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Mike Tharp: It's time to start thinking big again

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp


We need a dam.

A dam like New Exchequer Dam. Like McSwain Dam.

We need a project like those two Merced Irrigation District hydroelectric powerhouses dating from 1967 -- when they were finished -- and the improvements made all along the timeline.

We don't need new dams as such.

What we need are projects like those two dams that led to the water and power we all now use.

What we need is the communal commitment to projects that will rebuild our roads and bridges and other concrete (literally and figuratively) finished products.

Projects that will give people jobs, restrengthening the veins and arteries of commerce so we can restore our industrial base.

And our confidence as a community.

It's instructive and inspiring to watch a grainy Disney-like documentary made in the '60s about how those two dams changed and improved our lives and livelihoods.

With background music heavy on flutes, oboes and kettle drums, the film chronicles the three-year process of blowing up parts of a mountain, then using 5.5 million cubic yards of its rocks to hold back water.

It shows men driving stegosaurus-sized yellow trucks over 15 miles of road after brontosaurus-sized excavators filled them with earth and rocks.

Over the course of building the dam, they cut travel time to 24 minutes from 40.

Eighteen months of blasting shattered granite walls, while a mile away, other workers were laying out a gated spillway.

Ingeniously, the project engineers used the old Exchequer Dam to raise one of the largest rock-fill dams in the world at the time.

This week what's left of the old dam rested about 20 feet below the waterline.

Finished in 1967, Exchequer now holds back a million acre-feet of water, four times as much as originally expected. (An acre-foot is around 326,000 gallons, enough to supply a typical Valley family for a year.)

As one prominent player at the time said, "A $55 million project is a challenge for 55,000 people" -- the county population back then.

A model of the dam turned up in the Smithsonian and Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

Besides the gee-whiz engineering feat, the New Exchequer Dam is worth paying attention to today because MID contracted with Pacific Gas & Electric to finance the project at no cost to taxpayers or growers.

MID agreed to sell electricity to PG&E at a price that would underwrite the cost of the dam.

Over the past generation, New Exchequer and its sister dam, McSwain (named after "Mr. MID," Kenneth L. McSwain), have provided water to some 2,000 of our farmers, ranchers and growers and 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to a lot of customers. (The average household in America consumes 10,656 kilowatt-hours a year, according to the Department of Energy.)

Why do we need a New Exchequer Dam-like project today?

Because it blended the best of capitalism and socialism.

Now before any MID or Tudor Engineering people (the designer that won a national award for the dam) break out the torches and pitchforks to march on the Sun-Star, here's why:

The project was planned, designed, built and manned by private enterprise, coupled with a quasi-public agency.

They included PG&E, Tudor, many local contractors and MID, whose mission statement reads in part: "fostering a public service attitude among all District employees; encouraging community involvement in District affairs."

The results back in 1967 were win-win-win.

G&E got its electricity, MID ran the operation and Mercedians benefited from the water and power.

This is the model that the Obama administration, California state government and Merced County should bookmark under "Favorites" on their browser.

This is exactly the kind of business that America should be doing now.

The bailout funds for banks and the thousands of silly earmarks demand that we should stop the madness of pork and patronage and look to fund projects that work.

Thousands of Mercedians and other folks outside here made a living from the dam.

They did it by making something that would turn a profit for a design firm, an almond grower in Planada, an engineer at MID and a housewife in South Merced who turns on the lights when she gets home from work.

Sure, mistakes were made.

In 1965 heavy rains caused water to break over the old dam's spillway, and work was delayed for a couple of months.

The hybrid rock and asphalt plates laid down to keep the lake from overflowing didn't work as well as planned. New Exchequer Dam was imperfect.

But the human beings who raised it from the carcass of an old dam and stacked the rubble to make the new one corrected the mistakes.

Their purpose was clear: water and power for money and the masses.

Capitalists forget the masses. Socialists forget the money.

If we can concoct a project that helps both, hey, who can complain?

We need to repeat and reinvent that 1967 model.

We've done it here once.

The boat docks, fishing piers, picnic tables, water for almonds and dairies and power for homes and offices stand as testament to its success.

We know how to do it because we've done it. Now we must do it again.

A plaque on the dam for Wilbur Fisk McClure, the California state engineer during the dam's construction, reads: "He brought water to the thirsty land."

We are thirsty again.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or