It is widely known how important water is to our lives and the world we live in. Our body and planet is comprised of about 70% water – making it seem like it is easily accessible and plentiful. However, when you rule out our oceans and ice caps, less than 1% of all the water on Earth is drinkable. Of that less than 1%, groundwater only accounts for 0.28% of fresh water around the globe. Safe drinking water is a privilege we often take for granted while we brush our teeth or drink a glass of water in the morning. While we are giving thanks to our family, friends, and food during Thanksgiving, we should also give big thanks for our clean drinking water and the people who make it happen.
The Importance of Clean Water
Keeping yourself hydrated can do wonders for your health. The benefits water provides for our bodies range from relieving headaches, flushing toxins out of the body, improving mood, helping with weight loss, and relieving fatigue. In the U.S., we are fortunate enough to have some of the cleanest drinking water anywhere in the world to keep us healthy and safe. In other countries and for some 783 million people, that is not the case. Many do not have access to sufficient drinking water and the water they do have often contains dangerous pathogens. Often, unclean water sources are miles from villages and some people are forced to spend hours each day simply finding and transporting water. The typical container used for water collection could weigh between 40 and 70 pounds when filled. Imagine how difficult it would be to carry the equivalent of a 5-year-old child for three hours out of each day just to have water to drink. With so many people not having access to clean drinking water around the world, it is important to appreciate the plentiful and safe drinking water we have here in America.
A Special Thanks for the People Who Make Our Water Safe
When looking at America’s clean water, it is especially important to give special thanks to the water and wastewater utilities that work nonstop to give us some of the cleanest drinking water in the world. Despite the fact that our country has beautiful rivers and lakes, the water that comes from them to our taps goes through several processes that require a lot of work and maintenance. Our water and wastewater utilities maintain some of the highest standards in the world when it comes to drinking water, and new innovations for treatment and distribution are always being researched and implemented. Water and wastewater employees work tirelessly to meet regulatory requirements and preserve local waterways despite major setbacks like deteriorating infrastructure and shrinking funding for necessary projects. On top of treating our water, utilities are responsible for keeping their distribution systems running efficiently and also to being stewards to the environment through improving effluent quality. Our water utilities are arguably the most important utilities in the nation because water is so crucial to our survival.
We are so incredibly fortunate here in the United States to not have to think twice about the purity of water from the tap, a glass of water in a restaurant, a highway rest stop, an airport, or motel – all thanks to our water and wastewater utilities. For that, we should be especially thankful. This Thanksgiving, be sure to give special thanks for having safe drinking water and to the dedicated, hard-working people at water and wastewater utilities.
Recently in the news, we have heard a lot about the nationwide lead in drinking water crisis and the need to update our aging infrastructure. In addition, the plight of the people living in Navajo Nation has been brought to the nation’s attention after being showcased in a video by CBS Sunday Morning News. However, there is yet another very serious water crisis in the United States that has garnered very little media attention, and this week, we will be concluding our four-part series on water crises in the United States by talking about colonias.
What Are Colonias?
Colonia translates to neighborhood in Spanish, and in the United States, colonias are primarily Hispanic neighborhoods found along the Mexican border in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. With over 2,200 colonias, Texas has by far the most colonias in the nation, as well as the largest colonia population with over 500,000 residents. The modern-day colonia population is about 96% Mexican-American, with about 74% of those — and 94% of colonia children — being American citizens.
Colonias originated in the 1950s. At this time, less than honorable developers bought up worthless land along the Mexican border — such as land that was agriculturally useless or located in flood plains — parceled it into tiny lots with little to no infrastructure and sold it off to low-income immigrants in search of affordable housing. To this day, colonias are often bought through a contract for deed, which is a questionable financing method by which developers offer low down and monthly payments with a very high interest rate and no title until the loan is paid in full. Prior to 1995, developers did not typically record the transactions with the county clerk, leaving the buyer with virtually no rights. If they fell behind on payments, the developer could repossess the property quickly, usually within just 45 days, without going through the foreclosure process.
