The impulse to improve waterways was stimulated by the Industrial Revolution. The need to divert water resources and connect seaports with the nation’s interior became a necessity to stimulate commerce and industrialization.
Water was an important source of energy before and during the Industrial Revolution. Water therefore became the focus of much litigation over water rights. Mills and dams raised legal questions over the relationship between property law and private development. Prior to watermills, ownership of water was with the land bordering the two banks of the stream- the riparian owners do not own the stream, but does own the rights to the water usage.
Water became a commodity and rivers were modified and channeled to “improve” them and to provide water to lands that had little water.
This early dabble into restructuring waterways as well as private hydroelectric projects set the stage for The Big Dam Era. In 1928, Congress authorized a project to build a dam that would control floods, provide irrigation water and produce hydroelectricity. The Hoover Dam was constructed on the Colorado River, borders Arizona and Nevada during the Great Depression.
Conservation became an important national issue during this time and proponents were upset over the waste and destruction of natural resources, especially in the name of economics! Other conservationists favored the management and efficient use of these resources.
Today, people are still hoping for the removal of dams and to allow the rivers to to flow naturally once again.