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Locks And Dams



Much of our folklore has explored the possibility of "escaping" on the river. Before the advent of the car, many a youth dreamed of traveling cross-country by water. Today there are 25,500 miles of navigable inland waterways in the United States; the Mississippi River, featured in the segment, accounts for approximately 9,000 miles of this system. Equally appealing to youth is building a pint-size version of a dam by piling up sticks and debris to alter the flow of rainwater that is running down street-side curbs toward sewer drains. Dams are fascinating and useful; ruins of the world's oldest dam in Egypt along the Nile date to 2,700 B.C. (It was 37 feet high and 348 feet long.) More recently, the United States has built more than 5,000 dams, Japan has built about 2,000, and India has more than 1,000. Universally, humans need water, but nature delivers water in imperfect amounts due to climate and weather. (Humans also contribute to problems of water availability; for example, deforestation can create desert-like climates in places where water was once abundant.) Some areas have too much water, some not enough, and some have both conditions at different times. Because of this irregularity, dams can be built to make water supplies more useful. Dams have many functions: diversion dams control the supply of water to prevent floods; storage dams reserve water for use during dry periods; power dams generate electricity; and navigation dams provide navigable waters. Some river areas may be unnavigable by commercial boats and barges because of shoals, rapids, waterfalls, or low water. The riverbed itself may change in elevation, which may prohibit reliable and economical navigation. Finally, some rivers have been dammed. A lock can help make navigation possible in each of these situations. The technology of locks looks complex, but the principle is simple: The river is an inclined plane whose water moves in and out of locks by gravity . Think of locks as a flight of "water stairs" going up and down a hill. Water is drained from the first lock (using gravity) until the water level is even with the second one. The downstream gate is opened to allow the vessel into the lower lock, and the process is repeated. The lifting and lowering of vessels, some weighing up to 60 tons, is done without a great use of energy.


Pascal's law is demonstrated in this water-pressure demonstration. A cubic foot of fresh water weighs 62.4 pounds. Water weighs more than a heavy wood such as oak, but half as much as bricks. The point is, of course, that as the elevation of water behind a dam is increased, the height and density of it causes high pressure at the bottom of the dam. In this activity, you will observe what happens to the flow of water when it is under pressure. Materials
  • 2 tall empty juice cans
  • nails
  • adhesive tape
  1. Punch three holes horizontally at the bottom of one can, about 1/2" to 3/4" apart. Cover the holes with adhesive tape. Ask your students to predict what will happen when you fill the can with water and remove the tape: Will any of the streams be longer than the others?
  2. Punch three holes diagonally in the side of another can. Cover the holes with adhesive tape. Ask your students to predict what will happen when you fill the can with water and remove the tape: Will any of the streams be longer than the others?
  3. Fill both cans with water, and then tear off the tape on the can with the horizontal holes. Observe what happens.
  4. Now, remove the tape from the can with the diagonal holes. Observe what happens.


    Adler, J. (1990) Troubled waters. Newsweek (Apr 16): 66-80.
    Ardley, N. (1990) How we build dams. Ada, OK: Garrett Educational Corp.
    Nelson, S.B. (1983) "Water engineering." In Standard handbook for civil
    engineers, ed. F.S. Merritt. New York: McGraw-Hill.
    Old man river. (1988) St. Paul, MN: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
    Skorupa, J. (1991) The problem with dams. Popular Mechanics (Dec):
    Additional sources of information:
    Iowa Department of Transportation
    River Transportation Division
    5268 NW 2nd Ave.
    Des Moines, IA 50313
    (515) 281-4292
    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
    1421 U.S. Post Office & Custom House
    St. Paul, MN 55101
    Community resources:
    State Department of Natural Resources
    Civil engineer