Fortunately, Texas passed the Colonias Fair Land Sales Act in 1995 to somewhat protect colonia residents who are forced to finance through a contract for deed. The Act requires developers to record the contract with the county clerk and to provide property owners with an annual statement that shows the amount paid towards the loan and taxes as well as the number of remaining payments. The Act also forces developers to itemize which services, such as water, wastewater, and electricity, are available, and whether the land is located in a flood plain.
While the Colonias Fair Land and Sales Act has improved contract for deed sales, there remain serious problems. Because property owners do not actually own the land or have a title, they cannot secure any type of financing that uses the property as collateral. Considering that colonia residents are typically well below the poverty level, any other types of financing are also unavailable to them, making it impossible to improve their property. Therefore, colonia residents typically construct their homes in drawn out phases as funds become available to them. Because of this, colonia homes often do not have electricity or even basic plumbing.
Challenges in Colonias
Arguably the most serious challenge facing colonias is the lack of improved water and sanitation services. Many colonias do not have public sewer systems and instead rely on rudimentary septic systems or outhouses that are often inadequate and overflow. And because the land is frequently in flood plains with poorly constructed roads that do not properly drain, sewage collects and pools, rife with bacteria and pathogens. Even colonias that do have sewer systems typically lack any type of wastewater treatment. Therefore, untreated wastewater is discharged into local streams that flow directly into the Rio Grande or the Gulf of Mexico.
Potable water also presents a challenge to colonia residents. Very often, inhabitants must buy water in drums to meet their needs, or, even worse, they utilize untreated water from wells that are contaminated. Some private companies have installed water “vending machines” that provide bottled water at an astronomical cost to residents who can ill afford it. Even colonias that do have water lines have major problems, because residents are unable to tie-in due to their homes not meeting county building codes; to meet the building codes, they need to have adequate plumbing — a true Catch-22 situation. In fact, housing in colonias is typically considered dilapidated by local inspectors. Residents often start with just tents, cardboard, and lean-tos, and make improvements little by little as funds allow.
Due to the lack of improved water and sanitation, as well as lack of electrical services, it should come as little surprise that health conditions in colonias are often deplorable. Hepatitis A, dysentery, tuberculosis, cholera, salmonella, and other diseases occur at an astronomically higher rate in colonias than they do in the rest of Texas, according to Texas Department of Health data. To make matters worse, most colonias do not have local medical services and have a serious shortage of primary care providers, and most colonia residents lack health insurance. Therefore, the average age of colonia residents is only 27 — a full 10 years younger than the national average. And, just as is the case in Africa and other developing areas, quality of health is directly linked to quality of education. Therefore, many colonia residents remain undereducated — 55% of residents do not have a high school diploma — causing the cycle of poverty to continue generationally. The unemployment rate in colonias is anywhere from 20-60%, compared with 7% for the rest of Texas.
Assistance to Colonias
Thankfully, through a series of public outreach initiatives, more attention has been brought to the existence of colonias and the third-world conditions in them. In the last 20 years, the Texas Secretary of State has been recording the infrastructure, or lack thereof, within colonias and providing a significant amount of funding — tens of millions of dollars — to improve these areas. And it is working, albeit slowly. Since 2006, about 100 colonias have been moved out of the “red” category, indicating the worst conditions. However, with over 2,200 colonias along the Texas-Mexico border, there is still much work to be done.
On a federal level, USDA Rural Development has grants available through the Individual Water and Wastewater Program for households residing in an area recognized as a colonia before October 1, 1989. The colonia must be located in a rural area and determined to be a colonia on the basis of objective criteria including lack of potable water supply, lack of adequate sewage systems, lack of decent, safe and sanitary housing, and inadequate roads and drainage. Grant funds may be used to connect service lines to a residence, pay utility hook-up fees, install plumbing and related fixtures like a bathroom sink, bathtub or shower, commode, kitchen sink, water heater, outside spigot, or bathroom, if lacking. Qualifying applicants must own and occupy their home, show income from all individuals residing in the home below the most recent poverty income guidelines, and not be delinquent on any Federal debt. The maximum individual grant for water systems is $3,500 and for wastewater is $4,000 with a lifetime assistance maximum not to exceed $5,000 per individual. Further information can be found on USDA’s web site. In addition, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Texas, Arizona, California, and New Mexico has set aside up to 10 percent of their State Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) funds for improving living conditions for colonias residents.
