An Unhappy Marriage: Water and Concrete in the American West

"The outer-most circle of the Devil's world seems to be a moat filled mainly with DDT. Next to it is a moat of burning gasoline. Within that is a ring of pinheads each covered with a million people—an so on past phalanxed bulldoxers and bicuspid chainsaw into the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam" (- John McPhee 158).

Every river left of the hundredth meridian has been turned into either a reservoir or fitted awkwardly into a concrete straightjacket. The use of concrete in the ‘management' of water delineates a dichotomy: We have nature and non-nature. The engineer becomes the (intelligent) designer. The cut of a deep channel into a waterway or dam on a river enables us to conceptualize modified ‘ecosystems.'

Separated from their surrounding, rivers become mere resources, to be consumed by insatiable expansion. Waterways tamed and controlled, become domesticated, and in the concrete world, a wild river is no longer a place.

Geographer Denis Cosgrove has written that this modernist water landscape reached its "apotheosis in the West, where dams and power barrages on the Columbia, the Colorado and the Snake systems and California's great aqueducts are the grandest monuments to the concrete sublime."1 Concrete, the symbol of the modern era, exemplified the reason and efficiency behind a culture of science. "Streamlined planning, writes Cosgrove, "reaches an ironic climax where natural streamlines are interrupted in the concrete monuments of Modernist visionary engineering." 2 In the twentieth century, only a project conceived in concrete was a serious one. 3 The massive slabs and elegant curves of structures like the Hoover Dam were carefully engineered to "harmonize with the natural landscape"4 by responding to "the elemental scale of the Western natural landscapes." Created to inspire awe, these monuments of the modern era were designed to echo the immensity of vast Western expanses and the scale of deep Rocky Mountain canyons.

About a hundred years ago, the sparsely settled population of the American West grew suddenly thirsty. Urban needs and expanding agricultural irrigation practices forced Angelinos to look to the hinterlands for supplemental water. In Los Angeles, after the Owens Valley fell victim to the city's water needs, the Colorado River was next on the agenda.

By 1964, the Colorado River was a different river. It became the first river in the world to be completely managed by human beings. Its flow was altered, vegetation along its banks had significantly shifted, and "the physical bed of the river had changed…as dams checked deliveries of silt" and managed the "scouring effects of big floods."5 Environmental group, Living Rivers, point to the impacts of the numerous dams and management techniques as detrimental to the river's future, making the claim that, "ignorance, greed, and complacency are robbing the Colorado of its ability to sustain life."6

Dams can alter a river's flow and temperature, and they can cause elevated salt levels in the surrounding soil, not to mention their affects on nutrients and the "saline mix in downstream deltas."7 When a watershed is dammed, a river's reservoir turns into a quasi lake ecosystem. When the swift, turbulent, highly oxygenated water is replaced by a stagnant reservoir system, the riverine species start to disappear.

Dams built prior to the 1930s often had minor effects on waterways since most of the reservoirs involved were fairly small. Stream channels were impacted at short distances. Floods were controlled and seasonal flow variations were barely noticeable. After the 1930s, large multi-purpose water storage projects had tremendous impacts on river basins.

During the twentieth century, large dams were built for mostly political reasons. "Governments liked the image they suggested, writes J.R. McNeill, which was that of an "energetic determined state capable of taming rivers for the social good."8 Building dams legitimized leaders and rival government agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers.

In the Pacific Northwest, monstrosities like the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams fragmented the ranges of freshwater fish species, like the White Sturgeon, isolating their populations and keeping them from their spawning grounds.9 The agencies that manage the dams have tried many expensive fish-saving tactics like capturing smolts from the reservoir end and transporting them below the Bonneville. Other proposed solutions involve the use of screens and ‘flip lips' to save fish from turbine-caused injuries. Attempts have also been made to lower reservoir levels so that the Snake and Columbia function as natural rivers.10

Not surprisingly, the techno-fixes associated with river management take the wrong approach. Dam builders "approached fish passage as an engineering problem and fish abundance as a production problem, writes Valerie Rapp in her book, What the River Reveals. "They believed they could produce more salmon the same way they could produce more motors at a factory. They did not understand that the dams and reservoirs created enormous ecological disruptions that reverberated the entire length of the river." 11

In 1930, after three years of surveys, fieldwork, and analysis, Harland Bartholomew and Associates and the Olmstead Brothers put forth a plan for the Los Angeles region with a special warning about the "strictly mono-purpose infrastructure" that was the basis of that era's flood control ideology. The two firms proposed solving the city's flood control problems by using "different combinations of land use planning and public works" and limiting development within the river's 50-year floodplain.12

