Pure water is essential for human health and the functioning of many businesses, and throughout American history aqueducts have been built to supply water to agricultural areas and to large urban areas, such as New York and Los Angeles. Many dams have been constructed to prevent floods, improve the navigability of rivers for commercial transportation of goods and people, and provide power for developing cities, businesses, and farms.
Dams are barriers, usually constructed of earth, rock, masonry, steel, concrete, or combinations of these materials, that are placed across watercourses to control their flow or create reservoirs. Aqueducts are systems of channels, ditches, tunnels, and pipes constructed to transport water by gravity and with pumps from a plentiful source to a population center.
New York State, which constructed the Erie Canal between 1817 and 1825, required eighteen aqueducts to provide efficient transportation of goods from the East to the Midwest, thus facilitating the economic development of not only New York City but also Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. New York City officials were behind the
A similar pattern of population and business growth characterized the settling of the American West. One of the earliest aqueducts, a large wrought-iron pipe, supplied water to the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, in 1873. Because of the arid conditions of the West, water was a scarce commodity that was fiercely fought over. Businessmen who speculated in land tried to discover when and where aqueducts would be built, because marginal lands would increase dramatically in value when water rights became available. A good example is the
Los Angeles’s experience mirrored that of New York City. Commercial development, which involved extensive amounts of water for the irrigation of massive agricultural areas and for urban industries, outstripped the water supplies much more quickly than was initially envisioned. As a result, the
Besides their connections to aqueduct systems, dams were specifically involved in various businesses. During the colonial period, dams provided power for various commercial enterprises. The earliest American dam was built in 1634 to power a sawmill in South Berwick, Maine, and during the early history of the United States, from its founding until well after the U.S. Civil War, ironworkers, sawyers, and mill operators relied on waterpower to drive bellows, saws, machine tools, and looms. A dam on the Blackstone River in Rhode Island provided the power that ran the textile machinery of Samuel
During the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, dam construction became an important part of the economic development of the American West. In 1888, John Wesley
Although entrepreneurs were responsible for the early construction of aqueducts and dams, during the twentieth century, the federal government undertook the largest projects. Private electric utilities increasingly came into conflict with social and environmental progressives who wanted the federal government to take over electric-power-generating projects. This trend is well exemplified by the
Even private enterprises could provoke controversy. When, in 1962, Consolidated Edison Company and Central Hudson Gas and Electric revealed plans to construct the world’s largest hydroelectric plant near Storm King Mountain on the Hudson River to alleviate New York’s chronic electricity shortages, several environmental groups banded together to stop the project, which, in a landmark class-action lawsuit, they succeeded in accomplishing. Those in favor of
Goldsmith, Edward, and Nicholas Hildyard. The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams. San Francisco, Calif.: Sierra Club Books, 1984. An analysis of the economic and social benefits of dams as well as their great environmental costs. Thirty-seven pages of notes, with many primary and secondary references, and an index. Hundley, Norris. The Great Thirst: Californians and Water–A History. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Update of the story of how feuds over the control and use of water shaped the economic history of California. Notes, bibliography, and index. Lowry, William R. Dam Politics: Restoring America’s Rivers. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003. This analysis of how water marketing and public policy have influenced decisions about dam building and dam removal reveals the significance of dams to America’s urban and rural regions. Bibliography and index. Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. This book, honored as one of the most notable nonfiction works in the twentieth century, is a revisionist account of the settling of the West, as due not to rugged individualists but to the creation of an expensive and environmentally detrimental “hydraulic society.” Index. Schnitter, Nicholas J. A History of Dams: The Useful Pyramids. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: A. A. Balkema, 1994. The story of dams, their construction and uses, from antiquity to the present, with a focus on changing engineering practices. Illustrated with photos, graphs, and tables.
Colorado River water
Mississippi and Missouri Rivers
Tennessee Valley Authority