May 2, 2013 Updated: May 2, 2013 at 9:30 am
'Frankly Scarlett, I don't give a DAM. ' - with apologies to Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind. '
Rhett Butler's sarcasm never felt the tempest of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, or witnessed its famous director, Floyd Dominy, on the job in the great plains of the West. From 1959 to 1969 he built hundreds and hundreds of dams, whether you wanted one or not. Few in Rexburg, Idaho wanted the Teton Dam. It cost $40 million to build and while filling, collapsed; killing 11 folks and 13,000 cattle.
What's a dam?
According to the United Nations a dam equals a structure 30 meters (90 feet) high that traps and holds back water for future use. Also, a dam can restrain floods when precisely placed and built. When clever engineers add pipes with copper wires and magnets, dams become a prime source of hydro power, providing electricity to farmers and ranchers, out in the sticks, as well as to slick casino owners for their neon signs in Las Vegas.
What's a dam really for? Some would say the primary purpose was to store water for conservation. Probably the most expert and innovative person in America on water is Pat Mulroy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority who says, 'you can't conserve your way out of a drought. ' She has taken the most aggressive actions to foil drought and many of you have read of her exploits buying up lawn sod from homeowners to force zero-scape, along with buying and transporting new water to her jurisdiction. She's 100 percent right.
Some might add that dams are a dandy way to create electricity, true, too, but is it the most economical? That's a long debate for another day.
A dam is a multimillion dollar investment that is doomed to failure the very day it is completed, in that it immediately begins to fill with mud, silt, and salt, to become worthless. I am a fly fisherman and won't touch the other ramifications with a ten foot bamboo rod, but it's pure chemistry and common sense that dams change the water composition, the water temperature, along with starting severe effects on wildlife; and we don't have here a thousand extra words to spend on that complex question.
You all should know the history of America's superiority and leadership in dam design and construction, culminating with the greatest dam ever, Boulder Dam, later renamed Hoover Dam in Henderson, Nev. We once ruled the world, but now look to China for engineering achievement. Consider that in 1900, there were no dams in America, in the World, or in China, which met the height criteria. By 1950 there were 5,270 dams in the U.S. with only two in China, but by 1980 there were 36,562 dams in U.S., but 18,860 in China, almost half as many as in the U.S. Now China has caught up, and has the largest dam in the world, Three Gorges, and the highest dam in the world, Xiaowan. However, latest reports from China indicate the distressing, but not unexpected, news that The Three Gorges is already experiencing the typical dam predestination of silting and salting over.
In Colorado the data is both scanty and scarce because of the protection element in the 9/11 mind-set. We sympathize with the dam engineers who are torn between patriotism and the statutes on public information. The last report showed that 80 percent of our dams are mud and rock while 80 percent are 'red lined,' which translates to a potential loss of life upon failure. Some old-timers may remember the Big Thompson Flood in 1976, where 418 homes were lost and 143 died, when an earthen dam in Rocky Mountain Park collapsed, adding to an already devastating storm and starting a historic, once in 500 years chain of events.
If you care, search 'Big Thompson, 'Teton,' and read Cadillac Dessert by Marc Reisner.
Our mud dams are most susceptible after long droughts when they are totally dried out and cracked. Are we facing exactly such conditions like that now, and are you convinced that new dams will solve our drought problems?
Jack Flobeck is the founder of Aqua Prima Center, a nonprofit think tank for water research. Readers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.