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Know the West

Big dams, big deal


With a title like Big Dams of the New Deal Era: A Confluence of Engineering and Politics, it’s no surprise that this tome is deep on history and long on details. That said, the book is also remarkably hard to put down. It’s well worth the read for those who have ever wondered how structures such as the Hoover or Grand Coulee dams were conceived and built.

Engineer David Billington and historian Donald Jackson lead readers along the Colorado, Columbia and Missouri rivers, among others, trailing delectable facts as they go. Workers at Grand Coulee could mix a 4-cubic-yard batch of concrete in 13 seconds, for example. In 1931, the federal government broke a strike at Hoover Dam — and also ignored Nevada’s labor and safety laws. Eight construction workers died during a “slide” at the Fort Peck Dam, a hydraulic fill dam on the Missouri (26 others “came up in the lake covered with mud but alive.”)

The authors deliberately avoid any environmental debates related to dam-building, choosing instead to focus on the mathematics of which style of dam works best in a particular environment — Grand Coulee is a “massive concrete gravity” dam, while the Missouri’s Garrison Dam is an earth embankment dam. They describe the beginnings of the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers and note how, by the 1930s, dam building was as much about flood control or hydroelectricity as it was about providing work for the unemployed masses.

As the chorus urging dam removal becomes louder every year — and with the growing knowledge of how dams impact plant and animal life — it’s easy to forget that Western dams allowed thousands of workers to put food upon their families’ tables. Dams also led to a restructuring of vast portions of the West, as irrigation water turned the “Colorado Desert” into the “Imperial Valley” and dams on the Columbia provided farmers and industry with affordable electricity.

Billington and Jackson by no means use this book as a pro-dam soapbox. Instead, they provide valuable insight into a social and economic landscape long forgotten by most Americans.

Big Dams of the New Deal Era: A Confluence of Engineering and Politics
David P. Billington and Donald C. Jackson
369 pages, hardcover: $36.95.
University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.