by Howard V. Hendrix

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Manufactured lakes and the reproduction of nature

(above: View of Friant Dam, with Millerton Lake at low water in foreground. Photograph by Rennett Stowe.)

Feeling conflicted about dams is a fine old tradition in our state. Many Californians are well aware of the O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy canyon, the construction of which may have caused John Muir to die of a broken heart. Many of us have heard that in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires, the Hetch Hetchy project was at least partially sold to the public on arguable fire-fighting grounds. Nonetheless, to this day the dam and the reservoir behind it provide clean Sierran drinking water to San Francisco, where the Sierra Club, founded by Muir, makes its headquarters.

The conflict over our state’s dams goes far beyond Hetch Hetchy and San Francisco, however. Ask any two Californians who enjoy or care for the Sierra Nevada about dams and you’ll likely get three opinions: (1) Build more of them (“Our state doesn’t have a water shortage problem—it has a water storage problem”); (2) Remove them (“Dams are environmental mistakes—restore the [insert name of river here]”); (3) Keep the dams we have (“It’s too expensive to build more, and tearing down what’s already in place is a waste of money”). California environmentalists, too, remain divided over the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power as an alternative to both coal-fired and nuclear power plants. About the only thing we can all agree on is the critical importance of the Great White Reservoir of the Sierran snowpack, but what, exactly, global climate change will do to that water storage system remains controversial.

My own dam conflict is more personal than the big issues of hydration, irrigation, recreation, and electrification. In 1928, when my father was still an infant, his mother, Ruth Kearney Hendrix, slipped, fell into, and drowned in an undammed stretch of the snowmelt-swollen Sacramento River. When my father was still a child, his young cousin, Larry Kearney, swam into trouble in the outflow below Boca Dam. His great-uncle, Andrew Finnegan, tried to save him and drowned with the boy. The interactions of my extended family with mountain rivers seem to have been damned whether the rivers were dammed or not.

Outflows on the downstream side of O’Shaughnessy Dam, Hetch Hetchy. Photograph by Michael Riese.

This background may explain why my father never learned to swim and lived the last forty-three years of his life in Cincinnati, Ohio—far from mountain rivers and dams. As a child growing up in the Midwest, I was nevertheless haunted by flows and dams. When my cohort of friends and I were on the shy side of ten years old, we reveled in building earthen dams across the small creek that meandered through the woods behind our homes. Unlike the monumental structures made by adults, all of our dams were impermanent things, never lasting much longer than was needed to create a small pond, over which we would bravely swing to the far bank, aping Tarzan and his yell as we clung to a bottom-cut wild grape vine.

Eventually, ecology lectures I heard as an undergraduate biology major led me to develop a distinct aesthetic preference for natural lakes over man-made ones. After finishing my Bachelor’s degree (and learning to swim) I moved to my father’s native state to attend graduate school. A quarter of a century later, I came to live in the Central Sierra. Now, like some generationally delayed, mutant salmon hybrid, I live within an hour’s drive of no less than eight dammed lakes and reservoirs, seven of them built primarily to provide hydroelectric power, one to provide water for irrigation, all doubling for recreational use and flood control.

Following such a fish-ladder trajectory through life has led me to realize that we Californians tend to focus too exclusively on dams as concrete objects, and forget that it is the power of more abstract forces—symbolic, aesthetic, political—which leads us to create, maintain, or remove dams. Two dams in the San Joaquin River watershed, Friant Dam and Florence Lake Dam, both within that hour’s drive of my home, illustrate this situation well.

The Florence Lake Dam is part of Southern California Edison’s Big Creek hydroelectric project. A two-hour drive from Fresno, up and over Kaiser Pass (9,184 feet), Florence Lake is relatively remote. Completed in 1926, the dam has long been popularly, though never officially, referred to as “Eastwood’s Dam” for engineer, water developer, and dam designer John S. Eastwood, the man behind the Big Creek project and its system of dams, lakes, penstocks, forebays, and powerhouses on the San Joaquin. (In 1987 the Eastwood powerhouse at Shaver Lake was officially named for the great dam designer, long after Eastwood himself, in one of those strange ironies of history, drowned in the Kings River, the next drainage south of the San Joaquin.)

