Grand Coulee Dam

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 3/10/2005
  • Essay 7264
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Grand Coulee Dam, hailed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" when it was completed in 1941, is as confounding to the human eye as an elephant might be to an ant. It girdles the Columbia River with 12 million cubic yards of concrete, stacked one mile wide and as tall as a 46-story building, backing up a 150-mile long reservoir, spinning out more kilowatts than any other dam in the United States. As gargantuan as it is, Grand Coulee is only part of the massive Columbia Basin Project, which includes four other dams, three storage lakes, and 2,300 miles of irrigation canals, snaking through half a million acres of desert. No other public works project has had a greater impact on the development of the Pacific Northwest. However, the social and environmental costs have been so severe, according to a study released in 2000, that Grand Coulee probably could not be built today.

"Roll along, Columbia"

In May 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration hired folksinger Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) to promote the federal dams on the Columbia. Like most members of his generation, Guthrie regarded an undammed river as a resource going to waste. The issue was who should build the dams: private power companies or the federal government. The power companies had a stable of influential lobbyists. The government had Guthrie.

Guthrie spent a month traveling around the Columbia Basin. He wrote 26 songs in 30 days (and was paid a total of $266.66). The most famous of these is "Roll On Columbia, Roll On," sung to the tune of "Goodnight Irene" and later adopted as the state folksong of Washington. But it was in "Ballad of the Great Grand Coulee (Grand Coulee Dam)" that Guthrie most eloquently celebrated the government’s role in harnessing a "wild and wasted stream" in order to make life better for "the farmer and the worker, and all of you and me."

Guthrie hailed Grand Coulee as a triumph of man over nature. What nature had "wasted," in a river running unfettered to the sea, man would put to work, creating a technological utopia where kilowatts were almost as free as air and canalled water made the desert bloom. "Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea," Guthrie wrote, "but river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me."

By the late twentieth century, the Columbia was working harder than ever, but it wasn’t doing much rolling on. There were less than 50 miles of free-flowing water left on its entire 1,240-mile length, from the headwaters in British Columbia to the mouth at the Pacific Ocean. More than 250 dams barricaded the river and its tributaries, with 11 behemoths on the main stem in Washington state alone. The Columbia had become less a river than a series of flabby reservoirs.

Grand Coulee was not the first dam on the river but it left the biggest footprint. Designed as an irrigation project in the 1920s and financed as a jobs program in the 1930s, it became the nation’s primary powerhouse in response to demands for electricity during World War II. Electricity from Grand Coulee flowed to aluminum plants, aircraft factories, shipyards, and other defense-related industries in the Northwest. A big chunk went to an isolated area in southeastern Washington where, it would later be revealed, the government was producing plutonium for the atomic bomb. After the war, Grand Coulee and other dams on the lower Columbia provided the power for the Northwest’s continued industrial and urban growth.

Work on the irrigation project was suspended during the war but resumed in the late 1940s. The distribution network alone required more time, money, and engineering skill than Grand Coulee itself. Today, the canals bisect a land transformed by the geometry of water: sagebrush and tumbleweeds on one side, huge squares and circles of green on the other.

This brand of progress did not come without a price. About 400 isolated farms and 10 small communities -- with a total population of between 3,000 and 4,000 -- were forced to relocate from areas flooded by the dam. Few of the private property owners who lost their land felt that the government had paid them enough for their homes. Some of the human cost was captured on a newsreel that was distributed nationally in 1940, showing an elderly couple leaving their longtime home, the wife weeping while the house burned in the background.

Built without a passage for migrating fish, Grand Coulee eradicated wild salmon runs on the upper Columbia. With the fish went a way of life that had sustained the Columbia Basin’s Native Americans for thousands of years. The dam inundated ancient villages, fishing spots, and burial grounds. It displaced about 2,000 members of the Colville Confederated Tribes and about 250 members of the Spokane tribe. For these groups, in particular, "progress" brought devastating cultural and economic loss.