Fortunately, colonia residents are a very resourceful, tight knit group who are willing to work together and help each other, and some private and non-profit institutions have also become involved in the plight of colonia residents. For example, Texas A&M worked with residents on a water filtration project which involved making simple filters to make water potable. In addition, a non-profit lender called the LiftFund has provided loans to some colonia residents to assist them with starting a business. These loans have a very low interest rate and are given to people who cannot qualify for a traditional loan. Colonia residents are very often entrepreneurial in spirit, perhaps through necessity. After all, for years they have done what they need to do to get by, whether it be selling handmade crafts at flea markets or cutting up tires dumped along colonia roads and turning them into unique flower pots.
Colonias are a little known part of America that have conditions oftentimes no better than those found in developing countries. One of the biggest causes of generational poverty in colonias is attributed to lack of basic water and sanitation services, causing health and education issues. Just like the plight of the people living in Navajo Nation, it is shameful that people living in the richest land in the world do not have access to these basic human rights. Add to this the lack of charitable organizations supporting water poverty in the United States, and colonias qualify as one of the most significant, and heartbreaking, water crises in the nation.
Part three of our four-part series on water crises in America is on lead contamination. Instances of lead in drinking water, such as the situation in Flint, Michigan, have become a hot topic in the media. Lead in drinking water is a problem that reaches far beyond the disaster in Flint, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stating that roughly 10 million American homes and buildings still receive water from service lines that are at least partially lead. When water has high acidity or low mineral content, it can cause these service lines to corrode and leach lead into the water supply. Without mitigation, water from lead service lines has the potential to cause adverse health effects, particularly in children.
The EPA states that, in the last three years, only nine U.S. states are reporting safe levels of lead in their drinking water. These include Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Tennessee. This means that 41 states are consistently reporting higher than acceptable levels of lead in their drinking water. The problem is not only the lead service lines connecting water mains to homes and buildings, but also the lack of proper treatment to prevent corrosion of these lead pipes.
History of Lead Pipes in the U.S.
The use of lead pipes for water distribution has a centuries-old history. In the U.S., installation of lead pipes on a major scale began in the late 1800s, particularly in the larger cities. At one point, more than 70% of cities with populations greater than 30,000 used lead water lines. Lead pipes had two significant advantages over iron: they lasted almost twice as long and they were malleable enough to easily bend around existing structures. Of course, now we see the health risks associated with lead, and water systems across the country have taken steps to eliminate lead pipes in their distribution systems. Water companies and municipalities now must decide whether to replace all the lead pipe in their drinking water system, including home service lines on private property, or continue to add corrosion-control chemicals at the plant to prevent leaching of lead into the water supply.
Utilities and the Government Take Action
Water companies and municipalities across the country are working diligently to get lead out of our drinking water. Since replacing all of our nation’s lead piping may take over 20 years, utilities have found a short term solution to control the amount of lead in their drinking water. They are focusing on the treatment process and monitoring what makes up the drinking water. Introducing orthophosphates to the water supply and flushing all the standing water creates a scale of protective coating on the interior surfaces of lead pipes, reducing corrosion. This limits the amount of lead that leaches into the water and offers a short term solution as we figure out how to permanently replace all lead pipes from our water distribution systems.
In Wisconsin, the Madison Water Utility has become a national model for cities struggling with lead in their drinking water. They are the first major utility in the nation to demonstrate that a full replacement of both the public and the private portions of lead service lines is possible. This involved working with residents to remove lead service lines from their homes and nearby property. The project started in 2001 and has provided safe drinking water to 5,600 property owners. The plan, which was very controversial at the time, is now hailed as a model and has spurred other utilities into action. For example, Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) implemented a program that offers a credit of up to $2,000 and interest-free loans to assist homeowners who are willing to remove lead pipes on their property. BWSC also has a searchable online database for homeowners to see if their property has a lead service line. Also, the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) announced earlier this year that it will provide $100 million to its member water communities to fully replace lead service lines, including residential lines. These utilities are shining examples of the many organizations taking a long term approach to this national crisis.
