Tag: dams

Engineering Failures: St. Francis Dam


St. Francis Dam nearly full.

I’ve been fascinated by the St. Francis Dam failure since I first found out about it. For those who are unaware of or who’ve forgotten about it, the St Francis Dam failure, which occurred in 1928, was the greatest civil engineering failure in the United States in the 20th century (the Johnstown Flood killed many more people, but it took place in 1889), and except for the San Francisco Earthquake, caused more deaths than any other event in California history. Until recently, however, it was relatively hard to find much information on the topic. There was a book about the disaster by a local retired rancher, Charles Outland, who had been a high school senior in Santa Paula at the time the St Francis flood waters raged through town, which was published in the early 1960’s, but that was about it. Since then a couple more books have been published and an engineering professor who has extensively studied the failure and developed a detailed analysis thereof has written and given talks on the subject so that it’s now possible to flesh out the subject in great detail (I’ll provide links to the books at the end of this article; all other links will be in the text). The most interesting aspect of the story to me, however, is the way in which this event touches on and impacts so many other stories.

Is Big Government Worth a Dam?


246-hoover-dam-bypass-4270In his monumental 1957 book Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, the historian Karl Wittfogel proposed the theory of hydraulic empire. He surmised that despotic governments and large-scale irrigation works arose in tandem because only a strong, centralizing power could compel the mass labor required to build and maintain these works. The surpluses of food and wealth resulting from successful irrigation projects conferred legitimacy upon absolute rulers; the mobilization of labor could also be directed toward monumental architecture, increasing their prestige.

Political progressives often cite the Hoover Dam as an example of government defined as “the things we do together” — projects so large that the private sector is incapable of undertaking them. The dam is a key icon of the mythology of the New Deal. In Canada, the Canadian-Pacific Railway holds a similar place in our founding myth. I believe both of these projects were public-private partnerships, but like the irrigation works of antiquity, they are now used to increase the legitimacy and prestige of a centralized, activist government — albeit not a very authoritarian one.

But there are two weaknesses inherent to big government’s efforts to gain legitimacy by completing large-scale public works. The first is our greater recognition of the unintended consequences that can accompany projects with a large scope (especially dams). The second is that our governments are becoming less effective at completing these projects.