Purpose of Dams

Dams have existed since the dawn of the human race.  Creating water storage for livestock and irrigation was the first reason to impound water.  Over the past few centuries, dams became integral to humanity’s need for mechanical power.  Water wheels were erected to run in confined raceways; their rotational power converted to mechanical energy that ground grain into flour and ran the early machines of commerce.

The citizens of many early cities suffered tremendous health problems –cholera, diphtheria and worse – due to the pollution of local water sources.  One solution was to dam remote pristine rivers and pipe water to the crowded population centers. 

Still other dams were created to provide flood storage.  The agricultural miracle in California’s Central Valley could only happen when melted snow from the Sierra winters was stored for the growing season.  Vast reservoirs in the Upper Delaware provide for the water needs of New York City.  New Jersey is dotted with reservoirs behind dams that were built to serve our metropolitan centers over a century ago.

Lake Hopatcong and Lake Musconetcong were built to provide power to operate the Morris Canal, an engineering marvel operated from the 1830’s until the 1920’s.  Fortunes were created from the mountains of coal, iron and finished goods transported along the canal from Phillipsburg to Newark and Jersey City.  The lake waters spun turbines that provided power to lift heavy barges up inclined planes between the canal sections.  

A great percentage of the most recently built dams, however, serve recreational purposes.  Waterfront property always carries a premium.  In New Jersey, the two large lakes of the Morris Canal, Lake Hopatcong and Lake Musconetcong, now serve as waterfront amenities to attractive lakeside communities.

In the western parts of the US and Canada, dams provide a significant amount of the electrical power that is generated.  Huge hydroelectric dams are considered to be ‘green’ since they do not create carbon dioxide or other airborne pollutants that contribute to changing world-wide climate patterns. However, as with all dams, there is a negative impact on the entire ecosystem when a dam interrupts the natural flow of a river.