Recent news reports of lead in drinking water and the controversy surrounding testing methodologies have acted as a catalyst for public schools across the country to test their water. Unfortunately, many of these tests indicate high, potentially dangerous, levels of lead concentrations in public drinking fountains, sparking outcry from parents and prompting a series of public meetings. In response, the EPA changed lead testing regulations on February 29, 2016 and now require utilities to use wide mouth bottles, conduct no pre-stagnation flush, and to run faucets at typical flow rates when testing for lead — precisely the opposite of how testing had previously been conducted. While many people have been quick to blame utilities for lead in their drinking water and have even gone so far to suggest that utilities have been practicing testing “cheats,” they were in actuality following protocol issued by EPA.
The EPA is also considering changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act’s rules regarding lead, and an advisory panel has proposed a more proactive approach to replacing lead pipes. The proposal would encourage public water systems to replace lead pipes versus waiting for lead levels to spike to take action. This plan involves substantial increases in funding to water companies and municipalities for the replacement of lead pipes in both the public and the private portions of lead service lines, including residential lines. With this additional funding, water utilities across the country will be able to set goals for a permanent solution to our nation’s lead crisis. Admittedly, we have a long road ahead of us as many cities simply do not know the exact number or location of lead pipes in their system. Add to that the cost and person power required to replace our nation’s lead service lines, and it becomes apparent that a 100% lead-free infrastructure is still many years away.
What Can You Do?
When water sits stagnant in lead service lines for even a few hours, it picks up lead from the pipe, which can make using your faucet hazardous. Find out if your home is serviced by lead service lines by calling your local water department. This is especially important to homes built prior to 1980. If your home still has lead service lines, you can reduce the risk of lead contamination in your drinking water by taking some simple steps:
Call your State Department of Public Health for health information, or visit their website.
Run tap water until after the water feels cold. Flushing pipes in this way before use assures that you are not drinking water that has been sitting stagnant in pipes.
Never use hot water from the faucet for drinking or cooking, especially when making baby formula or food for small children. Hot water from your faucet has a higher chance of containing traces of lead. Instead, use cold water and heat it on the stove or in the microwave.
The good news is that lead contaminated water crises like the situation in Flint, Michigan have called for stricter regulations and replacement of nearly six million lead service lines nationwide. The not so good news is that we still have a long way to go to completely remove all lead in our water systems. Nearly all homes built prior to the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes, and some major U.S. cities still have 100 percent lead piping that delivers water from the utilities to homes and businesses. Replacing lead service lines is the safest way to prevent lead contamination, and public and private water companies must work together with state and national organizations to replace lead pipes in all of our water distribution systems. Solving our lead contamination crisis will benefit everyone if we work together for a permanent solution. After all, everyone deserves safe drinking water.
Continuing our July theme on water crises in the United States, this week’s article will dive into our nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure — and how we can fix it. America’s infrastructure is in serious trouble, especially our water systems. Although the quality of drinking water in the U.S. remains high, our aging water infrastructure can no longer be ignored. Many of the pipes are over 100 years old and are exceeding their useful life. We experience about 240,000 water main breaks each year, or one every two minutes. These breaks result in 1.7 trillion gallons of clean water wasted annually. If not replaced, these water systems are expected to cost over a trillion dollars in repairs in the coming decades and, more importantly, put people’s health at risk.
The State of Our Infrastructure
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) develops a report card that depicts the condition and performance of American infrastructure. Our water and wastewater infrastructure both received a D grade, which is a slight improvement from the 2009 report card which ranked both water and wastewater at a D-. Despite the subtle improvement, our country has a long way to go to bring our water systems up to date and make them adequate for future demands.