In the 1930s, few people would have questioned the assumption that dams were "good and useful legacies bequeathed to future generations" (Schwantes, 89-90). Half a century later, there was less agreement that a river without a dam was a resource "going to waste." Plans to dam the last 50-mile stretch of free-flowing Columbia, on the Hanford Reach near Pasco, were defeated, as were efforts to expand the Columbia Basin Project area (from 550,000 to 1.1 million acres). Federal agencies began looking for ways to keep water in the river -- rather than take it out -- in an effort to protect endangered salmon and steelhead.

Tourists still come to marvel at Grand Coulee – "the biggest thing yet built by human hands," as Woody Guthrie put it -- but the central question has shifted. For a new generation of environmentalists, the debate is no longer about who should build the dams, but whether some of the old ones should be torn down.

"Great Columbia Desert"

Early explorers in Central Washington found a land so hot, dry, and desolate that they called it "the Great Columbia Desert." There was little white settlement until the 1880s, when transcontinental railroads reached the area. Even then, aside from an occasional flurry of gold mining, the Columbia Basin was left largely to a few isolated ranchers. A cycle of unusually heavy rainfall (18 to 20 inches a year instead of the usual five to 12 inches) brought more farmers to the region in the early 1900s. When the dry years returned, the plight of these early settlers added to the pressure to find a reliable way to irrigate the fertile but arid land.

The possibility of a dam at Grand Coulee surfaced as early as 1892. The coulee was a deep, narrow canyon that served as a channel for the Columbia River during the last Ice Age, when glaciers diverted the river from its original bed. The canyon’s granite walls offered a nearly watertight container for a deep reservoir. "Few locations are as perfectly suited to host a hydroelectric project and irrigation source as the Columbia River at the Grand Coulee," one historian noted. "To build it required only three things: promoters with vision, the right technology, and a great deal of money" (Pitzer, 6).

Under the Reclamation Act of 1902, the United States Reclamation Service (later the Bureau of Reclamation) had the ability to initiate large-scale irrigation projects in the West. The government investigated several irrigation schemes for the Columbia Basin but showed little enthusiasm for any of them. One plan, promoted by the Quincy Valley Water Users Association, involved a series of pumping stations that would siphon water from the Columbia at the Grand Coulee and spread it to 435,000 acres, at a cost of $44 million. The Reclamation Service said it was too expensive. Washington State’s voters agreed, rejecting a $40 million bond issue to finance the plan in 1914.

Among those who lamented the defeat of the bond issue was William "Billy" Clapp (1877-1965), a lawyer in the small town of Ephrata. Clapp became convinced that whatever nature had done with ice in prehistoric times modern man could do with concrete. In the summer of 1917, he and a few other local men asked the Grant County commissioners to authorize a study to see how high a new dam would have to be to push the Columbia back into the Grand Coulee. All the men involved agreed to keep the investigation secret, for fear of being laughed out of town.

The plan bubbled into public consciousness on July 18, 1918, when Rufus Woods (1878-1950), owner and editor of the Wenatchee Daily World, published a story headlined "Formulate Brand New Idea for Irrigation Grant, Adams, Franklin Counties Covering Million Acres or More." Woods initially regarded the idea as far-fetched, even hare-brained. He buried the story on page seven. Still, in typically flamboyant style, he reported that "The latest, newest; the most ambitious idea in the way of reclamation and development of water power ever formulated is now in process of development." Woods eventually became president of the Columbia River Development League and chief cheerleader for the project. But speaking later about his original story, he described it as "a joke to a certain extent," admitting some surprise that "it began to ‘take’ all over this territory" (Pitzer, 16-17).

"Gravity Plan" v. "Pumping Plan"

By 1919, backers of a Columbia Basin irrigation project had divided into two camps. The so-called "gravity plan," advocated by a group of businessmen in Spokane, involved damming the Pend Oreille River in Idaho and diverting the water to eastern Washington through some 130 miles of gravity-fed canals, tunnels, aqueducts, and reservoirs. In contrast, the "pumping plan" -- proposed by Clapp and championed by Woods -- called for the construction of a 550-foot-tall dam on the Columbia. Power generated by the dam would be used to operate gigantic pumps to lift water from the reservoir and move it uphill to a storage lake formed by damming both ends of the Grand Coulee. From there, the water would be siphoned into a labyrinth of tunnels and canals.

