Man’s transition from ancient hunter gatherer societies to the world’s first great civilizations was made possible in no small part due to the construction of elaborate systems of aqueducts. These provided a means of conveying water for ancient Babylon, Greece, Rome and others, enabling settled farming communities and secure food supplies.
In fact, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world located in the Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, were made possible by the construction of a massive aqueduct consisting of 2 million dressed stones, arches, and waterproof cement.
In modern times, dams, canals, and aqueducts help make possible the settling of the Wild West and the creation of the State of Israel. Pioneers transformed challenging landscapes into breadbaskets capable of supporting growing populations.
The city of Las Vegas, one of America’s fastest growing metropolises, was made possible by the construction of the Hoover Dam, completed in 1936. This feat of human achievement provided massive amounts of reliable, affordable, and clean power that spurred the development of Las Vegas’ casinos and neon lights. Today, Hoover Dam serves the electricity needs of nearly eight million people in southern Nevada, southern California, and Arizona, and water to 25 million throughout these three states.
Water storage and hydroelectric power also played a big role in the creation of the California dream. 10 massive new reservoirs were built from 1927 to 1979. However, no new dams have been built since then – even though our population has more than doubled. In fact, dams are being removed to better accommodate fish. From 1980 to today, 39 dams have been removed.
The failure to build dams has exacerbated droughts and led to rationing measures such as periodic restrictions on how often people can water their lawns and mandatory low flow faucets and shower heads.
To make matters worse, our political leadership has also failed to competently maintain existing water storage infrastructure, further endangering not just our water and power supplies but also the lives and property of people who live downstream from our reservoirs.
Last year’s Oroville Dam Spillway failure resulted in the evacuation of 200,000 people from their homes. State officials insist the dam is now safe, but Federal regulators are demanding an explanation for recently-discovered cracks in the concrete and the city of Oroville has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Water Resources alleging a pattern of corruption and recklessness. This problem is not limited to Oroville. A statewide investigation by the Sacramento Bee discovered 90 dams around California are in disrepair.
Furthermore, for reasons nobody in state government can explain logically, large hydropower does not count as “renewable,” toward their climate change mandate. This despite the fact that hydropower produces no emissions and comes from a source that is renewable by definition. Instead, Sacramento has doubled down on costly and unreliable solar and wind power.
In 2014, in the midst of a severe drought, Sacramento finally appeared as though they were taking some constructive action to address the problem at hand. This is when they placed Proposition 1 on the ballot, designating $7.5 billion for new water projects. Prop. 1 was overwhelmingly approved by more than 2 in 3 California voters.
But now plans for 12 major new water storage projects have been thrown into doubt by a recent decision by the California Water Commission that these projects have “no public benefit.” Despite this nonsensical pronouncement, the largest of the proposed projects, Sites Reservoir, would provide storage for 1.8 million acre feet of water and up to $276 million a year of economic benefits, according to the US Bureau of Reclamation.
There is a philosophical question underlying this discussion. Some on the green left advocate not only to stop the construction of new dams but even the destruction of existing dams, including Hetch Hetchy’s O’Shaughnessy Dam, without which San Francisco would have no water. Paradoxically, many San Franciscans still want to demolish the dam, apparently oblivious to the consequences.
Central to their worldview is the idea that dams and other man-made things are inherently bad and a desire to return the environment to its pre-human state. But then how does one explain the fact that, even in the animal kingdom, beavers construct dams?
The fact is human mastery of the world around us offers the potential to not only protect but to improve the environment. There is no question water storage and hydropower have made the world more livable by allowing parched desert to produce food; providing abundant, cheap, and clean power; and even providing new places to enjoy recreation and boating.
Eric Eisenhammer is the Founder of the Coalition of Energy Users, a nonprofit grassroots organization for access to affordable energy and quality jobs.