We as citizens have become blind to our failing infrastructure by accepting preventable environmental hazards as the norm. Events such as polluted and toxic drinking water, floods from levee failures, lead contamination, and constant pipeline bursts have become all too common in our nation. It is apparent that there is a pressing need for modernization, reliability, and long-term funding. Despite these alarming scores and figures, we can improve the current condition of our nation’s infrastructure if we take the right steps.
What We Can Do Now
One of the best ways municipalities and water companies can improve and monitor their aging water systems is pipe testing. Testing the strength of pipes provides insight on how likely a system is to fail or leak. Pipe testing also helps to identify areas of a water system needing repairs, which can save millions of gallons of water as well as a lot of money.
Another way to assess a water system is with an annual water audit. Water audits help municipalities and water companies figure out how to address non-revenue water (NRW). NRW is water that is pumped into the system but not accounted for due to leaks, theft, customer metering inaccuracies, and other inaccurate accounting of water use. Effective water audits can reduce the need for facility upgrades and expansions, reduce the need to find additional sources, and help protect public health by reducing the number of entry points for disease‐causing pathogens.
Although pipe testing and water audits assist in monitoring and improving water systems, the real solution is long term replacement through government and legislative action. To do so, we need to accomplish three important goals:
Increase leadership in infrastructure renewal. We need bold and compelling vision at the national level if we plan on getting anything done. A way we can make this happen is to tell our legislators to take action.
Promote sustainability and ongoing maintenance. Our infrastructure must meet our present and future demands as challenges continue to arise. Our water system problems are not just a one time fix; we need plans in place to monitor and maintain our systems for growing future demand.
Develop, prioritize, and fund plans to maintain and enhance our infrastructure. Once funded, infrastructure projects must be prioritized in ways that improve people’s lives and support a thriving economy. Fixing our infrastructure is going to be expensive. We need to prioritize future improvements based on the benefits and demand of the improvements so we can best serve everyone across the country. Everyone deserves clean, safe drinking water.
What to Take Away
The truth is, there is too much at stake to keep ignoring our weakening infrastructure. If we do not do something soon, Americans may be in for some serious surprises. Imagine not being able to drink the water that comes out of our faucets or even take a shower without worrying about water borne diseases and bacteria. If we wish to seriously improve our water infrastructure, we need collaboration from all parties, both public and private. Politicians and lawmakers need to take definitive action and commit to a sustainable and reliable plan to make our water systems safe and adequate for the future. We need to make the condition of our country’s water systems a top priority.
Water poverty has long been considered a global crisis, with over 783 million people worldwide — that’s one in nine people — lacking access to a safe, clean water supply. Over half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people afflicted with water-related illness, and over 80% of illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa are directly attributable to poor water and sanitation conditions. There are a plethora of charities dedicated to solving the global water crisis, including Tata & Howard’s and AWWA’s charity of choice Water For People. However, there are also water crises taking place right here in the United States. For the month of July, we will be delving into water crises in the United States — and how we can work together to solve them.
Last fall, CBS Sunday Morning News ran a cover story titled The Water Lady: A Savior Among the Navajo. The piece showcased Darlene Arviso, a Saint Bonaventure Indian Mission employee who delivers water to the people of Navajo Nation. Prior to that, the American people were largely unaware of the water crisis afflicting a full 40% of the 173,000 residents of Navajo Nation.
Navajo Nation, though located within the borders of the United States, is a soverign nation with its own president, and does not fall under the jurisdiction of the United States government. Therefore, it also does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates all 155,000 public water supplies of the United States and ensures that our drinking water is safe and clean. Water poverty affects all aspects of life, including not only health and longevity, but also livelihood and education. Unfortunately, the people of Navajo Nation are no exception.
Many of the residents of Navajo Nation must travel many miles to gather water, the most fortunate of whom typically travel by car. However, a large percentage of these residents live well below the poverty level and can ill afford the cost of gasoline required to travel to gather water. Others must walk several miles — no different from their sub-Saharan counterparts. To make matters worse, the water they gather is often from livestock troughs or unregulated wells, frequently fouled by bacteria and other contaminants.
