Initial phase of building Little Goose Dam on the Lower Snake River is completed in March 1970.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 5/24/2006
  • Essay 7774
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In March 1970 the initial phase of building the Little Goose Dam is completed. The dam is the third of four dams built as part of the Lower Snake River Project. The enviromental controversy over damage to salmon involved in damming the river accompanies the project and will continue to the present time (2006). Little Goose Dam is located about nine miles northeast of Starbuck, Washington (Columbia County).

The Lower Snake River Project

For years there had been a dream among those living near the Snake River of opening the river to make it navigable to the Pacific Ocean. Later the dream grew to include utilizing dams to provide an inexpensive power source. The dream became a reality in 1945 when Congress authorized the Lower Snake River Project. The project involved the construction of four dams along the Lower Snake River in Washington state: Ice Harbor Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, Little Goose Dam, and Lower Granite Dam. Little Goose Dam was the third dam in the project.

Little Goose Dam, which bridges Columbia and Whitman counties, was named for Little Goose Island, an island in the Snake River that was covered by Lake Bryan when the lake was filled in 1970. Little Goose Dam is 2,655 feet long, making it the shortest of the of the four dams completed along the Lower Snake River between 1961 and 1975.

Preliminary construction began in June 1963. Then, in April 1964, the administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Charles Luce, testified before Congress that the BPA had a surplus of energy and the Corps of Engineers should delay construction both of Little Goose Dam and Lower Granite Dam (the final dam in the Lower Snake River Project).

But a seemingly unrelated treaty had the unexpected benefit of assuring construction of Little Goose Dam (as well as Lower Granite Dam). In 1964, the United States and Canada signed a water-rights treaty (the Columbia River Treaty) that had been under negotiation for nearly 20 years. In the treaty, Canada agreed to build three large dams that could impound water in Canada to help regulate streamflow downstream from Canada into the United States. In return, the United States agreed to pay more than $300 million to Canada for the resulting increase in downstream power, navigation, and flood control benefits.

The BPA needed to find a way to earn the $300 million, and thus intensified negotiations within the United States to market some of its enormous stores of energy. In August 1964, Congress approved a system known as an intertie, an intricate network of high-voltage lines that enables power to be conveyed from one system to another. This intertie was the biggest transmission project ever undertaken in the United States -- it services utilities in 11 Western states stretching from Canada to Mexico. The approval of the intertie widened the energy market and provided a demand for energy produced by the final two Lower Snake River dams.

Construction scheduling of Little Goose Dam was only briefly delayed while the water-rights treaty negotiations and intertie negotiations were ongoing. In June 1965 the Walla Walla District of the Corps of Engineers signed the largest civil works contract in the Corps' history up to that time, agreeing to pay $72 million to Vinell–Mannix–Fuller-Dillingham to build Little Goose Dam. And so the main construction work began.

Construction of the dam proceeded smoothly once the main work started; indeed, completion of this particular dam seems to have generated the least controversy of any of the four dams in the Lower Snake River Project. By the beginning of 1970 the dam was nearly complete.

Lake Bryan

Little Goose Dam resulted in the formation of 37-mile-long Lake Bryan, which extends upstream to the Lower Granite Dam. Lake Bryan is named for Dr. Enoch A. Bryan (1855-1941), president from 1893 to 1916 of Washington Agricultural College (later Washington State College and Washington State University). Water was allowed to begin filling Lake Bryan on February 16, 1970, and continued until the desired elevation was reached on February 25.

The installation of power-generating units 1 through 3 was completed in March 1970, and by May of that year the project was open to navigation. Three additional power units were installed in 1978, and a visitor's center, on the Columbia County side of the dam, was completed in 1981.

Navigation on the river initially increased after the dams were completed, but has since declined more than 30 percent since the late 1980s. The dams have, however, successfully generated plentiful and inexpensive power in the region.

Environmental Questions

Little Goose Dam was nearing completion when the environmental movement against the dams on the Snake River gained force in 1969. The initial phase of Little Goose Dam was completed the same month -- March 1970 -- that environmental groups first filed suit to stop construction of the Lower Granite Dam. However, Little Goose Dam has not escaped the ongoing litigation against the dams and the controversy of declining fish runs on the Snake River, which has continued since the 1970s.

In an effort to improve the fish runs, in March 1990 Little Goose Dam implemented a unique "fish bypass" (flume) to carry salmon and steelhead around the dam. The flume was different from other flumes on the other Snake River dams in that the Little Goose flume remained open while other dams relied on pressurized pipes to carry fish. Proponents of the new fish bypass argued that the water in the open flume traveled more slowly than in a pressured pipe, thus stressing the fish less.

Litigation against the dams has continued. Cases were heard in U.S. District Court four times between 1994 and 2005, with the court rejecting several fish-recovery plans proposed by the government. In an effort to enhance the fish runs, U.S. District Judge James Redden ordered the Corps in June 2005 to open the spillways and spill all water in excess of that required for station service on all four of the Snake River dams between June 20 and August 31, 2005. Three federal agencies appealed the order to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, but the Ninth Circuit upheld Redden's decision.

Some dam opponents now (2006) argue the dams should be breached -- something that can only be done by Congressional authorization -- but at this time that does not appear likely to happen.

Sources: Bill Loftus, "First Batch Of Fish Rides New Flume At Little Goose," Lewiston (ID) Tribune, March 23, 1990, p. 1-C; Eric Barker, "Spill Could Be A Fleeting One If 9th Circuit Says So," Ibid., June 21, 2005, p. 1-A; Keith Petersen and Mary Reed, "Controversy, Conflict and Compromise: A History of the Lower Snake River Development (Walla Walla: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla District, n.d.), website accessed May 13, 2006,; "Little Goose Lock and Dam -- Lake Bryan," U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla District, website accessed May 13, 2006 (; "Initial phase of the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is completed on February 15, 1975" (by Phil Dougherty) (accessed May 17,2006); "Washington State University Libraries -- Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Dr. Enoch A. Bryan," website accessed May 15, 2006 (; "Treaty relating to cooperative development of the water resources of the Columbia River Basin (with Annexes)" Center for Columbia River History website accessed on May 24, 2006 (

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