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First Causes

When archaeologists from some other planet sift through the bleached bones of our civilization, they may well conclude that our temples were dams. Imponderably massive, constructed with exquisite care, our dams will outlast anything else we have built—skycrapers, cathedrals, bridges, even nuclear power plants. When forests push through the rotting streets of New York and the Empire State Building is a crumbling hulk, Hoover Dam will sit astride the Colorado River much as it does today—intact, formidable, serene.

The permanence of our dams will merely impress the archaeologists; their numbers will leave them in awe. In this century, something like a quarter of a million have been built in the United States alone. If you ignore the earthen plugs thrown across freshets and small creeks to water stock or raise bass, then 50,000 or so remain. These, in the lexicon of the civil engineer, are “‘major works.” Even most of the major works are less than awesome, damming rivers like the Shepaug, the Verdigris, Pilarcitos Creek, Mossman’s Brook, and the North Fork of the Jump. Forget about them, and you are left with a couple of thousand really big dams, the thought of whose construction staggers the imagination. They hold back rivers our ancestors thought could never be tamed—the Columbia, the Tennessee, the Sacramento, the Snake, the Savannah, the Red, the Colorado… They are 60 stories high or four miles long; they contain enough concrete to pave an interstate highway from end to end.

These are the dams that will make the archaeologists blink— and wonder. Did we overreach ourselves trying to build them? Did our civilization fall apart when they silted up? Why did we feel compelled to build so many? Why five dozen on the Missouri and its major tributaries? Why 25 on the Tennessee? Why 14 on the Stanislaus River’s short run from the Sierra Nevada to the sea?

We know surprisingly little about vanished civilizations whose majesty and whose ultimate demise were closely linked to liberties they took with water. Unlike ourselves, future archaeologists will have the benefit of written records, of time capsules and so forth. But such things are as apt to confuse as to enlighten. What, for example, will archaeologists make of Congressional debates over Tellico Dam, where the vast majority ridiculed the dam, excoriated it, flagellated it—and then allowed it to be built? What will they think of Congressmen voting for water projects like Central Arizona and Tennessee-Tombigbee—projects costing three or four billion dollars in an age of astronomical deficits—when Congress’s own fact-finding committees asserted or implied that they made little sense?

Such debates and documents may shed light on reasons—rational or otherwise—but they will be of little help in explaining the psychological imperative that drove us to build dam after dam after dam. If there is a Braudel or a Gibbon in the future, however, he may deduce that the historical foundations of dams as monumental as Grand Coulee, of projects as nonsensical as Tennessee-Tombigbee, are sunk in the 1880s, a decade which brought, in quick succession, a terrible blizzard, a terrible drought, and a terrible flood. 

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