Adding insult to injury, much of the water in Navajo Nation is contaminated with uranium and arsenic due to the prevalence of mining that took place in the area during the nuclear arms race. Uranium and radioactive particles have been found in much of the water supply in Navajo Nation, and the rest has been contaminated by coal mining and coal-fired power plants. At this point, basically all of the water of Navajo Nation is contaminated in some way, which has affected the health of the citizens there. Nearly half of the residents have been touched by kidney ailments or cancer. Since the Navajo people now understand that the water in their land is poisonous, they are forced to travel even farther to find safe water. Some of the residents save up their money for gasoline and make the four-hour trek to Flagstaff, Arizona to buy bottled water when it is on sale.
Solving the Navajo Nation Water Crisis
Fortunately, the Navajo water crisis is finally receiving the attention it deserves. Navajo Water Project, a subsidiary of DIGDEEP, is the sole water charity dedicated to the Navajo water crisis in the United States, and has a mission in which Tata & Howard firmly believes. Working with the Saint Bonaventure Indian Mission and subsisting on private donations, Navajo Water Project digs wells, installs water storage tanks, and brings in-home plumbing to those suffering from water poverty in Navajo Nation. Most recently, the Navajo Water Project issued a plea for Baby Lisa, a Navajo child born with Microvillus Inclusion Disease. Her illness requires her to have a feeding tube, for which she needs clean water. Without clean water, she could become seriously ill or even die, so Baby Lisa was living in a medical facility over three hours from her family home. The Navajo Water Project petitioned individuals and businesses for $50,000 to bring clean water to Baby Lisa’s home, and this past spring, they surpassed their goal. The Project is now in the process of installing plumbing in the family home.
In addition to the Navajo Water Project, the Navajo have entered into agreements with the United States government. Since 1978, native Americans have entered into deals with the U.S. Department of the Interior in which they procure funding for their nation’s water supply in exchange for relinquishing some of their water claims to the federal government, states, and private investors. Additional deals are currently underway, including one in Utah that passed in January of this year. The deal secured millions in funding to build water infrastructure such as distribution systems and treatment facilities on Navajo land. And while many Navajo see these deals as the only way to improve their quality of life and support economic growth, others worry that by relinquishing their water rights they are essentially stealing from future Navajo generations who, if climate change progresses as predicted, may find their water supply has run dry.
The answer to solving the water crisis of Navajo Nation is not simple. Bringing safe, clean water to the people of Navajo Nation will require both public and private investment. It will also require fair legislation that allows the Navajo to keep rights to water on their land while requiring the federal government to fund the cleanup of the waters that they contaminated. The nation has been in an uproar over the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in which hundreds of children suffered from lead poisoning from their water supply. However, we should also be outraged at the decades of water poverty and contamination that the people of Navajo Nation have endured. The time has come to address the water crisis in Navajo Nation and to ensure that ALL people living on U.S. soil are afforded the most basic human right to water.
The Grand Coulee Dam, a concrete gravity dam, is located on the Columbia River west of Spokane, Washington and is listed by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven civil engineering wonders of the United States. The dam’s reservoir, Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, stretches 150 miles north and almost reaches the Canadian border. The dam was constructed to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation.
Even more enormous than the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Grand Coulee is an absolutely massive structure, and one of the largest ever constructed by mankind. The 550 foot tall dam contains over 12 million cubic yards of concrete, which is enough to build a highway all the way from Miami, Florida to Seattle, Washington, and stretches 5,223 feet — just 57 feet shy of a mile. The construction of the Grand Coulee dam took place between 1933 and 1942 and provided jobs to thousands of men during the Great Depression. The Grand Coulee provided the immense electrical power needed to manufacture aluminum for the production of World War II planes and ships, and, continuing in its war-like vein, it also powered the production of plutonium at a secret lab on nearby Hanford Site. Plutonium, of course, turned out to be the key ingredient of the atomic bomb – and the rest is history.
The dam is not without some controversy. 77 men lost their lives during the construction of the dam and its original two powerhouses, and another four perished during the construction of the third power plant constructed between 1967-1975, bringing the final death count to 81. Also, creation of the reservoir partially flooded the ancestral lands of Native Americans and forced the relocation of over 3,000 people, and environmentalists have condemned the dam for blocking the migration of salmon and steelhead to spawn.
