MIRACLES Worked by Engineers in Endless Fight for Water (Oct, 1931)

MIRACLES Worked by Engineers in Endless Fight for Water


SEARING the fields of forty states, one of the worst droughts in the history of the Weather Bureau gripped the United States during the summer and fall of last year. Growing corn blistered to husks. Rivers ran dry. The contents of reservoirs, supplying great cities, sank lower day by day. Officials rationed water like war-time food and millions of people, who had taken this common fluid for granted, realized suddenly it was immensely precious.

In some places, miracles of engineering skill brought new supplies in the nick of time. Less fortunate were a number of smaller towns. With no water left anywhere within reach of their pipelines, they virtually had to have little lakes shipped to them by railway, the water coming in long trains of tank cars.

As the water famine spread over five-sixths of the country, attention was focused anew upon the continual battle to provide reserves for such an emergency, a battle that is reaching a new high point with the plans now being carried into execution.

Like air and sunshine, water is a prime necessity for plant and human life. To the city dweller it means protection against thirst, against filth, against disease, against fire. Few people, as they turn a faucet, appreciate the drama that lies behind the water they use, the labors of fighting men who blast their way through granite mountains, chain cataracts and send a Niagara of water pouring through steel pipes that spread like a network of veins below traffic-laden streets. Yet it is such labors that make possible the water supply of the modern city.

The drought, with all its emergencies and its demands upon human resourcefulness, was really just one phase of a problem that engineers constantly face. About 9,000 cities and towns in the United States have regular supply systems, and (very one of them represents an episode in a great struggle.

It is Man’s battle to keep water within his reach. It never ceases.

NOWHERE in the world can people live in numbers greater than can be supplied with adequate water. No matter how rich the community may be, or how easily a living may be had, if its water supply is limited, so is its population.

Through more than three-fourths of the earth’s surface is covered with water, most of it is unsuited for man’s use. He depends upon the sun as a distillery to purify it and lift it from the sea. He depends upon the winds as a delivery system to carry it inland, where it falls as rain.

Man’s struggle is to get it after it falls and before it flows back to the sea. In its mildest form this struggle involves pumping from lakes or dependable streams; or drilling wells down to intercept the water as it flows in broad sheets or buried rivers to underground lakes or the sea.

The winds are a capricious delivery system. At best they give no heed to the desire of human beings to congregate in regions of limited water supplies. It is the engineer’s problem to get water from the place the wind puts it down and gravity leads it, to the place where people want to live.

Often the solution of this problem requires almost unbelievably gigantic effort.

Los Angeles and its neighboring cities today are preparing to build a river.

They have always had the Los Angeles River, but the one they are to build will be about twenty times as large! It will bring a water supply for 7,500.000 people.

It will stretch 260 miles, all the way across the state of California. Starting at the Colorado River, below the new Boulder dam, it will follow a man-made, magic course through tunnels under mountains and in concrete channels across plains. Near its start it will climb hills a quarter of a mile high, under pressure from electrically driven pumps; and then as it drops again, on its way toward Los Angeles, it will repay its power debt by turning the dynamos in hydro-electric plants along the route.

THE aqueduct that will form its riverbed will be the largest and longest ever built by any city, and will cost about $200,000,000.

But the tremendous work of survey and building will take at least eight years; and that is six years longer than Los Angeles can wait for more water. At its present rate of growth, engineers estimate that the city will be using the full capacity of its present supply, and facing a shortage by 1933!

Emergency work is being rushed to bridge the gap.

For 133 years the city drew its water from the Los Angeles River. Before the day of the modern pumping plant, a wheel, turned by the stream’s current, lifted water into a ditch that led into town. The inhabitants took their supplies in jugs.

Early in the present century, the weather delivery system went askew and there was a drought of several years. Los Angeles, then a city of 160,000, and growing, became alarmed.

THE chief engineer of the municipal water bureau, William Mulholland, went off in a mule-drawn buggy, prospecting. Gold was never sought so eagerly as he sought water.

Mulholland drove through the Mojave desert, and into the mountains. High up in them he found the Owens River Valley, with the river emptying into a salty-shored lake.

It was 250 miles from Los Angeles.

Five thousand men were put to work, building dams and reservoirs to hold the water, and an aqueduct to carry it to the city. Heavy machinery was needed, and supplies had to be taken to the men. So they built 120 miles of railroad, and 500 miles of highways and trails!

The aqueduct that was to carry water could not be constructed without water, so they built a pipeline to bring it as they went along.

When they came to hills or mountains that they could not pass around, they dug through them. There were 142 separate tunnels. Valleys presented a different problem. The weight of the water going down one side could be made to force it up the other. But water pressure increases with depth. At the bottom of a 100-foot valley every square inch of pipe surface (Continued on page 141) would bear the weight of a column of water a square inch in area and 100 feet high. The concrete conduit which was strong enough on level ground, would burst under the tremendous force of water going down into a valley. To prevent this they built U-shaped sections, called “inverted siphons,” of powerful steel.