Sky view from the base of one of Florence Dam’s multiple arches. Photograph by Jerry Taylor/jrtce1.

Eastwood was a great proponent of the multiple-arch approach to dam building. He much preferred such dams aesthetically, and less concrete had to be hauled to remote locations to build them. Florence Lake Dam is just such a “scallop-shell” structure and is often photographed for the aesthetic qualities of its construction. Anyone willing to make the short scramble to the base of one of the arches will, upon looking overhead, be rewarded with a unique perspective: part unfinished Pantheon dome, part keyhole view of the sky.

Public attitudes toward Florence Lake Dam, although not completely immune to controversy, have been generally positive. Reasons for this include not only the dam’s remoteness and beauty, but the fact that in the years of its construction hydroelectricity was popularly seen as an unalloyed good. “Salvation in White Coal,” an editorial from the 8 August 1918 New York Times, mentions “extensive power plants . . . that tap the streams of the Sierra Nevada for California cities” and notes that “We are just on the edge of a greater development of electrical power through the utilization of all sources of energy. . . . Our ‘white coal’ or long-distance electrical power may yet banish all locomotive smokestacks and local factory stacks, belching their unused carbon into the air.” Although there’s something eerily prescient about this ninety-four year old editorial, the response to such early dams involved more than just the boosterish view of hydropower during the first decades of the twentieth century. The overall negative public response to Friant Dam provides a contrast helpful to understanding the complexities of the issue.

Aerial view of Friant Dam, with a very full Millerton Lake behind it. Photograph courtesy of NOAA.

At the boundary between Sierran foothills and the San Joaquin Valley floor, Friant Dam and Millerton Lake are within a half hour’s drive of downtown Fresno, and are much more in the public eye than Florence Lake. The dam at Friant drowned the community of Miller Town. Its associated canals (Friant-Kern and Madera) diverted almost the entire flow of the San Joaquin River from its bed, turning that channel into little more than a big irrigation ditch, at the same time ending the salmon run on the San Joaquin and devastating Central Valley wetlands dependent on the river’s near-annual spring overflow.

In contrast, no community was inundated by the filling of Florence Lake. Florence Lake Dam—indeed all of the Big Creek Project’s High Sierra components—had almost no effect on the salmon run, since the hydropower dams were far above the elevation of the salmon spawning grounds. Both the role of Friant Dam in the disappearance of the San Joaquin salmon and the possibility of restoring the salmon run and the river itself have been fought over in legal cases all the way to the US Supreme Court—an ongoing newsworthiness Florence Lake has managed to avoid.

The Friant Dam/Millerton Lake complex is part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project (CVP). Begun in 1937 and completed in 1942 despite the onset of the Second World War, the dam and lake were intended mainly to provide water for irrigation. Like the whole of the CVP, this project is seen by many as benefiting a narrow segment of the populace (farmers and agribusiness), in contrast to the more generalized public good of hydroelectric power. Indeed, when it was proposed that Friant Dam might provide municipal power generation for Fresno, power company opposition led to the dam being legally banned from having a hydroelectric power component. And unlike the aesthetically interesting scallop-shell structure of Florence Lake Dam, the Friant Dam is more often viewed as a functional (if rather moderne-brutalist) river plug.

Something further distinguishes public responses to Friant Dam and Florence Lake Dam. In 1936—at the very time Friant Dam was being designed and planned, and when the majority of the Big Creek Project was already completed—cultural theorist Walter Benjamin published his seminal long essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In that essay he discusses the ways in which technology can be made to serve either “the aestheticization of politics” (extreme but telling example: the Nazi Party Congress rallies at Nuremberg as portrayed in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) or “the politicization of aesthetics” (extreme but telling example: Socialist Realist poster art of the Soviet Union under Stalin).

