards to protect the interests of traditional users of western lands. In 1968 he helped write the Colorado River Basin Project Act that authorized the Central Arizona Project and numerous other water projects, including five for Aspinall’s home district.
By the mid-1960s Aspinall’s strict adherence to a multiple-use natural resource philosophy made him an easy target for environmentalists. His vigorous resistance to early forms of a Wilderness Bill and support for dams in the Grand Canyon to power the Central Arizona Project are just two stances that earned him the enmity of the environmentalist community. In 1972 Sierra Club leader David Brower remarked that the environmental movement had seen “dream after dream dashed on the stony continents of Wayne Aspinall.”
Aspinall’s lengthy congressional career came to an end during the 1972 Colorado Democratic Primary when he lost to Denver University law professor Alan Merson, a strong environmentalist. Aspinall’s Fourth Congressional District had been redrawn to include more constituents, with many from more urban areas north of Denver. Merson had been aided by money and publicity from national conservation organizations that had targeted Aspinall for defeat. Remaining true to his values and resource-use philosophy to the end, Aspinall had a difficult time reconciling the new environmental sensitivity of the 1960s and 1970s with the region he had done so much to shape.