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Multipurpose Waterway Development


Neglected waterways, demands for hydropower throughout the country, and calls for irrigation projects in the West drew attention to the nation's water resources at the beginning of the 20th century. Multipurpose partisans advocated the application of scientific management to insure efficient water use. This meant a program of basinwide development that would address all potential applications of the resource.

Unlike the West, where irrigation became the focus of attention, the East was more concerned over hydropower development. Beginning in the early 1880s, when a plant in Appleton, Wisconsin, first used falling water to produce electricity, the construction of hydroelectric dams on the nation's waterways proliferated. These private dams threatened navigation and forced Congress, acting through the Corps of Engineers, to regulate dam construction. The Rivers and Harbors Acts of 1890 and 1899 required that dam sites and plans be approved by the secretary of war and the Corps of Engineers before construction. The General Dam Act of 1906 empowered the federal government to compel dam owners to construct, operate, and maintain navigation facilities without compensation whenever necessary at hydroelectric power sites.

Private interests developed most power projects before World War I. The Corps of Engineers did install a power station substructure at Lock and Dam #1 on the upper Mississippi River. The government later leased the power facility to the Ford Motor Company. In 1919, the Corps began construction of Dam #2 later renamed Wilson Dam as a hydroelectric facility at Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River. Support for the facility, which was intended to supply power for nitrate production, declined with the end of World War I, and its completion was threatened. However, by 1925 that project was substantially finished.

President Franklin Roosevelt favored the development of federal hydropower projects to provide consumers with low-cost energy. During the New Deal, the Corps participated in three major hydroelectric power projects: Passamaquoddy Tidal Power Project in Maine, Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, and Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River. In 1937, Congress created the Bonneville Power Administration to dispose of the power and set the rates for the power generated at Bonneville Dam.

Meanwhile, concern over flood control intensified. In 1912 13, two terrifying floods had devastated the lower Mississippi Valley and showed the inadequacy of the levee system. Another flood came in 1916, and the first flood control act was passed the following year; it applied only to the Mississippi and Sacramento rivers. Still, the Mississippi River Commission and the Corps continued to depend on levees. That policy was finally changed in 1927, when one of the worst disasters in the nation's history hit the lower Mississippi. The flood was the result of high waters from throughout the Mississippi River's drainage area 41 percent of the continental United States coming together and inundating the lower Mississippi Valley. Between 250 and 500 people were killed, over 16 million acres were flooded, and over 500,000 people were forced from their homes to refugee camps.

Clearly, depending on levees was not the answer. The chief of engineers, Major General Edgar Jadwin drew up a new plan requiring that the water be dispersed through controlled outlets and floodways as well as confined between levees. After lengthy debate, Congress approved this plan in the 1928 Flood Control Act and placed its implementation under the control of the Corps of Engineers. This act launched what today is called the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project. The project has prevented over $100 billion worth of damages since 1928.

Floods continued elsewhere, especially on the Ohio River. Additionally, during the 1930s, there was the misery caused by the Great Depression. Responding to the twin needs for flood protection and work relief, Congress passed the 1936 Flood Control Act, one of the most important events in the history of the Corps of Engineers. For the first time, Congress declared that flood control was a proper activity of the federal government. The act put the Corps firmly into the reservoir construction business, despite earlier Corps' reservations about the effectiveness of reservoirs. It also established that a potential project's economic benefits must exceed its costs. Furthermore, the act specified the obligations that would have to be assumed by local interests before the Corps could begin certain projects.

The 1944 Flood Control Act signaled the victory of the multipurpose approach. It empowered the secretary of the interior to sell power produced at Corps and other federal projects. The act also authorized the gigantic multipurpose civil works project for the Missouri Basin commonly called the Pick-Sloan Plan. It amalgamated the plans for developing the Missouri Basin proposed by Major General Lewis Pick, formerly Missouri River Division engineer, and W. Glenn Sloan, the assistant regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation. In the ensuing years, the Corps built several huge dams on the main stem of the Missouri River. These dams were all multipurpose. They provided flood control, irrigation, navigation, water supply, hydropower, and recreation.

Following World II, federal multipurpose projects expanded considerably. Congress authorized major systems involving hydroelectric power on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest, and the Missouri and the Arkansas rivers. The Eisenhower administration challenged some of these ambitious projects as costly federal burdens. However, overall federal power development continued to increase. By 1975, Corps projects the largest on the Columbia and Snake rivers were producing 27 percent of the total U.S. hydropower and 4.4 percent of all electrical energy output.

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