Dams: history and purpose

Old Man River running wild to the sea bows to the march of progress, or so The Oregonian newspaper of Portland gushed on Sunday, October 1, 1933. Beneath a page-wide aerial photo of the lower Columbia River Gorge and a headline that read, “Bonneville Dam Calls for Impressive Changes in Columbia Gorge,” the newspaper reported: “All eyes turn toward Bonneville, chosen site for a $31,000,000 dam for development of power and navigation in the mighty Columbia.”

Seasonal floods, jutting rocks and relentless cascades are the legacy of the undeveloped river, but that soon would change, the newspaper reported: “The march of progress finally has overtaken Old Man River. The Columbia will undergo transformations, both visible and invisible, at the hands of man.”

And so it did, not only at Bonneville, but at 13 other sites on the mainstem Columbia from Bonneville at river mile 146 to Mica in British Columbia at river mile 1,018. Today there are 274 hydropower dams larger than one-tenth megawatt in size in the Columbia River Basin and about 200 more dams built for other purposes, such as irrigation and flood control. The prescient observation of The Oregonian in 1933, that the river would be transformed at the hands of man, came true.

Most dams in the Columbia River Basin were built for multiple purposes. Dams provide flood control, hydroelectricity, water for irrigation, locks for navigation of boats and barges and places for recreation. Some dams provide all of these benefits; most provide some but not all.

Hydropower, however, is the lasting legacy of the Columbia, where dams to this day provide more than half of the electricity consumed in the Pacific Northwest. Most of the region’s hydropower is generated on the Columbia River and its tributaries. The history of hydropower dams in the Columbia Basin, like the history of hydropower elsewhere in the nation, is notable for the battle between advocates of public control of waterways and advocates of private control. The battle over water power legislation lasted 15 years in Congress, from 1905 through the passage of the Federal Water Power Act in 1920.

Privately owned electric utilities and their parent corporations fiercely opposed federal control of water power developments. Private businesses already controlled the generation and distribution of electricity, and they wanted to expand their holdings to include dams. Others warned about the dangers of monopoly businesses that could control access to electricity and set its cost. In many areas of the country, electricity largely was unavailable outside of urban areas because it was not cost-effective for utilities to extend their lines to rural areas for the benefit of small numbers of customers.

In this important battle, the anti-monopolists had two formidable advocates: Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1901-1909, and Gifford Pinchot, chief forester of the U.S. Forest Service at that time. Neither was an advocate of public power, but both opposed monopolies and advocated conservation of natural resources. Pinchot, for whom a national forest in southwest Washington is named, was president of the National Conservation Association from 1910, when he left the Forest Service, to 1923 when he was elected governor of Pennsylvania.

Roosevelt, a Republican, embraced the concept of multiple-purpose dams that would create slackwater for navigation, provide flood control, and generate hydropower. In 1906, and again in 1910 after he left office, the General Dam Acts authorized the federal government to license water power dams on navigable rivers. Water power became a national issue under Roosevelt. In 1907 he created the Inland Waterways Commission to study development of the nation’s rivers, and in February 1908 the Commission delivered its preliminary report to Congress. The report declared rivers are assets of the people, warned about monopolies taking over river development, and endorsed multiple-purpose development of rivers. In the report, Roosevelt wrote:

Our river systems are better adapted to the needs of the people than those of any other country . . . Yet the rivers of no other civilized country are so poorly developed, so little used, or play so small a part in the industrial life of the nation as those of the United States. It is poor business to develop a river for navigation in such a way as to prevent its use for power, when by a little foresight it could be made to serve both purposes. We can not afford needlessly to sacrifice power to irrigation, or irrigation to domestic water supply, when by taking thought we may have all three. Every stream should be used to the utmost.

Among members of the Commission, only the Army Corps of Engineers disagreed with Roosevelt’s view that rivers should be developed for multiple purposes. The Corps believed that navigation was the primary purpose of river development.

Like his cousin Theodore, Franklin D. Roosevelt later supported conservation of natural resources and development of water power on the nation’s rivers. In 1920 when he was campaigning for the vice presidency, Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, arrived in Portland after traveling down the Columbia River Gorge. The river made an impression, as he noted in a speech:

When you cross the Mountain States and that portion of the Coast States that lies well back from the ocean, you are impressed by those great stretches of physical territory now practically unused but destined some day to contain the homes of thousands and hundreds of thousands of citizens like us, a territory to be developed by the Nation and for the Nation. As we were coming down the river today, I could not help thinking, as everyone does, of all that water running unchecked down to the sea.

