Most of us take infrastructure for granted but we shouldn't; it tells us a lot about ourselves. The massive investment in designing, building and maintaining infrastructure is one of a society's most utopian actions: through it we seek to remake the world. Hydroinfrastructure, for example, shows our conviction that the perfect world has easy access to cold drinks and hot showers. It also links country and city through the flow of one of earth's most elemental substances, demonstrating that the worlds of what we call nature and what we call culture are not as separate as we often believe.
A great book on infrastructure generally is Infrastructure: The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape by Brian Hayes.
Here are some of my favorite hydroinfrastructure sites.
Perhaps our most famous hydroinfrastructure site, Hoover Dam is a window onto a lost world. The triumphalist architecture, the soaring monuments, the echoing recorded voice relating the dam's impressive stats, the seal of the Bureau of Reclamation ("Managing Water in the West"): all combine to create a monument to the unabashed mastery of nature. Hoover Dam hails from the era when rivers were meant to be wrangled into submission and water was "wasted" if it was allowed to run out to the sea. At the top of dam, ozone hangs in the air, the smell of watts being made, of water being vanquished by man.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
John Muir fought and lost the battle to save Hetch Hetchy Valley but it continues today: many preservationists advocate removing the dam here and returning Hetch Hetchy to its natural state. The next valley over from Yosemite Valley, it was said to be even more beautiful. It is beautiful today, in a different way. The eight-mile-long reservoir provides drinking water for more than two million people in the San Francisco Bay Area and surrounding counties. Unlike Hoover Dam, Hetch Hetchy encourages the visitor to admire the reservoir and its natural setting, rather than the dam. A trail edges the water, winding back and forth like a compromise.
The Pacific Intertie
This high-voltage line may not look like hydroinfrastructure, but it is. It's the Pacific Intertie, a special direct current high-voltage line built to bring power from Columbia River's federal dams down the West Coast to power-hungry California. You can tell it's a DC line because it has two wires, rather than alternating current's usual three. Seen here from a car window, it blends in with the other powerlines, but it's a striking symbol of the heedlessness with which we have built cities in the desert, detaching ourselves from the landscape and expecting the things we need to be brought from somewhere else.
The Erie Canal: the locks at Lockport
Like many highways, the New York Thruway follows a Native American trail that was later the route of a canal. The Erie Canal—a 363-mile long artificial river connecting New York City with the upper Great Lakes—changed the economy of the young nation. After its 1825 completion, New York oysters traveled to landlocked upstate towns, and upstate apples made their way, albeit at 4 miles per hour—to New York City. Canals were the first step in our transformation to a society freed from the constraints of region. Today we eat mangos from India and expect fresh asparagus year-round. This six-foot-deep ditch was the dawn of our de-localized world.
The Welland Canal
Ships circumvent Niagara Falls by using the Welland Canal, a 27-mile ditch chopped through the Canadian Niagara peninsula in 1829, and expanded several times thereafter. Throughout the nineteenth century, many Americans believed the U.S. government should build its own canal connecting Lakes Ontario and Erie, in case the British ever decided to refuse us access to theirs. Today, xenophobia settles on invasive species, not invading armies. In connecting the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic, the Welland has brought all manner of plants and animals from the ocean into the Great Lakes. Nonetheless, it's hard not to be impressed by the sight of a massive freighter going through one of its 8 locks.
The Croton Aquaduct's High Bridge
At the northern tip of Manhattan, the High Bridge of the old Croton Aquaduct once brought New Yorkers water from the Croton Reservoir in Westchester County. Public servants wanted to make the bridge low and economical, but the public demanded a bridge with “the grandeur of ancient Rome” for what was then the world's largest public work. Today, the aqueduct has been replaced by New York's two giant city water tunnels. A third was begun in 1970 and is due to be done in 2020. But the system still borrows from ancient Rome's engineering know-how—like the aqueducts of Claudius or Trajan, the city tunnels work by gravity.
NYC Catskills water: The Shandaken Tunnel
The eighteen-mile-long Shandaken water tunnel—the world's longest at its 1924 completion—carries Catskills water from the Scoharie Reservoir, in Greene County New York, 2630 feet underneath Balsam Mountain, and into Esopus Creek, which is flows down until it empties into the beautiful Ashokan Reservoir. The rocky, lively Esopus is a famous trout stream, and also popular for tubing in the summer. Four times a year, New York City dials up the water, and tubers can have a faster ride on “the champagne of drinking waters” as it makes its way to the thirsty metropolis.
Virginius Island, Harper's Ferry WV
At the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harper's Ferry WV (Virginia until the Civil War) was a perfect site for early American industry, dependent as it was on hydropower. In antebellum years, Virginius Island, located on the left bank of the Shenandoah, was threaded with millraces and thick with waterwheels powering mills, tanneries, and the town's famous rifle works. Today, every one of these structures is a ruin; tourists wandering the island's paths can discover silted flumes and stone foundations overgrown with brush. In devastating flood after flood, the very waterpower those mills came to harness destroyed them.
The Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Much of America's hydroinfrastructure heritage is fading or gone. One example that survives in picturesque splendor is the Mabry Mill, the most-photographed spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Restored to quaint perfection by the National Park Service, the mill evokes idyllic Constable landscapes, rather than the backbreaking, sweaty work it once enabled. Tens of thousands of mills such as this one once dotted the American landscape, powering the nation before the steam engine came along and changed everything.
Unnamed waterfall in the Catskills, Ulster County, NY
On an obscure trail in Ulster County, Bob and I discovered a beautiful small waterfall, pouring into a round, moss-edged pool. The first time we were there, we watched a mink playing in the waterfall. The second time, Bob noticed this gearshaft lying in the clear water. There are no homes or roads to this remote site; it's a mile walk from the dead end where you park. Eventually we dug up the site's history: a century ago, a sawmill used the motive power of this four-foot waterfall to make piano bars. Infrastructure often feels like an inevitable part of our world—but it can always be undone, by us or by the forces of nature.
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