Lake Roosevelt
Administrative History
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The River Becomes a Lake

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) began constructing Grand Coulee Dam in the late 1930s after years of studies to determine the best ways to irrigate the Columbia Basin. The government purchased the land that would be flooded, and several thousand laborers cleared the reservoir area. During the summer of 1942, the reservoir behind the dam filled with water, and a 132-mile stretch of the mighty Columbia River became Lake Roosevelt.

Construction of Grand Coulee Dam

The decision to build the massive Grand Coulee Dam was not made casually. The controversy revolved around the location, design, and ultimate purpose of such a structure, not over its impacts upon humans and the natural environment. The dam was ultimately built as part of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, a huge federal project designed to irrigate much of the arid land in eastern Washington.

Roll on, Columbia, roll on,
Roll on, Columbia, roll on,
Your power is turning the darkness to dawn
Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

And far up the river is Grand Coulee Dam,
The mightiest thing ever built by a man,
To run the great factories and water the land,
It's roll on, Columbia, roll on.

-- "Roll On, Columbia," words by Woody Guthrie, 1941

Two methods of irrigating the Columbia Basin were proposed and examined. The idea to build a large dam on the Columbia River and pump water into a storage reservoir in the Grand Coulee for irrigation was first proposed in the 1890s. It was countered by a rival plan to bring water to the Columbia plateau by a 134-mile gravity-flow canal from the Pend Oreille River in northern Idaho. The controversy over the relative benefits of these two schemes, the "pumping plan" and the "gravity plan," polarized Washington and national reclamation politics through the 1920s. Rufus Woods and the Columbia River Development League promoted the idea of a dam at the head of the Grand Coulee that would generate hydroelectric power to pump water above the dam into the Grand Coulee.

In 1918, Woods published an influential story on the idea in his newspaper, the Wenatchee Daily World. Washington power companies and the city of Spokane favored diverting water to the Columbia Basin, and they created the Columbia Basin League to promote that concept. Each side acted in its own self-interest, and the bitter debate lasted from 1918 until 1933. [1]

The Reclamation Service (now the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation), the Army Corps of Engineers, and engineers sponsored by the state of Washington and by private organizations spent over thirty years surveying the area and preparing reports on the feasibility of the two methods of irrigating the Columbia Basin. A decisive study known as the Butler Report, completed in 1931, provided an honest assessment of the two plans, coming out on the side of the pumping plan largely for economic reasons. Once the "pumpers" had won the prolonged debate, however, they still were faced with the daunting task of finding state or federal funding for the costly project. [2]

Grand Coulee Dam site
Site of Grand Coulee Dam looking north across the Columbia River, January 23, 1934. Note the ferry crossing. Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (LARO 2622).

The federal role in damming the Columbia tied in well with the New Deal belief that the government should stimulate economic recovery by putting people to work and encouraging the creation of public utilities. Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected president of the United States in 1932, asked for plans for a low dam with foundations strong enough to support a higher dam later, one that would back water up to the Canadian border. In July 1933, Public Works Administration funds were allotted for the state to build a low dam at the Grand Coulee, and a few months later it became a federal project to be built by Reclamation. The cost was to be repaid from net revenues obtained from the sale of hydroelectric power. Within a few years, four gigantic concrete dams were all being constructed at the same time: Hoover (Boulder), Shasta, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee. Hoover Dam, authorized in 1930, set the stage for integrated river basin planning. The New Deal backed the multiple-purpose concept for dams and also emphasized federal control and planning for the development of entire river basins. The Columbia River was soon well on its way to becoming an orderly and regulated waterway, managed to meet the needs of humans. [3]

Congress created the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in 1937. Although public power advocates had hoped for a Columbia Valley Authority modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority, the BPA was not given such comprehensive authority. Its role was to market the power generated at federal dams, including Grand Coulee Dam. Because the BPA is charged with repaying the investment the federal government made in constructing the dam and the annual maintenance and operations costs, that agency also is involved in the operational aspects and the associated effects on cultural resources, recreation, endangered species, and other resources. Reclamation, however, operates and maintains Grand Coulee Dam and associated facilities. Title to all the land is held by the United States of America. [4]

aerial view of towns
Aerial view of the towns of Mason City (foreground), Engineers Town (across the river), and Grand Coulee (background), April 1940. The Grand Coulee extends to the right in the distance. Photo courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Grand Coulee (USBR Archives 536).

The project of building Grand Coulee Dam is remarkable for its magnitude but not for any strikingly original technical accomplishments. The dam is a concrete, straight, gravity-type dam that rests on bedrock granite. Work began in 1933. Frank A. Banks was appointed Construction Engineer, and he stayed with the project until he retired in 1950. Soon some eight thousand workers, many of them young, single men, were employed on the dam construction project. Reclamation and the contractors constructed towns on both sides of the river close to the dam site to house their employees. By the end of 1937, the east and west sections of the dam had met. [5]

The decision to build Grand Coulee Dam higher than had originally been planned determined the size of the reservoir behind the dam. In 1933, the dam was designed to be a 200-300-foot low dam that would generate power and help in regulating navigation flows but would not aid in the proposed irrigation project. The reservoir created by the low dam would have reached 1,111 feet in elevation. In June 1935, Reclamation issued a change order for construction of the 500-foot high dam, which allowed for a reservoir reaching 1,290 feet in elevation and extending to the Canadian border. The Rivers and Harbors Act, signed August 1935, authorized the dam for the purposes of flood control, navigation, stream flow regulation, storage and delivery of stored waters, reclamation of public lands and Indian reservations, and the generation of hydroelectric power. Grand Coulee Dam had evolved into a major national project, not just a local New Deal relief measure. [6]

Drawing, ca. 1933, showing the difference in reservoir size between the low and high dams proposed for the Grand Coulee project. Photo courtesy of Washington State University (Grand Coulee Dam Site file, box 2A, Bridges and Dams, PC2).

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Last Updated: 22-Apr-2003