In 1925, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Power Commission to jointly:

 . . .prepare and submit to Congress an estimate of the cost of making such examinations, surveys or other investigations. . . of those navigable streams of the United States and their tributaries . . . with a view to the formulation of general plans for the most effective improvement of such streams for the purposes of navigation and prosecution of such improvement in combination with the most efficient development of the potential water power, the control of floods and the needs of irrigation.

The response, printed as House Document 308 on April 12, 1926, featured the Columbia prominently. This and subsequent “308 reports” were the basic planning documents for the development of navigation, flood control, irrigation and hydropower in the Columbia River Basin.

In the 1926 report, the Secretary of War provided cost estimates and recommended surveys of potential dam sites, which were authorized the following year in the River and Harbor Act of 1927. The subsequent surveys were completed in 1932 and presented to Congress on March 29 of that year. Entitled, “Columbia River and Minor Tributaries,” the survey and report totaled 1,845 pages. The report, known also as House Document 103, proposed a plan for building eight dams on the Columbia, including Grand Coulee and Bonneville, and also storage projects farther upstream at the site of present-day Hungry Horse Dam and in Pend Oreille and Flathead lakes by raising their levels. The Board of Engineers of the U.S. Army expanded the plan to 10 dams. All of these, consistent with congressional direction in 1925, were to be built for the purpose of “improving the Columbia River and minor tributaries for the purposes of navigation and efficient development of water-power, the control of floods and the needs of irrigation.”

The report declared that the Columbia had the potential to be “the greatest system for water power to be found anywhere in the United States” and that the river could be controlled and managed as one system. It would be an expensive undertaking to build the 10 dams envisioned in the report, more than any other power development. This was good news for a country in the throes of the Depression. Demand for power at the time was far below the potential output of ten large dams, but the construction projects would put people to work and hydropower would transform society.

The immense public works projects on the Columbia River — the dams for hydropower and flood control, navigation locks and fish ladders, the high-voltage transmission system that linked the dams to electric utilities, and the resulting distribution systems that brought electricity to rural areas for a price equal to the cost of its generation and transmission — were triumphs of coordinated, basinwide planning. The concept of river basin planning blossomed under President Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal policies supported large-scale public works projects, inland navigation on reservoirs created by dams, and irrigation of dry lands with water impounded behind storage reservoirs. Equally important was the conservation of natural resources, a national policy that had been developing since Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.

The importance of this long-range river planning cannot be underestimated. Just three years after the stock market crash and in the depth of the Great Depression, the Army had produced an exhaustive, far-sighted and ambitious plan to build dams, electrify cities and rural areas, create reservoirs for navigation and bring a measure of control to the Columbia’s periodic rampaging floods. The Columbia River report was good news for a nation hungry for good news, for optimism about the future and, perhaps most immediately, for jobs. In the next year, 1933, the report gave President Roosevelt the justification he needed to authorize the giant construction projects that would put people back to work and help begin the national recovery.

In 1932, when campaigning for the presidency, Roosevelt made his vision for the Columbia clear in a speech in Portland on September 21. The future of the Columbia and the people of the Northwest, in the future president’s mind, was tied to hydropower. Roosevelt said, in part:

We have, as all of you in this section of the country know, the vast possibilities of power development on the Columbia River. And I state, in definite and certain terms, that the next great hydroelectric development to be undertaken by the federal government must be that on the Columbia River. This vast water power can be of incalculable value to this whole section of the country. It means cheap manufacturing production, economy and comfort on the farm and in the household.

Roosevelt won the election in 1932 and became president on March 4, 1933. For Roosevelt, the huge public works projects that would put people to work and raise America from the Depression were projects of opportunity — opportunity for a better nation and opportunity for individuals to improve their lives.

Hydropower development began quickly. Puget Sound Power and Light Company completed Rock Island Dam in 1933 a short distance downstream from Wenatchee. It was the first dam on the mainstem Columbia River, and it was not a multiple-purpose dam. Its sole purpose was to generate electricity.

Construction began at Grand Coulee and Bonneville, both multiple-purpose dams, in 1933; Bonneville was completed in 1938 and Grand Coulee in 1941. The last major dams completed in the Columbia system were Lower Granite on the Snake River and Libby on the Kootenai, both in 1975. Many more dams were finished later, but they were smaller.

Of the 274 hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin today, 19 are in British Columbia. There are 14 dams on the mainstem Columbia from Mica to Bonneville, and five on the lower Snake from Hells Canyon Dam to Ice Harbor Dam. Collectively, Columbia River Basin dams have a total nameplate capacity of 36,682.2 megawatts and produce, on average, 16,604.42 megawatts of electricity. This is more than half of the energy and more than 60 percent of the capacity of the region’s total electricity supply.

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