Work Begins on the Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam was designed to pump water from the Columbia River, convey it more than one hundred miles to the south, and use the water to irrigate more than one million acres of arid land while simultaneously generating electricity.

Summary of Event

The biggest, most powerful hydroelectric dam in North America was built as an irrigation project. Its construction marked the end of a battle of conflicting interests that had waxed and waned over thirty years. Originally, the plan had been to use the channel—the Grand Coulee—cut by the Columbia River during the Ice Age to distribute some of its waters to the arid land of southeastern Washington. (Steep, dry gulches in the American West are often called “arroyos” in areas historically influenced by the Spanish; in more French-influenced regions, such gulches are often referred to as “coulees.”) This particular dry gulch, among the largest known, was a very straight valley that extended fifty miles to the south and was one thousand feet deep and two miles wide. The Grand Coulee, however, was six hundred feet above the floor of the Columbia River. [kw]Work Begins on the Grand Coulee Dam (Sept. 8, 1933)
[kw]Grand Coulee Dam, Work Begins on the (Sept. 8, 1933)
[kw]Coulee Dam, Work Begins on the Grand (Sept. 8, 1933)
[kw]Dam, Work Begins on the Grand Coulee (Sept. 8, 1933)
Grand Coulee Dam
Dams;Grand Coulee
[g]United States;Sept. 8, 1933: Work Begins on the Grand Coulee Dam[08410]
[c]Engineering;Sept. 8, 1933: Work Begins on the Grand Coulee Dam[08410]
[c]Environmental issues;Sept. 8, 1933: Work Begins on the Grand Coulee Dam[08410]
[c]Natural resources;Sept. 8, 1933: Work Begins on the Grand Coulee Dam[08410]
[c]Energy;Sept. 8, 1933: Work Begins on the Grand Coulee Dam[08410]
O’Sullivan, James
Woods, Rufus

Clearly, the river had cut a channel far above its present course. Glacial forces had deposited a huge pile of ice and debris to form a natural dam where the Grand Coulee Dam was constructed, and this natural dam—which was much larger than the present dam—impounded a lake that stretched into Canada. Initially, the pile of ice and debris was higher than the bedrock wall at Grand Coulee, so when the lake was full, the glacial Columbia River would overflow through this valley. Its flow eroded the valley floor and produced magnificent waterfalls through the hard basalt. At the same time, rain and snow fell on the ice and debris of the dam. Although this precipitation had much less erosive power than did the Columbia River, it was only working on ice and unconsolidated soils, and it was eventually able to erode the dam to the level of the lake. When the dam failed, all the water stored behind it rushed through, causing a catastrophic flood. The Grand Coulee was left high and dry by the river, which now could return to its earlier course.

Thousands of years later, in 1918, engineers proposed the return of some of the Columbia River’s water to the abandoned channel. The goal was to irrigate the Columbia basin, an area of nearly one million acres that had been inhabited, cleared, and farmed by homesteaders who settled there in the 1890’s. Mountains to the west of the basin caused the moist air coming in from the Pacific Ocean to rise and cool, wringing out its moisture on the western slopes and creating a rain shadow to the east where these settlers were trying to eke out a living. As farmers began to understand that the average natural precipitation would not be adequate for agriculture, they either left the region or tried to develop irrigation.

If this situation had occurred in a modern, environmentally aware society, relocation subsidies for the residents of the basin might have been provided. The Columbia basin itself might have been seen as a vast wilderness area, and adequate funding might have restored it to its original pristine condition. Wilderness, however, was not seen as valuable at that time. Instead, growth and development were paramount. The U.S. Reclamation Service Reclamation Service, U.S. had been formed in 1902 in order to convert much of the arid and semiarid land of the American West into productive acreage.

Water for irrigation was generally sought at elevations that were higher than the land to be irrigated, and aqueducts, tunnels, and canals were used to transport and distribute the water. Such plans for the Columbia basin generally had the Pend Oreille Lake or Pend Oreille River, a tributary of the Columbia River in Idaho, as their water source. The idea of letting power from a dam pump water up to a natural distribution channel was new and widely derided.

Much of the opposition to the dam, and support for the gravity plan, came from private electric-power companies in Washington. These companies knew how much power could be generated from this river, and they were not eager to have competition from an irrigation project. Furthermore, excess water from the gravity system would have ended up in the Columbia River, where it could supply additional generating capacity for the private power companies during the winter, when flow was diminished.

Other opposition came from the East, where people still considered Washington State to be wilderness area with little need for electricity. Many people were concerned that government ownership of power production was a step toward socialism, and some argued that the federal government should not get involved in local politics. James O’Sullivan, a lawyer and schoolteacher, and Rufus Woods, the editor and publisher of the Wenatchee World, led the fight for the high dam for thirty years. In the end, they triumphed, and construction began. As World War II developed, it became clear that the need for greater generating capacity was of much greater strategic importance than additional agricultural acreage, and so resources were allocated to the dam and its power generators and were withheld from the irrigation part of the project. The dam began producing electricity in 1941, but it would be another eleven years before it began to irrigate the Columbia basin.


