One of the great symbolic debates over the implications of harnessing nature took place around plans to generate electricity at Niagara Falls, New York. Proposals for hydroelectric projects in the early 1890s led to the formation of private utility companies that successfully lobbied for the power of eminent domain. When the extent of their plans were realized, progressives and environmentalists launched a movement to save Niagara Falls around 1904. After forcing the private utilities to scale back, the fight broadened to a general struggle between private and public power.
The establishment of Ontario Hydro in Canada, along with the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Bureau of Land Management in the US, were culminations of the public power movements.
Yet government development of public resources did not prove to be any more responsive to the public interest than private ownership. In some cases, the forces that could have guided development were swept up in public-private partnerships, where the promoters were also the guardians of the public interest. Great dams drained rivers in once-arid regions of the American West, providing power and irrigation but also creating environmental problems.
Some of the great controversies over public power systems include: the Hetch-Hetchy dam, opposed by environmental advocate John Muir around 1908; thje St. Francis Dam failure in Los Angeles in 1928; the Santee-Cooper project in the 1930s; the diversion of the Aral Sea in the 1960s; the TVA Teleco dam and Brazil’s Itaipu dam in the 1970s; India’s Narmada dam system in the 1990s; and China’s Three Gorges dam in the late 20th century.
At the same time, small scale hydro plants have been a focus of political problems. One example was the death of Benjamin Linder, an American engineer caught up in the Nicaraguan “contra” war of the 1980s.