Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Man's vision

When I was a teenager we took a family trip to visit my Grandpa Duffield who lived out in the Arizona desert near Lake Mead. The only neighbors I remember seeing were rattlesnakes. He kept a little pool of water behind his house where the desert animals would come at night. My brother and I stood near it in the gathering dusk as swarms of bats came, drinking as they flew slowly over the water. It was hard to stand there without running because you could feel them flying so close by, sometimes barely brushing your skin or clothes, but never crashing into you.

Another thing I remember from that trip was boating and water-skiing on Lake Mead. I even got up once on the skis, before promptly going right over on my face, that is. I don't remember if we saw Hoover Dam or not, but it's a place I'd like to visit after reading Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century by Michael Hiltzik.

The American Southwest is a very dry place. What little rain that falls collects into the Colorado River, a river some said was "too thick to drink and too thin to plow" because of all the silt. It can be a wild and dangerous river and yet its flow wasn't regular enough to reliably allow crops and irrigation. Some tried, however, and in 1906 an enterprising effort to bring irrigation water to California's Imperial Valley failed spectacularly and created the Salton Sea near present-day Palm Springs. Higher than usual flood waters breached a canal bank and created a new river rushing downhill into the below sea-level area at a tremendous rate. "In simple terms, the river was carving itself a new gorge... the current hurtled over a precipice at the point where the New River entered the Salton Sea. This miniature Niagara proceeded to claw its way upstream at a pace of a mile a day, leaving in its wake a canyon eighty feet deep." (pg 45) It was floods like this that prompted some to propose taming the river with a dam.

Herbert Hoover, then US Secretary of Commerce, met with representatives from the 7 states affected by the Colorado River (CA, NV, AZ, UT, CO, NM, WY) and eventually hammered out an agreement on water sharing and rights. The political wrangling made this the least interesting part of the book. After that it mostly discusses the actual construction of the dam: the massive scope of the project and the labor involved. This was the Depression years, and Six Companies (the firm who won the bid to build the dam) wasn't above cutting the wages of desperate men willing to work for a pittance just to keep their families from starving - to which the government mostly turned a blind eye. Safety was a low concern as well, and frequent fatal accidents opened the door for labor unions, although heavy-handed tactics by Six Companies kept them from organizing much of a presence.

Most of this fascinating book focuses on the social, political, and labor history of the dam. I wish more of the environmental aspect had been discussed, especially as it relates to the changes caused by damming the river (although it does mention that decades of earthquakes followed as the massive weight of the water that became Lake Mead began pressing down upon the land). The book explains rather well how access to water and electricity (generated by the dam) allowed the southwest to grow and thrive, creating such thirsty and brightly-lit cities as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Squabbles over water continue even today, however, and an enormous population still lies at the mercy of the river and its unreliable flow of water. The book would benefit from more pictures and maps, but regardless, it was very interesting and insightful. Now I just need to plan a trip to actually see it.

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