Sadly, the report received little attention. Even the stream and river initiatives introduced by the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration were quickly seen as passe' when compared with the tactics put forth by the Army Corps of Engineers and the application of their "structural engineering techniques" as flood control solutions. Once again, the concrete won. The Army Corps was given the green light and by the end of the century, concrete would be poured into nearly 35,000 miles of waterways.13

By 1938, the Army Corps took it upon themselves to redesign the L.A. River's course by using reinforced concrete to direct the rivers flow. They built and several raised flood-control basins, and implemented a series of additional flood-control measures along the river's watershed. These engineering strategies transformed the river into a "51-mile flood control throughway."14

The Los Angeles River became a non-place in the urban environment. It was fenced-off from the public as - a forbidden territory. Entombed in concrete in all "but three of the soft-bottom sections" the river had been domesticated.15 Its channel was cut deep, and its floodplain was armored and designed to "maximize" the "potential industrial development" around it.16 No longer would it meander, like rivers do, but instead would function as a predictable watercourse, broken and docile. The L.A. River was the new monument to the Army Corps- a river they designed and built.

Recently, groups like Friends of the Los Angeles River, and other activists bent on restoring the river, have discussed the possibilities of going "beyond the concrete era." Using tactics like land barriers and strategic tree planting they hope to move beyond the concrete era.17

This resistance to concrete, however, is not new. David Brower of the Sierra Club fought a long, drawn-out, battle to keep the Bureau of Reclamation from erecting a dam in the Marble Gorge of the Colorado River in the 1960s. He used full-page ads in the New York Time and San Francisco Chronicle that brought the Bureau's schemes to the public attention.

"SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING?" asked 1966 his ad in response to the Bureau's proposed dam at Marble Gorge. The ad's hyperbole sparked the outrage that was needed to kill the Marble Gorge project.

The American author and essayist, Edward Abbey, was one of the most visible enemies of the dam-building age. He wrote:

I take a dim view of dams; I find it hard to love cement; I am poorly impressed by concrete aggregates and statistics in the cubic tons. But in this weakness I am not alone, for I belong to that ever-growing number of Americans, probably a good majority now, who have become aware that a fully industrialized, thoroughly urbanized, elegantly computerized social system is not suitable for human habitation. Great for machines, yes. But, unfit for people. 18

The Glen Canyon Dam, in location, was "the windmill Abbey wanted to tear down most."19 The 792,000-ton hydraulic monstrosity that had cost U.S. taxpayers $750 million to construct had, in Abbey's view, desecrated the walls of the Glen Canyon, walls that were "grander than all the cathedrals in Europe."20 Noted by writer, Christopher Manes, as one of the "most beautiful stretches of the Colorado Gorge" with its "tamarisk and willow thickets, water falls and plunge pools, hanging gardens of orchids and maidenhair ferns" it was in Abbey's eyes, replaced by an "engineering abomination that destroyed an entire ecosystem."21

In his book, Endgame: Resistance, Derrick Jensen rails against dams much like Abbey had done 30 years before. Echoing the arguments made by Earth First! for the removal of the Elwha, Jensen's fiery prose attacks dams for imprisoning rivers, their drowning of forests, and their inundation of the "homes of humans and non-humans alike." Jensen recounts his ongoing debates with engineers regarding his views on dam removal:

There is a certain type of dam removal expert more concerned with legalities than living rivers, with science than salmon, with process than justice. These experts plague me like pacifists, cautioning me to be cautious, systematically telling me that the system works if only we'll let it.22

Jensen relishes the fact that dam removals are on the rise, claiming that there have been 120 large dams removed in the U.S. over the last 40 years, but, "the bad news, Jensen writes, "is that at this rate of 3 per year it would take about 25,000 years just to get the big dams out of this country, even if no new ones were built."23 Jensen is uncertain if the salmon will hang on long enough for this to happen. Like many of the critics of dams, Jensen points out that the problems associated with dam removal are "almost never technical."24 The dam becomes just one symbol of civilization's inability to relinquish at least some control over the natural world.

So what would happen if the unhappy marriage between water and concrete was annulled? In the case of the Colorado River, one anonymous source says that "taking out" the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams alone would create a 500-foot wall of water that would destroy many river towns like Laughlin, Nevada; Yuma, Arizona; and Needles, California. In the Imperial Valley, one of California's agricultural power-houses, could see its fertile land buried under water for three years or more. The destruction would be immeasurable.

