Dam History

The Columbia River, and the tributaries that supply the river with more water, has seen the most hydro electric activity than any other water drainage anywhere. It all started with dreams of turning this water way into a means of safe travel and hydro electric potential.

In 1929, the Army Corps of Engineers prepared a report that recommended 10 dams along the river. No action was taken, however, until the Roosevelt administration. In 1934, two huge projects were started: Grand Coulee Dam in north central Washington State and Bonneville Dam, which would span the river between Washington and Oregon at a spot 80 miles upstream from Portland. Construction of the Bonneville Dam began in June 1934, and took three years. The construction drew 3,000 workers, many from relief rolls, who were delighted at the $.50 per hour wage offered ordinary laborers.

From the beginning Roosevelt was determined to keep the dam as a public source of power, but private interests opposed government involvement in what they viewed as private industry. Public power advocates pushed the passage of the Bonneville Project Act, which Roosevelt signed on August 20, 1937, this Act delegated responsibilities to two bodies: the Bonneville Power Administration, or BPA, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Bonneville Power Administration was created as part of the Department of the Interior in order to sell and distribute the power created by the dam in addition to preventing monopolization, a phenomenon common to the energy business. The energy was to be sold at wholesale rates. Commercial power began to flow from its generators in 1938. The initial wholesale cost of power was $17.50 per kilowatt year, a rate maintained for the next 28 years.

The fish ladders at Bonneville were successful to a degree. Successful enough to lull the public into a sense of security. It was a great showcase. People drove up the river on Sunday to watch the salmon go up the ladders. It was most reassuring. — Crisis on the Columbia, Oral Bullard

The Bonneville Dam spans 2,690 feet connecting Washington and Oregon and stands 197 feet tall. For the American Indians who had lived along the Columbia for centuries, the dam was a disaster. The reservoir behind the Bonneville Dam flooded their villages and inundated traditional fishing locations. Migrating salmon also encountered obstacles that were only partially mitigated by fish ladders and other man-made techniques.

In 1957 the Dalles dam was complete and the slack water created by the dam put to rest a waterfall that had been naturally flowing since the Columbia River was formed. It also put an end to the way of life for most of the Native Americans who inhabited this area. As most had grown up using the land and fishing from Celilo Falls.

A mere 24 miles upstream is the base of the John Day Dam, which was the last of the dams to be completed in the US, opening in 1971 and sealing off the Columbia River into a series of lakes supported by endless hydro electric power.

From 1938 to 1972 eleven dams were placed in the Columbia river capable of generating 20,179 mega watts combined. With in those same years on the Snake River (largest tributary of the Columbia) 10 more dams were constructed adding to the growing number in the Columbia River Drainage. At Present day, 2009, there are 74 dams, 1 single lock, and 1 Sediment Retention Structure (backing up the sediment created by Mt. St. Helens in 1980) in the Columbia Drainage.

The Sediment Retention Structure supporting the natural flow of Mt. St. Helens

During this race for power many of the tributaries had proposed dam locations that were put into effect such as the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River which a few years ago was considered an idle structure of little value, but the cost of removal would be to great..

As the population grows and corporations think bigger and bigger it has come time to re-think what we need to sustain power for the future as well as keeping a healthy and clean environment for the next generation. The dams that are in place are there to stay, but the amount of energy they produce on the Columbia & Snake alone is enough to take a break and find a better answer that will keep our land clean enough to survive for many generations.

To give you an example of what you don’t see. In 1943 the Hanford Project was set up as part of the Manhattan Project and it was home to the B-Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. Now it is a decommissioned nuclear production complex on the Columbia River in south-central Washington operated by the Unite States Government.

Nuclear reactors at the Hanford Site on the Columbia River in eastern WA

During the Cold War, the project was expanded to include nine nuclear reactors and five massive plutonium processing complexes, which produced plutonium for most of the 60,000 weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Nuclear technology developed rapidly during this period, and Hanford scientists produced many notable technological achievements. However, many of the early safety procedures and waste disposal practices were inadequate. Government documents have since confirmed that Hanford’s operations released significant amounts of radioactive materials to the air and to the Columbia River, which threatened the health of residents and ecosystems.

In later Columbia River Dam projects, The Columbia River Treaty was an agreement between the United States and Canada that funded Canadian dams (Mica, Keeleyside, and Duncan) and Montana’s Libby Dam, whose reservoir extends into Canada, with U.S. money. The United States gained flood control and power benefits from these storage dams. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker signed the treaty on 17 January 1961. The U.S. Senate quickly ratified the treaty, but the Canadian Parliament feared that the U.S. had more to gain than did Canadians. They refused to ratify the treaty until the U.S. agreed to purchase excess power generated in British Columbia, power for which the province had no use. The U.S. Northwest treated the power as surplus and sold it to the American Southwest.

Click here for a list of the Dams on the Columbia River

Click here for a list of the hydroelectric projects on the Snake River, ID


  1. I appreciate your blog post! Incredible information concerning this subject, thanks a lot for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s