At other places along the line, five hydroelectric plants were built to send their current to the city.

The system was completed in 1913, and it will have been outgrown in just twenty years. This time it is not the weather’s fault. It is because more people have decided to congregate near Los Angeles.

But the city will be ready. It has dug 100 wells in Owens Valley, and set about catching all the water that flows there. This will postpone the threatened shortage until 1936.

BY THEN another emergency job is to be completed. In the Mono basin, beyond the divide that shuts in the far end of Owens Valley, four streams carry the rainfall away in the opposite direction. Los Angeles intends to get that water. An open canal is to be dug, crossing the four streambeds and leading the water out of them into a dammed-up lake.

A tunnel is to be driven eleven miles through the divide. Through this bung-hole, the basin will pour its water into the upper end of the Owens River, whence it will flow down the river channel to the reservoirs and aqueduct—and save Los Angeles from water famine until the Colorado River line can be completed.

Los Angeles more than most cities, has recognized the importance of water. Its inhabitants have made it a garden spot, largely by their own efforts. Most of its greenery and flowers are symbols of human victory in the struggle against drought.

The famed climate of the region is dry. In a normal year the rainfall at Los Angeles is only 15.2 inches. That is less than two-thirds the amount that fell on Maryland in 1930, and Maryland headed the list of drought-stricken states, with only 56 percent of its usual rainfall!

A CURIOUS fact stood out in the country as a whole. Of the eight states that reported normal rainfall or better, seven had less than hard-hit Kentucky. It was the unexpectedness of the drought that caused the crisis.

The water supply engineer estimates a city’s needs many years ahead. He studies the records of the supply that is to be used, and satisfies himself that in the longest dry periods, it will be safely in excess of the community’s greatest demands. But in many localities 1930 and the early part of 1931 set new standards.

Sudden emergencies were created.

At Lexington, Ky., ordinarily the rainfall on twelve square miles of watershed, is sufficient to supply the city. During 1930 there was a deficiency of 18.5 inches. An inch of rainfall over a square mile of area amounts to more than 17 million gallons. The Lexington watershed received about four billion gallons less than normal.

In the fifth month of drought, the reservoirs were nearly empty. The city forbade the sprinkling of lawns, washing of autos, and all unnecessary use of water. Ordinary human needs had to be met. A reserve had to be kept to guard against fire.

Officials were alarmed. The Lexington Water Company, under the supervision of the Community Water Service Company, laid a twenty inch pipeline to the Kentucky River, seven miles away.

But a cliff-like hill rose 385 feet above the river’s edge. Building the pipeline down that hillside and lifting the water over it gave engineers a problem. It had to be solved quickly.

The slope was so steep that a surveyor who had gone out to chart the route, had fallen and lost his transit. A ladder had to be built down the side of the hill so workmen could keep their footing. Concrete for the foundations was shot down from the top through a closed trough. Rather than risk lowering the six-ton motor and pump down the precipitous slope, the engineers had them hauled to the river at a point miles away, and brought to the foot of the pipeline by boat.

Then came another problem. The Kentucky River was known to rise and fall suddenly as much as forty feet. The main pump had to be out of reach of flood; but with the river at low level, it could not suck up the water. The theoretical limit of water suction is about thirty-three feet, but in this case the practical limit was considered nearer twenty.

THE engineers set the pumping station on the hillside out of reach of floods. A railway track was built down the steep forty-foot slope to the river. A special light pump was installed in a house on wheels, so that it could move up and down the track, keeping always at the water’s edge.

This “toonerville trolley” was connected with the main pump by pipe made up of ten-foot lengths that could be taken out or added quickly. The last length was of massive rubber hose.

An eleven-mile transmission line had been built to bring electricity. The light pump lifted the water to the main station on the hillside. The heavy pump there forced it the rest of the way up the slope. From the top it flowed by gravity to the almost empty reservoirs.

Lexington was saved from water famine and possible disaster.

Carlinville, Ill., got water by dynamite. They had a dam across Macoupin Creek, but the stream ceased to flow. In its bed were ponds of still water. The dynamite blasted a channel for the water to run down to the dam.

Some localities were threatened with epidemics of disease, because there was not enough rainfall to carry away the sewage and filth that lingered in sluggish streams and seeped through the parched earth toward wells. The state of Kentucky sent out typhoid serum for a million people.

THE full forces of engineering and science were mobilized to repulse the invading germs that came with the drought. Chemists and bacteriologists were the sentries; they tested water supplies everywhere. Filtration plants were forts to halt the invisible enemies. Ultra-violet rays bombarded them. Chlorine and ozone gassed them.

All over the world and all through history there have been occasions when men fought each other for the possession of water. Drought and the needs of growing populations have served alike to make limited supplies precious.

Two opposite extremes of the struggle were emphasized by events this year.

While hundreds of persons were reported dying of thirst in the deserts of Syria and Arabia, tribesmen waged a fierce battle for a well. More than fifty men were wounded and many were killed before the water war ended.