Later that year, the Washington Legislature stepped into what was becoming an increasingly contentious debate and established a Columbia Basin Survey Commission to study the two plans. In a report released in July 1920, the Commission declared that a dam at Grand Coulee was not feasible and recommended the gravity plan instead. Supporters of the pumping plan fought back by organizing the Columbia River Dam, Irrigation, and Power Association. The two sides continued to argue for years. Meanwhile, neither scheme moved closer to reality.

As historian Paul C. Pitzer has pointed out, few of the key players in this drama actually lived on or farmed land in the Columbia River Basin. They were lawyers, businessmen, promoters, and politicians who believed agricultural expansion would lead to industrial and urban growth. Most were conservatives who deeply resented "big government." They initially hoped that a large-scale irrigation system in the Columbia Basin could be built by the state government. Over time, they accepted the fact that only the federal government could undertake a project of such scale.

The first meaningful steps toward federal involvement came in 1926, when Congress appropriated $600,000 for a comprehensive study of irrigation, flood control, power, and navigation on the Columbia above its confluence with the Snake River. The study, directed by John S. Butler, district engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers’ office in Seattle, was still underway in 1929 when a drought lowered stream flows in the Puget Sound region, crippling the production of electricity at existing dams. At the same time, topsoil in the Northwest began to blow away. In April 1931 pillars of dust reaching 5,000 feet into the sky swept down the Columbia Basin and out to the Pacific Ocean. One huge cloud enveloped a Hawaii-bound ocean liner 600 miles from Seattle. These developments added to the political pressure for a reclamation project in the Columbia Basin.

The Butler Report, released by the Army Corps of Engineers in March 1932, favored the pumping plan, largely because the sale of electricity from a dam at Grand Coulee would offset the cost of delivering water for irrigation. Butler’s superiors at the Army Corps later concluded that the dam would be too costly, but the Bureau of Reclamation endorsed the idea.

Washington’s congressional delegation, including Senator Clarence C. Dill of Spokane, closed ranks in an effort to get the necessary federal financing. However, conservative legislators and private power interests strenuously opposed the dam, calling it a waste of money and predicting that it would glut the market with electricity that no one would want to buy. "There is no market in the Pacific Northwest for power except rattlesnakes, coyotes and rabbits," scoffed one critic, Rep. Francis D. Culkin, a Republican from New York (Wenatchee Daily World, 1935).

Building the Dam

By 1933, the continuing Depression provided a new justification for federal dams on the Columbia: putting people to work.

Newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) included Grand Coulee in his public works program to ease joblessness. However, Roosevelt balked at the scale of the project. He suggested it be built in stages, beginning with a smaller, lower dam that could be enlarged later. His 1933 budget allocated $63 million for a 290-foot tall dam. Supporters of the irrigation scheme were disappointed, since a dam of that size would not support the kind of pumping system that had been envisioned. Still, it was a start.

Groundbreaking ceremonies took place on July 16, 1933. Senator Clarence Dill -- often called "Father of Grand Coulee" -- turned a shovel of dirt. Washington Governor Clarence Martin drove a symbolic engineering stake into the ground. The stake was held by Chief Jim James of the San Poil Tribe. A few members of the Colville tribe looked on. Initial excavation for what was officially "Public Works Project No. 9" began a few months later.

Roosevelt avoided having to obtain congressional approval for the project by financing it through the Public Works Administration (PWA). This strategy later backfired. In 1935, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only Congress could authorize the construction of dams across navigable rivers. Scrambling to legitimize the 20-some federal dams that were already being built through the PWA -- including Grand Coulee -- the Roosevelt administration pushed a new Rivers and Harbors bill through Congress. The measure, signed on August 30, 1935, authorized construction of a dam at Grand Coulee, but made no provision for irrigation facilities. However, the fact that the dam was assigned to the Bureau of Reclamation, rather than the Corps of Engineers, guaranteed that it would include an irrigation system at some point.

