Sunday, April 11, 2010

GC dams: Dreams

The 1960's were a decade of ferment and change, certainly for conservationists, as environmentalists were called then. They were also a decade which was supposed to see the fruition of over half a century's exploration and planning into realizing dreams of taming and harnessing the water and power potential of the Colorado River. Dreams, yes, for that is what engineers (or their masters) make before they measure and calculate, estimate and delineate. Just as protecting the Canyon and presenting it to the public are acts of imagination by us softie tree-huggers and rock-kissers, so all those numbers and blueprints are preceded by different imaginations looking at the river and its canyons and seeing them emblazoned with dams, trapped into reservoirs, embraced and transported by powerlines.

At a meeting of reclamationists I attended during the GC dam fight, I sat at lunch with some Bureau of Reclamation officials, engineers all. We were being polite and jocular, but what sticks in my mind is the rhapsodic comparison one made between the beauties and cleanliness of hydropower with the clunky filth of coal-fired electric plants. Having attended MIT, I already suspected engineers of being human like the rest of us, but that lunch in Las Vegas sealed for me the conviction that at bottom they were also romantics. Dreamers.

Here are a couple of samples. The first comes from a Bureau of Reclamation (Burec) schematic of the Colorado and its tributaries, a 1945 fantasy of one way the entire river could be utilized:

Upstream from the already existing Boulder/Hoover reservoir is the Grand Canyon. The first step was Bridge Canyon dam, with a capacity reaching half that of Hoover's yet needing only a tenth the storage. Then the crown jewel, the Kanab diversion, a tunnel under the Kaibab Plateau, almost the equal of Hoover in capacity, using only tiny Marble Canyon dam's storage of half a million acre-feet (maf). We will see this dream advanced, studied, argued for, and thwarted a number of times.It is a tribute to frustraton; Had there been no National Park, they would have been able just to add a couple more dams on the mainstream. But, oh! what a splendid creation, the mile deep tunnel carrying all that power potential to burst out into Kanab Creek, and run into Bridge's reservoir to be used again. Together 2 million kilowatts! How could they not salivate; wet dreams indeed.

Its worth noting too Glen Canyon & Dark Canyon; Rattlesnake and Desolation; Echo Park and Split Monument. Those built show us the destructiveness of "clean" hydropower; those not built are a tribute to those who triumphed in the political arena over the forces of conventional wisdom, a tribute to the ability to dream of alternatives.

The second rendering is of Bridge Canyon dam and a bit of its reservoir (complete with removed rock above, and already some tourists planes droning away, though few boats). Slasher movies can evoke no more fright than this industrial horror:


  1. scary!! Some people's dreams are others' nightmares.

  2. Scary!! Some people's dreams are others' nightmares.