The Grand Coulee Dam is 4,173 feet long and 500 feet thick at its base, and it stands 550 feet above bedrock. It contains 10,230,776 cubic yards of concrete and weighs twenty-two million tons. It impounds the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake, which stretches 150 miles from the Grand Coulee to Canada. At the time construction began it was the largest dam in the world, and it has remained the largest concrete structure in the United States.

More than any other dam, the Grand Coulee Dam symbolized man’s attempt to subordinate nature. Often called the “eighth wonder of the world,” the dam drew huge crowds of tourists who marveled at its engineering, and Woody Guthrie wrote a folk song about it. Power generated by the dam was used to create aluminum used in aircraft in World War II and permitted the expansion of industry into the American Northwest. Many saw the dam as the key to progress and prosperity, and soon dams were being built all over the country. Thirteen were built on the Columbia River alone.

The original Grand Coulee Dam could generate about 2,000 megawatts of electricity. Electrical power generation Additional power-generation capability was subsequently added, so that by 1991 it had a rated capacity of 9,070 megawatts and a planned capacity of 10,830 megawatts. It housed one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world. Other large dams include the Guri Dam in Venezuela, which has a rated and planned capacity of 10,300 megawatts, and the Itaipu Dam in Brazil and Paraguay, which has a rated capacity of 7,400 megawatts and a planned capacity of 13,320 megawatts.

If the dam operates nonstop for one year, it produces about 80 billion kilowatt-hours, or about 0.25 quads (quadrillion BTU) of power. In 1990, all 112 nuclear power plants operating in the United States together produced 577 billion kilowatt-hours of power. Roughly speaking, then, the Grand Coulee Dam could generate as much electricity as 15 nuclear reactors. It would take 30 million tons of coal, or 20 million tons of oil, to produce this much energy each year, and burning this much oil would add 6.25 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide every year.

The dam’s most direct cost was the loss of a wild and scenic stretch of the Columbia River. Had the Grand Coulee Dam been the last dam created on the Columbia, the loss of this stretch might have been less significant, but the Grand Coulee Dam’s success encouraged the construction of other dams. In the United States alone, some 75,000 dams have been constructed, each of which wiped out a stretch of wild river. Unfortunately, often the most scenic, beautiful spots are those most desirable for dam construction. As the supply of wild and scenic rivers diminished, the value of those remaining increased. By some estimates, only 9 percent of river miles in the lower forty-eight states remain undeveloped.

The irrigation of the Columbia basin also had significant impact. Historically, the dry climate and basalt flows made water too scarce for many plants to grow. However, the soil in this region is very fertile, and the arid climate permits an exceptional growing season, with many clear, sunny days. Once the Grand Coulee Dam delivered water, orchards and fields in the half million acres irrigated by the dam became some of the most productive in the country. Such agricultural accomplishments came at a cost, however. Orchards and hop yards in the East suffered with the new competition. Furthermore, the long-term effects of irrigation on the environment in the Columbia basin are not yet known: Evaporation from the huge lake and the diversion of six billion gallons of water per day during the growing season may be causing subtle changes in the Columbia River. Engineering;dams
Grand Coulee Dam
Dams;Grand Coulee

Further Reading

  • Borah, Leo A. “From Sagebrush to Roses on the Columbia.” National Geographic 102 (November, 1952): 571-611. Written shortly after the arrival of the first irrigation waters from the Grand Coulee Dam, this article celebrates the transformation of “desolate and useless” land into fertile farms. The bias is strongly in favor of development, as environmental concerns were uncommon in the early 1950’s.
  • Boyer, David S. “Powerhouse of the Northwest.” National Geographic 146 (December, 1974): 820-847. This beautifully illustrated article about life along the Columbia River gives a picture of the costs and benefits of the dams and the changes they have produced. Includes several personal viewpoints that tend to point out the human and environmental costs. It is written with a bias in favor of environmentalism and against development.
  • Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Discusses how humans and environment have interacted throughout American history, including human impacts on animal species. Includes an environmental history time line and an extensive guide to resources.
  • Moss, Frank E. The Water Crisis. New York: Praeger, 1967. A good general background to water resource development throughout the country. Written from the perspective of a U.S. senator who was very active in water legislation, it begins by deploring the squandering of many of the nation’s resources, and argues that if proper planning had occurred, much larger dams could have been constructed, and there would have been less waste.
  • Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Intellectual history of Americans’ relationship with the wilderness, beginning with the earliest days of European contact. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Sundborg, George. Hail Columbia. New York: Macmillan, 1954. This thorough book develops the story of the Grand Coulee Dam as it follows the life of James O’Sullivan, who is probably the individual most responsible for its creation. Tiny details, such as the age and type of car he drove, add color to an elaborate account of this man’s commitment to the idea of a high dam on the Columbia. Permits the reader to appreciate the glacial pace at which support for the dam actually progressed.
  • U.S. Department of the Interior. The Columbia River. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1947. This comprehensive report details the development of the water resources of the Columbia River. The weather, soil, and wildlife in each of the seven subdivisions of the drainage basin are described, and the past, present, and future development activity is outlined. Prospective sites for power dams are listed. Seven large maps, dozens of page-sized maps, and illustrations.

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