Today, the Grand Coulee is used to irrigate about 670,000 acres of farmland used for growing grains, fruits, vegetables, and wine grapes, as well as livestock grazing.
2. Hoover Dam
The Hoover Dam, located in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River on the border of Arizona and Nevada, is a massive concrete arch-gravity dam whose 600-foot base is as wide as the full length of two football fields. The giant concrete wedge stands 726 feet tall, or the height of a 60-story building, and holds back the immense power of the Colorado River. The Hoover Dam was constructed in order to generate electricity as well as provide irrigation and control flooding, and today generates about four billion kilowatts of electricity per year – enough to provide the power needs for 1.3 million people.
At the time of its construction between 1931 and 1935, the Hoover Dam was the most expensive engineering project in United States history at a cost of $49 million, which, adjusting for inflation, would be $700 million by today’s standards. The Hoover Dam created the enormous reservoir known as Lake Mead, which even today is the largest manmade reservoir in the U.S. at 110 miles long and 560 feet deep. In addition, the Hoover Dam and beautiful Lake Mead have created a bustling tourism community by providing plenty of outdoor recreation including boating, swimming, and fishing. Lake Mead also supplies municipal water for Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson, and provides storage during drought.
Building the Hoover Dam took enormous effort. Construction of the dam utilized 91.8 billion cubic feet of concrete to create a retaining wall that weighs about 6.6 million tons. In fact, the mass of concrete in the Hoover Dam would pave a road from San Francisco to New York City. In addition, the volume of water in Lake Mead, when filled to capacity, is enough to submerge the entire state of Connecticut in ten feet of water. Incredibly enough, although the dam was expected to take five years to construct, it was actually completed ahead of schedule. 96 people died during the construction of the Hoover Dam; however, contrary to the popular urban legend, none of the deceased are encased within the dam’s concrete.
3. Oroville Dam
Oroville Dam, located about 70 miles north of Sacramento at the three forks of the Feather River, is the tallest dam in the United States, standing over 770 feet tall. The dam is an earthfill dam that holds back Lake Oroville, a manmade reservoir containing 3.5 million acre-feet of water. Oroville Dam stretches three quarters of a mile at its base and almost 7,000 feet across at its top.
The most highly monitored dam in the world during construction, the Oroville Dam was built between 1961 and 1967, and was officially dedicated in 1968. Just seven short years later, in 1975, a significant earthquake struck a few miles southeast of Oroville, and the new dam was put to the test. To the credit of the engineers, the dam oscillated with the earthquake and did not suffer a solitary crack or leak.
The Oroville Dam, along with its reservoir, Lake Oroville, not only provides drinking water, water storage, and hydroelectric power, it also protects downstream residents from the flooding of the Feather River. Providing about 750,000 acre-feet of flood control storage, the Oroville Dam has minimized damage from floods that have occurred in every decade since the dam’s construction. It also provides a beautiful location for a plethora of recreational activities including boating, camping, and fishing.
Tragically, 34 men died during the construction of the Oroville Dam. Just two years after the dam’s completion, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) into law, drastically reducing the number of workplace accidents and casualties.
4. Redridge Steel Dam
Located across the Salmon Trout River in Redridge, Michigan, the Redridge Steel Dam is is a flat slab buttress dam constructed of steel. Steel is rarely used for construction of dams, which are typically earthenworks or masonry, and the Redridge Steel Dam is one of only three steel dams ever constructed in the United States. The other two are the Ashfork-Bainbridge Steel Dam, constructed in Arizona in 1898 to supply water for railway operations and still fully operational, and the Hauser Lake Dam, which was constructed in 1901 in Montana but failed less than a year later.