In the United States, at the same time, a different kind of fight was being waged. It was for billions of gallons of water flowing into the Delaware River. The states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, had conflicting claims. Supplies were involved for New York City, and at future dates for Philadelphia, and other cities.

Unlike the desert tribesmen, the people for whom the Delaware River water was intended, did not journey miles across the country to reach it. Many of them did not even know it was being fought over.

Engineers went out to bring it to them. Rival technicians of the three states clashed. The weapons, instead of knives and guns, were figures as to the needs of cities, and the supplies available on the watersheds from which they were to be drawn.

The conflict started when New York City, anticipating a shortage, planned a ten year building program to bring water from several new sources. The water was all in New York state. But ordinarily emptying into the Delaware River, it flowed to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

EVENTUALLY, it was realized, the location of industries and the homes of millions of people might depend upon whether the water followed its natural course down the Delaware, or whether it was taken through tunnels and aqueducts to meet New York City’s needs.

The fight went to the supreme court of the United States. The court fixed the amount of water that could be taken. When the Delaware River falls below a certain stage, New York City must feed it with water released from her reservoirs. Future needs of the various cities are to be settled by the court.

A river, the court said, “is a treasure.” It “offers a necessity of life that must be rationed among those who have power over it.”

Even unseen groundwater, flowing beneath the surface, is the subject of disputes. Engineers estimate its quantity and its direction of travel by the dip of rockbeds, the speed of the water’s flow, and the yield of wells.

When New York City planned to supplement the water it receives from several hundred wells, by drilling more in certain parts of Long Island, other communities protested hotly. Engineers had warned them that the new wells would intercept the groundwater as it flowed toward them, and imperil their own supply.

Sometimes the worst difficulties met in providing ample water supplies, are floods.

Oklahoma City thirteen years ago rid itself of almost annual water families, by the building of a large storage dam; and the only threat of shortage since then, came as the result of too much water.

THE dam joined a natural earth embankment stretching across a broad valley of the North Canadian River. During a flood, the river overflowed the earth wall and cut a passage through which most of the stored water escaped.

With the flood swirling through the hole, the dam itself held. The builders, the Ambursen Construction Company, were engaged to close the door. The size of the spillways was increased so future floods could pass more quickly and less angrily.

The volume of flood water that can flow over them now is as great as Niagara Falls! This Oklahoma City dam is equipped to get rid of enough water in four days to supply New York City with water for a year.

The North Canadian is a river of extremes. It was so shallow during part of the work on the original section of the dam, that the builders shoved it out of its regular bed into a new channel, in order to make construction easier.

The same builders used an even more interesting method to avoid the bother of water during part of the work on the Rodriguez dam near Tiajuana, Mexico. They built a temporary dam across the channel. They virtually told it, “Stop! Men working!”—and sent it on a detour through a conduit ten feet in diameter which easily held all the water.

The dam is being built for the Mexican government, to save water for a rainless day. The rainless day may last, with varying severity, as long as five or seven years. The reservoir will supply water for irrigation and community use.

EVEN cities with seemingly easy supplies, sometimes encounter difficult problems. Cleveland and Chicago, situated on the shores of lakes, found that there was danger of pollution in the water close to land. To escape the risk, they built intake pipes four and five miles out into the lakes.

Sometimes apparently intricate devices solve a city’s problems easily and satisfactorily. Naples, Italy, dug five parallel tunnels in the gravel thirty feet underground. These tunnels, called “infiltration galleries,” extend 2,000 feet. Groundwater flows into them rapidly, and Naples pumps out thirty-eight million gallons a day for her two million inhabitants.

Early civilizations had developed elaborate systems. More than four thousand years ago, the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Asia, were being carried in canals to many cities. Ancient China had astonishingly deep wells. Egypt had open canals, chiefly for irrigation. In Alexandria, Egypt, the overflow from the river was caught in cisterns beneath the houses, and drawn out in buckets through the rest of the year. Parts of stone water channels still exist in Peru, as striking remains of the lost civilization of the Incas.

Rome had fourteen aqueducts, some of them more than fifty miles long. Sometimes closed channels were made of solid blocks of stone, each block pierced with a huge hole, through which the water passed. Some of the conduits were carried for long distances across valleys, on the tops of walls supported by high columns. Under Roman dominance, aqueducts were built for two hundred colonial cities.

ATHENS today receives part of its water -through a rebuilt aqueduct, 1,800 years old. After being forgotten for hundreds of years, it was discovered in the last century, and put back into use. Recently an American firm was engaged to make further enlargements of the supply system, to keep pace with the enormous growth of the city which followed the influx of Greek refugees from Turkey.

Scientists, studying the ruins of lost cities in the Peruvian Andes Mountains, have sent out word that failing water supplies or impurities in the water, probably were largely responsible for the collapse of the ancient civilization there. A plague is believed to have killed many of the inhabitants; then the difficulties with the water forced the survivors to abandon their towns and farmlands. The scientific explorers found the remains of a cathedral and other buildings that probably were constructed before the discovery of America.

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