behind Hoover Dam

travel is all about trying new things, sometimes simply by virtue of being someplace new, but also because it brings you into contact with all kinds of new people who are involved in all kinds of different activities. take my second trip to Las Vegas, for example (it was the second, wasn’t it? or the third?), friends of the friends I was visiting were heading out to Lake Mead on their boat. those of you who have known me for long enough understand that I grew up in a canoe-outing, fishing-off-a-pontoon-boat type family and this was my first experience on a personal motor boat.

the coolest thing about being on the water was coming up to the back side of the Hoover Dam. on my previous trip to Vegas, we walked across the top of the dam and took in the looooooooong view down to the surface of the Colorado River at the base. construction lasted from 1931-1935 but the location had been scouted as a location for a potential dam beginning at the turn of the century. increasing population resulted in increasing demands for reliable irrigation systems and electricity. at the time construction began, Las Vegas claimed roughly 5,000 residents and somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 unemployed workers descended in hopes of getting a job on the project. at its peak, just over 5,200 people were on the payroll (which, by terms of the contract, expressly prohibited Chinese labor and, by practice, included no more than 30 black people). not surprisingly, extreme weather and harsh working conditions led to the death of 112 laborers during the course of the project; the first man died in 1922 while scouting the location and his son was the last man to die, exactly thirteen years later. the official record doesn’t include deaths marked down as “pneumonia,” which workers claimed the company used to avoid compensating families for what was actually carbon monoxide poisoning from tunnels (which reached upwards of 140 degrees).

it’s been years now since I visited (four? five?) and I wonder how much lower the water levels have gotten. spillways run along either bank but they’ve only been used twice — once in 1941 to test their functionality and once in 1983 due to natural flooding. following both uses, engineers found major damage to the concrete lining of the spillway tunnels and the underlying rock. the cause each time was the same — cavitation — and, in theory that’s now been fixed. like I said, though, who knows if or when the Colorado River will raise to sufficient levels to test the spillways out. not any time soon, judging by how contentious an issue water has become out west.

Hoover Dam

I’ve been to the Hoover Dam twice, visiting Gabrielle both times, and seen it from two perspectives: as a pedestrian crossing it on foot, and as a passenger on a boat on Lake Mead. far more impressive than the Gavins Point Dam on either account.

the first trip was just before I headed back to Knox for my senior year of college. it was also same week as Katrina, and I’d spent no small part of the week digesting news reports and coming to understand the scope of the devastation wrought on New Orleans. as such, it was nice to get out of the house and into the unrelenting desert sunshine for a view of something so massive and iconic.

initially known as the Boulder Dam (since it was to be constructed in the Boulder Canyon but relocated to Black Canyon), the dam was officially named for then-President Herbert Hoover, who was instrumental in getting the project initiated while Secretary of Commerce under Harding. it had been common practice to name dams after presidents — but not sitting presidents. at the time construction got underway, Hoover had an eye towards using the job-creation associated with the project in conjunction with his reelection bid; after he lost to FDR in 1932, Harold Ickes (the new Secretary of the Interior) admonished members of the project to revert to the Boulder Dam appellation. it wasn’t until a California Congressional representative (Jack Anderson) submitted a resolution to the House of Representatives in 1947 that use of the “official” Hoover name resumed.

construction of the dam began in 1931 and was completed in 1936 (two years ahead of schedule) and although there have been obvious benefits for the lower members of the Colorado River Pact (signed in 1922 to decide how to divide resources associated with said river), the environmental consequences of the Hoover Dam are also quite massive. in the six years following the completion of the dam, as the basin for Lake Mead filled, virtually no water reached the Colorado River Delta. the delta’s saltwater-freshwater zone which, at one time stretched some 40 miles south of the river mouth, turned into an inverse estuary, whereby the salinity at the mouth of the river is actually higher than in the ocean water surrounding it. additionally, the Hoover Dam eliminated the pattern of natural flooding that occurred along the lower portion of the Colorado River which, naturally, profoundly and adversely affected numerous species native to the river. of course, those who benefit from the energy generated by the dam accept the  endangerment of this flora and fauna (whether tacitly or implicitly). of the energy generated by the hydroelectric turbines, 29% goes to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 23% to the state of Nevada, 19% to the state of Arizona, and fully 15% to the city of Los Angeles. the price for cleaner energy?

(Hoover on wikipedia)