HUNTINGTON LAKE — Our politicians love soaring platitudes followed by little, if any, follow-up. The more Americans are promised shovel-ready stimulus projects, new sources of power and other fantasies, the more we accept that bureaucracy, regulations, lawsuits and impact statements will prevent much from ever being done.
But it was not always so. A hundred years ago, the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project here in the central Sierra Nevada was the nation's first large effort to generate electricity from falling water — to provide electric power for a growing Los Angeles nearly 250 miles away.
Industrialist and entrepreneur Henry Huntington conceived the gargantuan effort, begun in 1911. In just 157 days, a supply railroad up the mountains was built with picks, shovels and horse-drawn scrapers by thousands of workers at over 6,000 feet in elevation. In just two years, electricity was flowing southward from a new powerhouse generating unit at Big Creek that harnessed San Joaquin River water released from the new Huntington Lake reservoir in Fresno County.
Huntington's dream project — eventually expanded, and today managed by the Southern California Edison power company — would eventually encompass six major lakes, 27 dams and 24 powerhouse generating units that repeatedly capture the descending High Sierra water to generate more than 1,000 megawatts of clean electricity.
The interconnected lakes store precious water for 1 million acres of irrigated California farmland thousands of feet below. A thriving sailing, sports and tourist industry grew up around the new lakes and roads. Far from destroying the environment, the Big Creek project created beautiful alpine reservoirs and gave millions of middle-class Californians access for the first time to the beauty of the Sierra Nevada. Few appreciate that the entire project was built with private funds.
How did our ancestors — poor and with limited technology — so quickly create such a vast project, which today probably would pose insurmountable challenges to their far richer high-tech descendants? They were far more in need and far more self-confident than we are — acting when they were 80 percent sure of success rather than endlessly talking and delaying in expectation of an always-elusive 100 percent certainty. In 1911 there was a desire for the new wonders of electricity, but no prior generation to have supplied it. Today, we take this power for granted, and are more likely to nitpick the environmental and social sensibilities of past generations.
Quite simply, Big Creek could not be built in the United States today. Environmentalists would claim that the pristine nature of the San Joaquin River would be unnecessarily altered, citing a newly discovered colony of spotted newts or dappled dragonflies in the way of the proposed penstocks. Unions would demand blanket representation without elections — and every imaginable compensation for such hazardous duty.
Workers would apply for stress-related disability benefits given the dizzying heights and the dank subterranean mining. Government regulators and inspectors would outnumber project engineers. Private entrepreneurs world never risk such a chancy investment without ironclad government guarantees of profits despite enormous cost overruns. And the public would be as skeptical of the risk as they would be eager to enjoy its dividends when completed.
The Big Creek project, like the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate bridges, and the interstate highway project were the work of confident but less wealthy generations. They understood man's ceaseless struggle against nature to survive one more day, and did not have the luxury to second- and third-guess the work of others before them.
We should remember the lesson of Henry Huntington's Big Creek Project, started 100 years ago, as we let rich irrigated farm acreage lay idle and pass on exploiting new oil and gas fields — preferring to argue endlessly over how to redistribute our inherited but ever-shrinking national pie.