Prior to the construction of the Redridge Steel Dam, the Atlantic Mining Company built a timber crib dam across the Salmon Trout River in order to create a reservoir to supply water for mining operations. The reservoir created by the timber crib dam was insufficient, and so the Redridge Steel Dam was built; however, the original timber crib dam remained submerged in place upstream of the new dam. After operating for several decades, the Redridge Steel Dam fell into disrepair after mining operations ceased, and in 1941, the dam broke and caused a flood. The dam owners opened the spillways and cut holes in the steel dam so that it would no longer retain any water, and in this way the original timber dam was revealed — and along with it, breathtaking waterfalls.
With the threat of being labeled a “significant hazard” dam by the Michigan Department of Environmental looming, the timber dam was lowered 13 feet in 2004 in order to relieve pressure and make it safer. While a more permanent solution is still needed, both dams have been estimated to be safe for the foreseeable future, allowing visitors the ability to appreciate the lovely falls created by the old timber dam.
5. Roosevelt Dam
Constructed between the walls of a box canyon near the Salt River and Tonto Creek, the Roosevelt Dam was the first water project built under the 1902 Reclamation Act, and was the largest masonry dam in the world at that time. Italian stonecutters carved the stones used in the construction of the dam from the nearby cliffs, and when completed, the dam stood 280 feet tall and 184 feet wide at its base. The dam supplied water and electricity while also controlling the dangerous floods that had plagued the nearby Phoenix area.
Construction of the dam occurred between 1905 and 1911 while Arizona was still just a territory, and the total cost was $10 million. Supplying electricity to rural households, the Roosevelt Dam was a modern marvel. It would be ten years before the National Rural Electrification Act brought power to the rest of rural America, and so Phoenix quickly became a bright, modern city, and Arizona officially became a state only one year after the dam’s completion. The Roosevelt Dam was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and, to this day, it adorns the state seal of Arizona.
6. Dworshak Dam
Located just outside the city of Orofino, Idaho on the North Fork of the Clearwater River, the Dworshak Dam is the tallest straight axis gravity dam in the Western Hemisphere and the third highest dam in the United States. Constructed between 1966 and 1973, the Dworshak Dam is primarily used for flood control and hydroelectric power. The dam has three power-generating unts and received authorization for three more in 1990; however, the authorizations were revoked amid political controversy and citizen opposition when it was found that a second dam would be needed to handle peak loads.
The reservoir created by the Dworshak Dam holds almost 3.5 million acre-feet of water and is 53 miles long. The dam stands 717 feet tall, generates 380,000 kilowatts of power, and contains more than twice the concrete than does Cheope’s Great Pyramid in El Giza, Egypt.
Perhaps more notable than its significant mass is the controversy that has surrounded the Dworshak Dam since its inception. In his travel guide Idaho for the Curious, Cort Conley writes, “There have always been more politicians than suitable damsites. Building the highest straight axis gravity dam in the Western Hemisphere, on a river with a mean flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second, at a cost of $312 million, in the name of flood-control, is the second-funniest joke in Idaho. The funniest joke is inside the visitor center: a government sign entreats, ‘…help protect this delicate environment for future generations.’ The North Fork of the Clearwater was an exceptional river with a preeminent run of steelhead trout, and the drainage contained thousands of elk and white-tail deer. The Army Corps of Engineers proceeded to destroy the river, habitat, and fish; then acquired 5,000 acres for elk management and spent $21 million to build the largest steelhead hatchery in the world, maintaining at a cost of $1 million dollars a year what nature had provided for nothing.”
7. New Cornelia Mine Tailings
OK, so the New Cornelia Mine Tailings is not really a dam per se, but it IS often cited as the largest dam structure in the country by its volume of 7.4 billion cubic feet. Located just south of Ajo, Arizona, the New Cornelia Mine was operational from 1912 until 1983, when it closed due to the low price of copper. Mine tailings are waste materials such as bits of rock, dirt, mud, and process effluent from the mining process. While the mine was operational, the tailings were heaped into an enormous pile in order to hold back future tailings, and therefore the tailings pile is actually considered a dam. Today, Phelps Dodge owns the mine. There has also been recent talk of mining the tailings, although nothing has yet been scheduled.
Do you agree with our list of the 7 most interesting dams in the United States or do you know of a dam that should be included? Let us know – we’d love to hear from you!
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