Oh, the allure of water when it’s resting somewhere high. All it needs is to be a little bit elevated above the few things below it for the world to take notice. At least higher than the sea. Water gazing down from some uplifted place causes someone peering dreamily to utter, “Yes…the possibilities.”
When homo sapiens happened somewhat late upon the scene, it didn’t take long for water to be recognized easily enough as a source of endless power. For instance, turning water wheels using the natural flow of water was just a little spark of genius, allowing ancient civilizations to efficiently irrigate farmland. The axle driven by the rotating wheel was a reliable source of muscle, lifting life-giving water for transport to otherwise parched places. Irrigating fields in volumes previously unimagined quickly became the norm.
In a very measurable sense, the water wheel began transforming the way in which we lived. This particular invention helped to feed a growing and hungry population as far back as Greek and Roman Times, and maybe much earlier. Once this technology was widely known, its applications became ever more widespread, being used for everything from making flour to sawing wood and grinding ore.
Humanity never lingers on its accomplishments, however, always pushing on toward the next bend in the river. Even though water wheels worked just fine for the longest while, changes were coming on the horizon that would demand ever more work from ever bigger machines. The child that grew out of the buckets on the wheel became the blades on the turbine. The mother of it all was the Industrial Revolution.
Although there are still a few places in the world where water wheels can be found providing the means for doing simple work, those instances are fewer with each passing year. That wasn’t always the case, and it took about a hundred years of slow but steady technological improvement for the turbine to unseat the water wheel as king. What’s dotting the worldscape now, in a more impactful manner than a water wheel could ever have hoped to accomplish, is the hydroelectric dam.
In one way or another, turbines are behind nearly all the power that is produced in the world today. In the case of a river, they are literally operating behind the scenes, powered by the massive energy that is bound up in the waters constantly falling within the dam’s walls. In terms of sheer hydroelectric output, the U.S. long ago lost its throne. Some of the monstrous machines being powered by behemoth dams recently built by countries like Brazil, China, and Ethiopia make our own Hoover and Grand Coulee pale by comparison.
I was astonished when I read somewhere that, over a period of about 30 years, starting in the 1950s, many tens of thousands of dams were built within U.S. borders. I would never have imagined such high numbers. Then I saw the map and was a believer. Had to be. I remember as a young boy growing up in the dry West, and hearing stories all along about the big dams that were a part of the fabric out there. My family enjoyed many a weekend of recreation in and around what we always commonly called “reservoirs.” It was just a word to me. As a kid, I didn’t really understand what the term meant, or how these lakes had initially been formed. Vega, Blue Mesa, Lake Powell. The list went on. I remembered watching the Gunnison and Colorado slowly become shadows of their former flows right around parts of the city where I lived, and heard stories about how the Colorado never even made it all the way to the ocean anymore.
The big dam project here in the good ole USA is a venture of by gone times, when the technological prowess necessary to pull off such a feat on a big raucous river was something like an expression of national pride. Times and technologies have changed, however, along with the attitudes that go with harnessing and taming something that once ran free and natural. We don’t need a river as much as we once did to produce large amounts of electricity for the masses. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation are now more concerned with maintaining what’s already there than with breaking new hydro dam ground. It’s ironic, then, how some countries around the world seem to be just now jumping on that band wagon.
Check out such names as Itaipu – a wonder of the modern world, Three Gorges Dam, pride of the Chinese, and the Grand Inga, coming soon to a Congo near you…maybe.
In the meantime, the total amount of electricity produced by hydroelectric dams continues to diminish as a percentage of the overall electrical power pie produced in the U.S., now hovering somewhere around 6-8 percent. And the funniest thing…a small number of dams are actually being decommissioned and demolished. The rivers want to flow unencumbered…maybe at least some of them can one day run wild and free again.
Sincere thanks for stopping by!