Since Benjamin’s work is usually discussed in the context of how the mechanical reproduction of nature via technologies like film or photography can be used to influence and manipulate the aesthetics and politics of the general populace, it might seem odd to apply Benjamin’s ideas to dams. Yet dams are quintessentially a technology for the mechanical reproduction of nature. In the region of the Sierra where I live, the bodies of water behind the dams of Southern California Edison’s earlier twentieth-century Big Creek Project are called “lakes,” while the bodies of water behind the dams of Pacific Gas and Electric’s significantly later Helms Project, in the Kings River watershed, are called “reservoirs.” As the camera can be used to create an artificial vista, so the dam can be (and generally is) used to create an artificial lake.

In its utilization of the idea of Progress during the first four decades of the twentieth century, the dam-building industrial complex provides a fine example of the aestheticization of politics. Both developed and developing nations loved their dams, almost as if the building of such monumental structures proved a nation had “arrived” on the world stage.

The monumentalism of Modern Progress was itself an aestheticizing of national political will, something powerfully apparent to anyone who has toured Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border, another Franklin Roosevelt-era Reclamation Project. So much of Hoover speaks to the dam’s role as a political and aesthetic object, in addition to a functional and utilitarian one: the Modernist-influenced spillways and intake towers; the Art Deco terrazo floor motifs relating Native American geometric forms to power plant turbines; Oskar Hansen’s two thirty-foot tall bronze “Winged Figures of the Republic” statues, representing the “eternal vigilance which is the price of liberty” (as Hansen put it); and, most strikingly, the cosmic context of a terrazo star map depicting the celestial alignment from the dam’s location on the very evening of its dedication by President Roosevelt in 1935.

During the course of the past century, however, there emerged a counterweight to the aestheticization of politics characteristic of so much of the rhetoric of Progress (and its more extreme incarnations, futurism and boosterism). That counterweight, of growing heft and sophistication, was a politicization of aesthetics variously referred to as environmentalism, the environmental movement, or the environmental ethic. The Romantic poets’ aesthetic response to the sublimity of wild nature laid the groundwork for the creation of the national park system and for the decades of biological studies that eventually came to underpin the scientific critique of dams. That underlying Romantic response had, by the late 1960s, become politicized enough to prevent further dam building in the Grand Canyon—a change none too soon in coming, given that the waters stored behind Hoover and Glen Canyon dams had already inundated a significant portion of the greater Grand Canyon system.

Low water at Millerton Lake, with surrounding foothills. Photograph by Rennett Stowe.

The remoteness of Florence Lake Dam, its obscurity, its perceived general public good, and its comparative lack of harm to human and natural communities—but most of all the still inchoate state of a scientifically based environmental ethic in regard to the impact of dam building, at the time of its construction—contributed to the more positive public perception of Florence. Friant Dam’s ongoing presence in the media spotlight, the perceived narrowness of the segment of the populace benefiting from the project, the harm done to human and natural communities by the dam’s construction—but most of all the increasingly sophisticated state of the environmental critique of dam building—have all made Friant Dam and Millerton Lake much more controversial over the long haul.

Dams are poignantly symbolic of the fact that every form of progress, however needful, necessarily carries within it a form of oblivion. The dam is the cusp of the present. Its rising waters are the harbinger of a utopian future. The human and natural landscapes inundated by those waters are the drowned past of lost times, places, and peoples. The pastoral quiet of a foothill river valley lies far below what is now Millerton Lake State Recreational Area. There, on summer weekends, partiers on litter-strewn beaches have to scream to each other to be heard over each other’s amplified music. The air itself is choked with the noise and smoke of two-stroke powerboat engines.

The aestheticizing of politics today is the wind blowing through our hair as our powerboat races ever faster over the surface of the lake behind the dam. The politicizing of aesthetics is the haunting realization that, in the still, deep waters below us, ghost salmon swim the streets of ghost towns. Even if we forego the shedding of tears for the already drowned, the wind as we race across the lake will make our eyes flow, reminding us that, in the words carved on the Romantic poet John Keats’ tombstone, our lives, too, are “writ in water.”

Posted by Boom California


  1. Unfortunately, you have a very narrow view of the world. To make the statement that the Friant and Millerton dams and the CVP as benefiting a narrow segment of the populace (farmers and agribusiness) is totally in error and fails to recognize that the food produced actually feeds millions of people.

  2. Progress, as you say, often does bring oblivion … oblivion to the very things that make life worth living, such as natural wildlife habitats.

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