Why We Should Give a Dam

Written By: Tawny Tesconi, Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director
Published: April 11, 2022

In mid-March, I joined my sister and her family on a short trip to Las Vegas. It was her daughter’s spring break from high school, and as much as we wanted to share the glitz of “Sin City,” our genuine interest was in touring the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. If you haven’t seen these two iconic sites, they should be high on your bucket list. The Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, an honor well deserved. It is spectacular and reminds us that we are a small part of a much larger and ever-changing universe.


I was just as stunned by the Hoover Dam. Not only was I impressed by its massiveness, but the ingenuity that went into building it 90 years ago made me marvel at the men (and hopefully some women) who engineered and built this functioning work of art. As I toured the well-orchestrated Visitor’s Center, I grew proud of those Americans of the 1930s who masterminded the project and overcame every roadblock to getting the dam built.


Just as we are experiencing today, the Colorado River basin and the townsfolk and farmers who lived along the river were plagued with the yin and yang of devastating flooding and intense drought. The idea was that if a dam was built in the Grand Canyon to control the water of the Colorado River, much-needed water could be stored to help farmers downstream and even make the surrounding deserts productive. Including a hydropower plant was less about providing clean energy and more about finding a revenue stream to pay for the cost of dam operations. The dam concept originated in 1902 as a vision of Arthur Powell Davis, a Bureau of Reclamation engineer. It took several attempts to get the project approved by the US Congress, but it finally got blessed by our nation’s leaders in 1928. The world had been through a world war during those decades of decision-making about the project, and by the time it was approved, the dam had another purpose – to provide jobs for an unemployed workforce who were victims of the Great Depression.


Based on the political path and timeframe that the proponents of the dam had to maneuver to get approval, very little has changed compared to today around the snail’s pace that much-needed community good projects get green-lighted. I have seen multi-million-dollar government projects take so long to get through the research, outreach, and redesign steps that the technology or recommended equipment became obsolete when the project was finally implemented.


However, once approved, the Hoover Dam project reached warp speed with the construction timeline. I am proud of my grandfather’s generation. America was a country newly populated with thousands of immigrants who were ready to realize the American dream. They were hard workers, steeped in values and tenacious about achieving success. There is no better example of this drive than the Boulder Canyon Dam (renamed the Hoover Dam). Five thousand men worked every day, sometimes in heat reaching nearly 120 degrees, to blast tunnels in the canyon sides to divert the water to build the dam. The dam is over 700 feet tall, 1,244 feet long at the crest, and steadied with 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete. It is beyond belief that it only took four years to construct the dam enough for Lake Mead to begin filling. Although CAD technology and virtual modeling didn’t exist back then, the engineers were ingenious and curved the dam walls to make them stronger. Brilliant.

As we were working our way through the Hoover Dam Museum, I asked myself – in two generations from now, what will people be admiring that was created and built by our generation? Arguably, we have made technical advances in many ways, but with today’s regulations and government oversight, could we ever produce something as magnificent as the Hoover dam in less than a decade, let alone four years? And will anything built today still function efficiently a century from now?

During the same week of my travels to Nevada, several stories hit the press about the Sites Reservoir. History repeating itself is one way. The Sites Reservoir was proposed in the 1980s, and even after California went through two devasting droughts, one from 2006 to 2010 and the other from 2011 to 2017, the reservoir still hasn’t been built. In November of 2014, the voters approved Proposition 1, a Water Bond intending to infuse our water shortage challenges with $7.12 billion in funding to do infrastructure projects to improve our water supply. Eight years later, there still have been no shovels in the ground to make this happen. And, if my math is right, the storage capability of the Sites Reservoir is dwarfed by that of the Hoover dam. I am guessing your water wonks will explain that a reservoir is different than a dam, but it’s all about storing water.

The recent news bites about the Site Reservoir touts that the project will be done by 2030 – as if that is something we should be proud of. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that our leaders are waking up to the need for improved and increased water supply storage, but in the 1980s, if this project had been moved to the front burner over projects like the bullet train, how much more security would the Sacramento Valley have with water supply? The reservoir would have collected rain and runoff from some very wet years that could have been beneficial to farmers and urbanites.

We cut some of the red tapes around regulations and CEQA requirements under the blanket of a declared emergency with the wildfires. Our drought is a declared emergency that affects a more significant portion of California. Let’s get the scissors out and start cutting that red tape.

I’d like to think the Sites Reservoir will be one of those projects our great-grandchildren marvel about because the construction and implementation of the project were stealthy, but I am a pessimist. If the government doesn’t reduce regulations and fend off litigation before lawsuits are filed, the shovels will remain in the back of the truck and the ground undisturbed.


“The beaver told the rabbit as they stared at the Hoover Dam: No, I didn’t build it myself, but it’s based on an idea of mine”.

Charles Hard Townes


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