Reservoirs – providing places to sail no matter where you are
Over at Proper Course, Tillerman has begun another group writing project: Describe what you believe to be “the best sailing innovation ever.” My nomination is reservoirs.
Allow me to tell some history. The ancient Romans discovered means of moving great quantities of water around, via complex systems of aqueducts, to improve their quality of life. Before the Romans, the Greek philosopher/scientist Archimedes invented a primitive water pump that could carry water uphill to where it was needed. And there are rumors that the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon used something similar to Archimedes’ system to get water where it needed to be.
Since ancient times, humans have been hard at work taking water from where it is and moving it to where it’s needed, and in many cases, storing it somewhere along the way.
Fast-forward from ancient Rome to the early 20th century. The United States and Mexico signed a treaty allocating the water in the Rio Grande – each country was entitled to a certain amount, and in order to make sure the treaty could be carried out, a massive dam on the river was authorized, to hold water when it needed to be held and dispense water when it needed to be dispensed. The result was Elephant Butte Dam, completed in 1916, at the time the largest dam ever built – it made the cover of Scientific American magazine. The reservoir, Elephant Butte Lake, was the largest human-built lake in the world for the next two decades.
Then came the Great Depression, and a lot of national malaise. One of the ways for the country to get out of the Depression was development, and one of the big projects was the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was about providing electric power for rural residents by building dams, and therefore reservoirs, in narrow valleys. The dams produced electric power, and they also created lakes where once there were valleys.
I have a sewing machine that I inherited from Pat’s grandmother. The owner’s manual for the sewing machine is copyright 1919, and it advises the reader to find out what sort of electricity the local company provides, and then order the appropriate transformer in order to be able to use the machine – the power might be AC, 50 volts, 110 volts, 220 volts, or something else altogether, or it could be DC, anything from 6 volts to 500 volts. But Pat’s grandmother acquired the machine in 1932, and it took AC 110 volts – because of the TVA, the electric power grid had become standard.
Then later in the 20th century, there was another reason that reservoirs got created. A couple of years ago, I picked up a book in a thrift shop in Pagosa Springs … the book was a 1960 celebration of Colorado, and the advances that had been made in that state in the past hundred years. The last essay in the book was titled something like “Correcting God’s Mistakes: Redistributing Water in the Front Range.” According to this article, God made a big mistake when he put lots of really rich topsoil on the east side of the mountains, but he made the rainfall patterns drop most of the rainfall on the west side. So the way to correct this mistake was to construct a vast system of reservoirs and tunnels to hold water and then to deliver it to the side of the mountains where it’s needed.
So, I hear all of you asking, what does this have to do with sailing?
All of these reservoirs, no matter the reason they were constructed, provide places to go sailing. Without reservoirs, there would be no sailing in New Mexico. Without reservoirs, there would be no sailing in the southeastern United States, except maybe where there was a naturally occurring lake – and even then, such a lake might not be suitable for sailing. Without reservoirs, there would be no sailing in Oklahoma or Nebraska or a lot of other places in the Midwest and Great Plains. Without reservoirs, there would be no sailing in Colorado, no Dillon Open, no Cherry Creek.
Yeah, the folks who built the reservoirs had no thoughts about whether those reservoirs might be good for sailing. But even if they never had that intent, they have done much to promote sailing in the U.S.