From Nature's Rage to Man's Miracle

Richard Reeves

October 29, 1990|By Richard Reeves

BOULDER CITY, NEVADA — Boulder City, Nevada.

THIS LITTLE TOWN on the Arizona border is, for me, one of the greatest places on the planet, a living monument to the best in men and their governments. To those of us who prefer the works of man to the more spectacular sights and settings of nature, there are few shrines or achievements to match Hoover Dam.

There was nothing but bare and spare high-desert scenery here when the trucks carrying men and bricks and boards came one day in 1931 to begin building a town. Boulder City was to be home to the 3,500 men, and some of their families, who were going to try to tame the wildest and most destructive river of North America, the -- Colorado.

For as long as there was anything, the Colorado River flowed and raged 1,400 miles west and south from the Continental Divide at the top of the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, draining almost a tenth of the land of what would one day be called the United States of America. It was strong enough to create a channel for itself called the Grand Canyon, unpredictable enough to spasmodically wipe out the towns and farms and dreams of the men who settled within hundreds of miles of its banks.

In two years, beginning with the first laying of concrete on June 6, 1933, the men in Boulder City built a 726-foot-high, 1,244-foot-wide dam across the river at a place called Black Canyon. Two years' flow of the river was held behind the structure, 660 feet thick at its base -- creating Lake Mead, 110 miles long and 500 feet deep.

The water, then and now, was released (and controlled) to irrigate the desert valleys of California, useless land with grand names like Imperial Valley, which became the most valuable agricultural fields in the world, almost capable of feeding this entire nation.

Agriculture took most of the water; it still does. But there was enough left to provide drinking and industrial water, carried in new canals, to create modern Los Angeles and San Diego, which was then a town of 69,000 people with not enough water to grow anymore. Some of the water, then and now, was devoted to seven states, to little places called Las Vegas and Phoenix, and to irrigate the farms of Baja California in Mexico. At the base of the dam, the water pushed through the largest hydroelectric generators in the world, making electricity that once lighted half of Los Angeles.

The whole thing -- the dam, the generators, the canals, new roads and levees -- cost $165 million, all from the U.S. Treasury back in Washington. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover negotiated the deal in the 1920s, following years of discussion and debate after a Colorado River flood in 1905 devastated the Imperial Valley and much of the American Southwest. The project, then and now, was managed by a bureaucracy called the Bureau of Reclamation of the Department of the Interior. The building was done, under contract, by a consortium of six of the largest engineering companies in the country. The states and cities and water districts along the way repaid federal loans over 50 years at 4 percent interest; the last payments were made just three years ago.

Now, the users pay for the electricity, on the theory that water should be free. Two-thirds of the electricity is used by Los Angeles. Half of that is for lighting and such. The other half of the electricity is used to pump a billion gallons of water each day 266 miles up and down hills and mountains on a 10-day trip from Boulder City to Southern California.

The men in Boulder City, now a quiet and ordinary town of 10,000 people, were paid from 50 cents an hour for laborers to $1.50 an hour for the most skilled craftsmen. Ninety-six of them were killed on the job, and a plaque at the top of the dam says: ''They died to make the desert bloom. . . . The United States of America will continue to remember the services of all who labored to clothe with substance the plans of those who first visioned the building of this dam.''

It is a thrilling sight, a thrilling story. I became an engineer hoping to do things like this. Alas, I didn't have the talent, but I still feel the romance of it all. I could stay here a long time, but I have to push on. I'll go down to Los Angeles and sit with friends by their swimming pools, listening to them complain about taxes and talk about the dread bureaucrats in Washington and about getting government off their backs.

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