The Colorado River basin now only functions within its man-made constraints. The magic of concrete has allowed an agricultural valley to exist in a scorching climate and with it an expanding human population in new desert communities.

Recently, the environmental group, Living Rivers, took the Bureau of Reclamation to court to force the public release of ‘inundation maps' that detail the impacts of Glen Canyon's fall. Surprisingly, the presiding judge ruled that such maps would be of no public value. 25

Donald Worster, in his book, Nature's Economy, elaborates on the technological imperative that dominates our thinking about nature and its proper use. In his analysis of ecological thinking over the past century, Worster focuses on the human belief that "things can always be done better—and must be." This is how we commodify and objectify the world around us. The technological imperative "is the only, and sufficient rationale for our increasingly managed world."26 We've come to believe that the river doesn't know how to do what's right so we must guide it down the correct path.

The question remains: is water just a resource? Do we have an absolute, divinely conferred right of access to the wild rivers in the American West? Eco-theologian, Thomas Berry, has long commented on industrial civilization's utilitarian attitude toward the Earth and our extension of rights to only human beings. Others have written that perhaps ecosystems have ‘intrinsic value,' extending a moral imperative including entire environments, like riverine systems. If we take a holistic approach to water, do the basic rights of riverine ecosystems outweigh those of humans?

The late Canadian naturalist, John A. Livingston, has written, "the moment we see usefulness in something, that thing becomes a resource." And when we objectify the world into a supermarket of things, it becomes easy to manipulate the natural assets around us. We can use them for any purposes we see fit. "Subjects have power—objects are harmless, says eco-phenomenologist, Neil Evernden.27 Put simply, we've objectified the great rivers of the American West.

Perhaps it is the wildness of rivers that humans have feared. Wildness lies outside of human control. It "lies beyond the objects in question, directly confronting and confounding our designs.28 Wildness is present in every shark attack and in every ‘violent' hurricane. It is an affront to human civilization, and this is why humans must reel-in this madness. But there is flipside to our obsession. "When man obliterates wildness, writes A. J. Rush, "he repudiates the evolutionary force that put him on this planet."29 Geologian, Thomas Berry, feels that our desire to civilize our world has been misconceived. "We are not here to domesticate, writes Berry in his book, The Great Work, "we are here to become integral with the larger Earth Community." Unfortunately for us, wildness is something we don't want to understand, or at least our ability to understand it has been undermined by the mechanistic science and systemic thinking passed on from Decartes to Teilhard de Chardin to Buckminster Fuller. The Earth must fall under complete human control; our legacy demands it. The American West was once perceived to be a savage land in need of taming by heroic bands of settlers. Few will argue that it has not been subdued.

Concrete is clearly the symbol for the perceived might of human civilization, rather than the healthy mystery, spiritualy and wild nature of the American West's great flowing rivers. Concrete will not last forever, but will the world be wild again?

1 Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2008. pp. 99-100
2 Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2008. p. 98
3 Robert Gottlieb, Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. p. 164
4 Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2008. pp. 99-100
5 J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. p. 177
6 Living Rivers website (
7 Marq deVillers, Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. p. 126
8 J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. p. 157
9 Valerie Rapp, What the River Reveals: Understanding and Restoring Healthy Watersheds. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1997. p. 101
10 ibid.
11 Rapp p. 99
12 Mike Davis, "How Eden Lost Its Garden: A Political History of the Los Angeles Landscape, in Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja, eds. The City: Los Angeles at the End of the Twentieth Century. Berkeley, CA: UC Press 1996. P. 165
13 Robert Gottlieb, Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. p. 164
14 Gottlieb p. 141
15 Gottlieb p. 141-142
16 Davis p. 165
17 Gottlieb p. 153
18 Susan Zakin, Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! And The Environmental Movement. Tucson, AZ: UC Arizona Press, 1993. p. 167
19 Douglas Brinkley. Introduction. The Monkey Wrench Gang. By Edward Abbey. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid.
22 Derrick Jensen, Endgame Volume 2: Resistance. New York: Seven Stories, 2006. p. 590
23 Jensen p. 596
24 Jensen p. 589
26 Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2006. p. 294
27 Neil Evernden, The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1985. p. 88
28 Evernden p. 121
29 A.J. Rush as quoted in Voices for the Wilderness, ed. William Schwartz. New York, 1969) p. xvi

RELATED PLACES California River Aqueduct, Mexicali, Calexico

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