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Green, Shovel-Ready Stimulus -- 100 Years Ago

Green, Shovel-Ready Stimulus -- 100 Years Ago

By Victor Davis Hanson - July 21, 2011

HUNTINGTON LAKE, Calif. -- 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.

The president himself, after demanding nearly a trillion dollars in borrowed money for the budget, confessed that his "shovel-ready" projects proved not so shovel-ready after all. Much of the vast sums of borrowed money instead went to subsidize nearly insolvent pensions, entitlements and bloated state budgets. Unemployment is still at 9.2 percent, with nearly 50 million people on government-subsidized food stamps -- even as American infrastructure is crumbling, the private sector is moribund, and national timidity prevents any new large, visionary construction. Prior generations gave us space projects; ours is about ending them. Boeing once ruled the skies; now the government sues to stop Boeing from opening a new plant.

But it was not always so. A hundred years ago, the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project here in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains of California 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 struggling 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.

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 over 1,000 megawatts of clean electricity.

The interconnected lakes store precious water for 1 million acres of irrigated California farmland thousands of feet below. The thriving High Sierra 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 Mountains. Few appreciate that the entire project was built with private funds.

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Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals from BloomsburyBooks. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com.

Copyright 2011, Tribune Media Services Inc.

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