Who Owns the Water? The Coosa River Dam Project and the Fight Over Water Power Policy


The period between 1890 and 1920 saw rapid industrialization in the U.S. South. The emergence of a “New South” created not only opportunities but challenges, such as how to supply enough affordable electricity. Around the turn of the 20th century, industrialists in the South began to invest huge sums of money into building dams on Southern rivers to take advantage of the region’s water power. One of these dam projects was located on the Coosa River, in Alabama. While the building of another dam on a Southern river may have appeared to be a simple idea, in the context of the Progressive Era, it was much more complicated. The Coosa River Dam Bill, proposed in Congress in 1912, exemplified the differing views of government regulation of economic activity prevalent during the period. This case allows students to grapple with both sides of the Congressional debate over the bill, and compare it to modern debates over the regulatory role of state versus federal governments.

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