A consortium of three companies won the contract for the low dam in June 1934. When construction began, there was virtually nothing at Grand Coulee but the river, jackrabbits, and rattlesnakes. The only road was a gravel road that snaked around to a few isolated ranches. One of the contractors’ first tasks was to build a town to house workers and their families. Called Mason City (in honor of Silas Mason, one of the three primary contractors), it was designed to be the world’s first "all electric city" -- a model that would demonstrate the wonders of electricity and help create a market for the power to be generated by the dam.

Grand Coulee began generating statistics and superlatives long before it produced any electricity: more than 22 million cubic yards of "overburden" (layers of soil and rocks above bedrock) removed from the damsite; 30 million board feet of lumber cut from 50,000 acres of land in the prospective lake bottom; 9,500 tons of steel used in the framework for the dam. The trade journal Pacific Builder and Engineer reported that the project "has involved to date a steady succession of construction feats without precedent in the annals of the industry." News stories about the progress of the dam invariably included the words "biggest," "greatest," or "mightiest."

A two-mile long conveyer belt -- at the time the longest in the world -- was built to haul away the excavated earth and rocks, an innovation that was faster and more efficient than using trucks. The conveyer was soon carrying 52,000 cubic yards a day. However, as more and more material was excavated, landslides became a serious problem. A landslide in March 1934 dumped 1.5 million cubic yards back into the excavation. Slides would be a continuing problem throughout the construction period, forcing the relocation of roads and railroads.

The sheer volume of concrete in Grand Coulee presented numerous challenges. In cold weather, steam was circulated through pipes to keep newly poured concrete from freezing. In warm weather, the problem was how to cool the concrete. As it cures, concrete generates heat. The natural cooling process in a structure as huge as Grand Coulee Dam would take centuries. The solution was 2,000 miles of cooling pipes, embedded in the dam.

In June 1935, then-Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes signed the first change order, directing the contractors to build a base for a dam that would top off at 550 feet. He stopped short, however, of authorizing the irrigation project. Approval for that would not come until 1943, and work would not begin on it for several more years.

The first of the dam’s primary generators went on line in October 1941. Construction officially ended one month later, nine years after it began.

More than 12,000 people found work on the dam at one stage or another. Seventy-two died on the job, mostly from falling or from having something fall on them. Contrary to myth, none were buried in the concrete. The workers were paid an average of 85 cents an hour. Skilled laborers, such as carpenters and electricians, received up to $1.20 an hour. In the midst of the Depression, these were considered excellent wages.

Wonder or Blunder?

To the generation that built it, Grand Coulee Dam was an untrammeled success. It put people to work at a time when the national unemployment rate had reached 25 percent. It provided the power that helped the nation win a war. It turned half a million acres of barren desert into an agricultural oasis. "If our generation has anything good to offer history, it’s that dam," one construction worker told historian Murray Morgan. "Why, the thing is going to be completely useful. It’s going to be a working pyramid" (Morgan, 18).

A more tempered assessment was offered in a report released in November 2000 by the World Commission on Dams. Then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt had invited the commission to include Grand Coulee in a study of 10 large hydroelectric and reclamation projects around the world. The researchers, led by Leonard Ortolano, director of urban studies at Stanford University, concluded that Grand Coulee’s planners had exaggerated some of the anticipated benefits associated with the dam, underestimated others, and ignored virtually all of the social and environmental costs.

At its most grandiose, the Columbia Basin Project was supposed to irrigate 2.5 million acres of desert. By the early 1940s, the target area was 1.1 million acres. President Roosevelt’s New Deal planners envisioned opening up land for 10,000 farms. They expected these farms to support 80,000 people, nearly all of them relocated from the "Dust Bowl" in the Midwest. Today, there are fewer than 2,300 farms and only about 6,000 people living in the project area. On the other hand, the farmers are growing crops that have returned twice the dollar value that was predicted.

Half of the costs of the project were supposed to be repaid with revenue collected by selling water to farmers. The study concluded that farmers pay only about 10 percent of the actual cost of delivering water to their land. The rest is subsidized by consumers of hydropower in the Northwest: the consumers pay higher rates for electricity to offset the low rates paid by the farmers for water. The researchers estimated that the subsidy amounts to at least $58 million a year. They added, however, that these costs are offset by taxes paid by the growers and through jobs created in the agricultural industry.

