History may be repeating itself.
According to a story in Monday's Journal-World, a local entrepreneur undertook construction of the Bowersock Dam on the Kansas River because Lawrence was running out of wood to fuel steam electrical generators and had been unable to find any coal near the city. The river and its potential for producing hydroelectricity became an attractive prospect.
That was in 1874, but current environmental controversies may once again have Lawrence and other cities taking a second look at clean, renewable energy sources like the Kansas River.
The Bowersock Dam was in the news because there are concerns about its structural integrity. City and company officials don't know that there's anything wrong with the dam, but its age and the fact that it's difficult to know exactly what is going on under its roiling waters causes some to wonder.
Although the dam continues to power hydroelectric turbines that produce electricity for Westar Energy, the city's immediate interest is the dam's role in holding back the river flow and creating a usable pool from which the Kaw Water Treatment Plant can draw water. The dam is an essential part of that process and, if it fails, the city would have to consider replacing it with a new structure. That wouldn't be inexpensive; engineers put the price tag at $20 million to $25 million.
The survival of the Bowersock Dam is impressive. Today's officials don't know much about how it was constructed, but it involved boulders, rubble and other materials that were held in place by a cage of wire mesh and timbers. The fact that such a low-tech structure could survive and help generate electricity for more than 100 years presents a pretty strong case for future investments in hydroelectric power. In fact, if the city decides to replace the historical dam, Bowersock officials say they would strongly consider building a new hydroelectric plant on the north side of the river.
And why not? The Bowersock plant produces "green" energy that doesn't foul the water or pollute the air and runs on the renewable power supplied by the flow of the Kansas River. In this environmentally conscious age, that makes it just about a perfect source of the electricity on which we have come to depend so heavily.
Back in 1874, it was an issue of wood and coal. Coal still is part of the debate today, although for different reasons. The wisdom of the entrepreneurs who built the Bowersock Dam, however, may just set an example from which today's entrepreneurs can learn.