Hoover: Water | Power

Issue 3 and Volume 2.

From 2004-2006 I engaged a project to record audio and video in each of the 12 months at Death Valley, Calif. The most direct route from Phoenix to Death Valley passes over Hoover Dam, through post 9-11 roadblocks on both the Arizona and Nevada sides of the dam, often, with 20-minute delays. So I passed over the dam many times.

Approaching the dam is visually stunning. When heading west, the descent to the road crossing Hoover reveals the dam itself, along with the penstock and the reservoir area of Lake Mead. When heading east, the drive reveals the engineering marvels of the dam, just after a very sharp left turn. The transmission towers across the Colorado River are visible as are the towers close to the road on the Nevada side. This is always startling and visually disorienting: some of these towers are angled about 30 degrees over the river below to insure that wires make no contact with the canyon’s sides.

Both approaches reveal different aspects of what the dam has come to symbolize and what questions might be asked when considering renewable energy resources.

When I create an installation, it is my intent to make the strongest art I can and hopefully, stimulate viewers/listeners to think further about the subject. In April 2009, Senior Curator Heather Lineberry asked what I might exhibit for the ASU Art Museum’s exhibition on Sustainability. I chose to create a “schematic” of a dam. Basically, a dam is a wall of water using gravity to channel water to spin turbines. These in turn generate power sent out over wires to cities and homes. The installation “Hoover: Water | Power” uses audio, video, electronics and natural plant materials gathered from the desert.

Descending from the east over the dam reveals a large white band on the shoreline above the water at the dam. This white “bathtub ring” is now about 40 meters tall; some 10 meters below drought level. I chose to represent this situation by constructing a wall of water using 473 half-liter plastic bottles arranged in a graph revealing the changes in water level at the dam from its opening in 1936 to the present.

Viewing the water in back of the dam at Hoover, one sees thousands of shades of blues and greens. I had planned on using many shades and arranging the colored water bottles randomly. After working with the scale of the bottle/graph I had 10 rows of bottles and 75 columns. There were only five bottles at the very top of the graph, marking years when the dam was filled to capacity. Renewable = Green and I chose to have the bluest hue at the bottom and transition colors in each row upwards from deep blue to green using ink and water. The image was clear: we are all very comfortable with the blue and it is really hard to attain “green.” This wall of water was roughly 5.3 m wide by 2.4 m tall while the dam is 380 m long by 221 m tall.

For the video projection and audio, I recorded images of the dam along with the plant life above and below the dam. Other recordings were also gathered near the base of the dam, inside the dam on two tours and around parts of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Since the late 1970’s, I have used self-built transducers to gather audio. By attaching these to desert plants, I recorded sounds of wind blowing over the plants, along with sounds from the dam itself. The transducers, piezo disks, are wonderful for recording vibrations inside materials. The plants in the video reveal the harsh desert environment both visually and sonically.

A wall of electronics consisting of six each power supplies, power amplifiers and transformers received audio from a DVD player. The electronics in turn passed the audio signal to copper magnet wires carried by the two transmission towers, constructed from desert ocotillo, a very thorny plant growing around the dam. These towers take the wires from the electronics wall and fly them to dried creosote and brittle bush hanging from the ceiling. These suspended desert plants were made into six functional loudspeakers (again using piezo disks) and completed the schematic of a dam by serving as the image for homes in the desert. All three plants are prominent around Hoover.

Hoover Dam presents an interesting model for renewable energy issues. Even in the desert, there has always been enough water to allow the dam to send energy to many cities in the Southwest including, L.A., Phoenix, Pasadena, Riverside, areas of Nevada and so on. Among the questions I did not address directly in this project was: is Hoover really a renewable energy source? That depends on the rainfall. The average yearly rainfall in the Las Vegas area is 11.5 cm (4.5 inches). And, though there was more rainfall this winter than last, the more important area for water feeding the Lake Mead Reservoir is from the snowpack in Northern Colorado. This did not increase enough to substantially affect the level of water at the dam. If the water level falls more, there may not be enough energy from the channeled water to drive the turbines to their maximum.

Another question that might be raised is, what are the effects the dam has had on wildlife both around the dam and downstream in the Colorado River? It has adversely affected wildlife with the most drastic effect being the extinction of several fish species from the cooling action of the turbines on the water flow.

Yet, Hoover Dam is financially self-sustaining. It has paid for itself and it also generates its own power for all dam and visitor center operations. A potential water “bailout” in the future might involve diverting water from another source. Certainly, the dam has provided power and water to millions of persons in the Southwest and many believe that without this dam, the Southwest as we know it would not have developed.

Finally, many of the design elements at the dam are very forward thinking. No one should miss the star map created by Oskar J.W. Hansen. It shows the alignment of the heavens the day the dam opened.

Left: For his installation “Hoover: Water | Power” Lerman used 473 plastic bottles to graph water levels at Hoover Dam from 1936 to the present. Photo by Rebecca Martos.

Richard Lerman is a professor of media and digital arts at Arizona State University