Despite the subsidy, Northwest power users still enjoy the lowest rates for electricity in the nation because of Grand Coulee and other federal dams on the Columbia. And the air is a little cleaner than it probably would have been otherwise. The abundance of hydropower has meant less reliance on more problematic forms of electricity -- such as coal-fired generators, which contribute to air pollution; or nuclear power, which discharges heated water into the river in addition to creating highly toxic waste.

Even so, if the designers of Grand Coulee had had to comply with current environmental laws, the Columbia might still be flowing freely in Central Washington. "Virtually no studies were done on the impact on fisheries," lead author Ortolano commented in an interview with the Portland Oregonian. "Communities of people were excluded from the decision process." The impact on the fish, and on the Native Americans who had built a way of life around them, was "nothing short of catastrophic."

The dam blocked the access of wild ocean-going salmon and steelhead to hundreds of miles of spawning grounds on the upper Columbia River. It devastated the culture and economy of tribes dependent on the fish. "One day we were fishermen, the next day there were no fish," commented Michael Marchand, a member of the council of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (Oregonian, 2000). The Colville Tribes received some compensation from the federal government in 1995, in the form of a lump sum payment of $53 million and an agreement for annual payments of at least $15 million. None of the Colvilles interviewed by the researchers thought the payments equalized the loss.

Grand Coulee has its defenders, among them the Bureau of Reclamation. "We're still quite proud of the dam," said Diana Cross, a spokeswoman for the bureau. "We feel strongly that the dam and the whole Columbia Basin project brought so much to the Pacific Northwest and was an overall benefit. That's not to say there weren't some trade-offs" (The Seattle Times, 2000).

The study was released at about the same time that the National Marine Fisheries Service and other groups began calling for the removal of four federal dams on the lower Snake River. But the researchers were careful to separate themselves from the campaign to breach the dams. Whatever its impacts, good or ill, "the likelihood that Grand Coulee Dam will ever be removed is practically nil," the report concluded.


Leonard Ortolano and Katherine Cushing, Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project, USA, November 2000, case study report prepared for the World Commission on Dams, Cape Town, South Africa, World Commission on Dams website accessed on February 24, 2005 (; Woody Guthrie, "Ballad of the Great Grand Coulee," reprinted in Roll on Columbia: The Columbia River Songs ed. by Bill Murlin (Portland, Oregon: Bonneville Power Administration, 1987), 30-31; "Aggressive Regionalism – [Woodrow Wilson] 'Woody' Guthrie, Roll on Columbia," Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest website accessed on February 14, 2005(; Carlos A. Schwantes, Columbia River: Gateway to the West (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 2000); Paul C. Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1994); Rufus Woods, "Formulate Brand New Idea for Irrigation Grant, Adams, Franklin Counties, Covering Million Acres or More," Wenatchee Daily World, July 18, 1918, p. 7; Toni Rae Linenberger and William Joe Simonds, "Columbia Basin Project," Bureau of Reclamation History Program, Denver, Colorado, 1998, Bureau of Reclamation/Columbia Basin Project website accessed on accessed February 2, 2005( washington/columbiabasin/history.html); "New World’s Record Set at Coulee Dam," Pacific Builder and Engineer, June 3, 1939, p. 29; Murray Morgan, The Dam (New York: Viking Press, 1954); James F. Shepherd, "The Benefits and Costs of the Columbia Basin Project: Earlier Perspectives and Changing Perceptions," Agricultural History, Spring 2002, pp. 463-480; Dan Hansen, "Dam Couldn’t be Built Today," Spokesman Review (Spokane), April 12, 1995, p. A-8; Hal Bernton, "Grand Coulee: Proud Accomplishment, Serious Trade-Offs," The Seattle Times, November 17, 2000, p. A-3; Jonathan Brinckman, "Study Draws Lessons from Grand Coulee," The Oregonian, January 14, 2000, p. A-1; "Grand Coulee Dam Revisited," editorial, The Oregonian, January 24, 2000, p. C-2.
Note: This essay was corrected on December 14, 2006, to state that Jim James was a chief of the San Poil Tribe, a constituent tribe of the Colville Confederated Tribes.

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