The Waters that Turn: Power in the American West

Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River

Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River

“Everything about the dam is marked by the immense, smooth, efficient beauty that seems peculiarly American. Though no architect designed it and no one mind planned its massive details, it has the effect of great art.” – Wallace Stegner

The Columbia River, coursing down 2,700 feet from its Rocky Mountain headwaters to the Pacific where it is discharged at a rate of 265,000 cubic feet a second,1 contains a third of the United State’s hydroelectric potential.2 In the United States, 11 dams sit on the Columbia, including the three largest producers of hydroelectricity in the country. Combined, those three dams have an 11,426 megawatt capacity.3 These dams generate in a hour the same amount of energy you would consume from eating 48 million jelly doughnuts.4

The Grand Coulee Dam is the largest hydroelectric plant on the river. Constructed between 1934 and 1939, the dam has a footprint four times the size the Great Pyramid of Giza, and extends nearly 75 meters higher.5 A renovation in 1971 installed 6 new turbines that each individually has the capacity to process the volume of the Colorado River.6 When it was first built, the Grand Coulee Dam was so massive, so unprecedented, that it came to be known simply as ‘the world’s largest thing.’


“Dams have operated on the Columbia so effectively and for so long that there is a fairy-tale tendency to think of them as part of nature, as inescapable as rain and wind,” writes Blaine Harden in his saga A River Lost.7 The same holds true across the west. The O’Shaughnessy Dam began powering San Francisco in 1913. The battle to build the dam was protracted, involving a decade-long fight against John Muir and his Sierra Club due to its location in pristine mountains two hundred miles west of the city. In 1916, Congress designated the dam and surrounding area Yosemite National Park.

When American pioneers first set out towards the west, they encountered a fierce yet vulnerable land — arid, seemingly lifeless, and deeply scarred by great and surging rivers. For the most part, we still hold this image in our minds: a vast tumbleweed wasteland stretching from the Great Basin to the great Sonoran Desert. Yet the hydroelectric dams of the West radically rearranged the social and physical landscape to the point where it would no longer be recognizable to those first intrepid Westerners.

Karl Marx, writing about British India in 1853, argued “The prime necessity of an economical and common use of water… necessitated, in the Orient where civilization was too low and its territorial extent too vast to call into life voluntary associations, the interference of the centralizing power of Government.”8

He argued that the well-being of states in Asia depended largely on their management of water — good central governance spelt a prosperous people, and poor governance begot disaster. It is a formula well understood in the American West: from water flows political power, for those who can harness it.

The Grand Coulee Dam in 1973

The Grand Coulee Dam in 1973

Begun in 1929, The Hoover Dam along the Colorado River was one of the single largest historical government undertakings ever seen — that is, until the Grand Coulee Dam began to rise four years later. These projects, along with a host of other hydroelectric plants, came at the height of the depression, as part of a vision to give life and sustenance to millions in the West and underwrite a vaguely prosperous future to come.

That future came all too soon — shortly after the concrete dried, the dams powered the industrial frenzy of World War II, enabling the creation of everything from warships to plutonium. Jobs came west, along with the people to fill them. Great cities emerged — Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix. Fields were irrigated from the water behind the dams, and a nation was fed. The modern West was born by the might of those rivers.

The dams still stand strong, the water churning through turbines to create 42 billion kilowatt-hours each year.9 The Columbia now has only 51 miles of free-flowing current between where it crosses the U.S. border and where it enters the Pacific tidal zone.10 The Colorado once frothed with milky waters as it wound its way through the Grand Canyon. It now runs blue and green — all of the sediment and nutrients are caught behind the Glen Canyon Dam a few miles upstream. From there, the Colorado River traditionally flowed to Baja California in Mexico, but now it rarely reaches the U.S. border.


Water is an ancient and fickle force. As the last ice age came to a close and the northern ice cap began to recede, Missoula Lake formed over a large part of what is modern day Montana. Held back by a wall of ice, the lake contained a volume of water half the size of Lake Michigan.

Periodically, the wall of ice would burst, draining the lake and launching violent surges of water across Eastern Oregon and Washington, through the Cascade Mountains, and out to the ocean. Then the ice wall would reform — geologists estimate that there were at least twenty-five such flood events. Pouring across the plains at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour, the largest breach sustained a flow ten times larger than all the modern rivers in the world combined.11


On October 26, 2011 the energy utility company Pacificorps blew a hole in the bottom of the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington, a tributary of the Columbia. Vestiges of the concrete barrier still stand, though construction crews have been working to tear the remains down and remove the century’s worth of silt built up behind it by the end of this year.

Condit_PowerhouseThe Columbia River used to run so thick with salmon that fishermen would simply tie a fishing net between two horses and walk upstream to seine out fish. In 1883 and 1884, commercial fishermen harvested over 42 million of salmon out of the river.12 In 2008, the commercial salmon fishing season was closed across the West Coast due to historically low salmon counts.

Pacificorps’ decision came more than a decade after the federal government mandated that the company install a fish passage system, so that salmon and other migratory fish could spawn in the upper reaches of the White Salmon. The company found it cheaper to remove the dam.

Months before the Condit Dam came down, work began on removing two dams on the Elwha River, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The Elwha Dam was completely gone by spring of this year, while the Glines Canyon Dam has been breached and will be fully removed by the summer of 2013. There are already signs of salmon returning to the river, and when the Glines Canyon Dam is removed more than 75 miles of habitat will be restored. It is the largest dam removal project undertaken in the U.S.


Like fishhooks, dams are difficult to get out once they’ve set in. Calls to take dams away are often met with cries — the water is needed to feed the crops, the energy needed to power the cities and factories, the still pools behind the dams must provide the conditions for river freight transport. This is set against a time when food prices are up, and nearly half the country this summer was declared ‘in crisis’ due to drought conditions.

The Elwha and White Salmon removals both take down dams that produced negligible amounts of energy, and little to no irrigation or transportation benefits. Yet momentum and tension is starting to rise over larger dam removal projects.

After a century, the voice of John Muir has returned in calls to remove the O’Shauggesy Dam — San Francisco voters voted on a hotly contested ballot measure to remove the dam this fall. The measure failed, but it brought a national focus to the O’Shauggesy not seen in a hundred years. The Snake River, which is the largest tributary of the Columbia, used to be one of the great salmon rivers of North America. Now fewer and fewer return to spawn each year, and pleas to take down four dams on the lower portion of the river have increased. This spring, a retired federal judge who had overseen a decade of lawsuits and litigations over the Snake River said, “I think we need to take those dams down.”13

The great American dam project now lies in a past era. At the same time, between a lengthening drought and chronic overuse, water resources in the West are rapidly drying up. The American conquest of the West continues to carry the weight of historical inevitability and righteous privilege. It’s only a matter of time before something bursts.


  1. Kammerer, J.C. 1990. “Largest Rivers in the United States.” United States Geological Survey.
  2. Harden, Blaine. 2012. A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. P. 25.
  3. United States Society of Dams. “Dam, Hydropower and Resivoir Statistics.”
  4. By the author’s calculation, using the calories in a Dunkin’ Donuts jelly filled donut.
  5. 1947. Grand Coulee Dam: Eighth Wonder of the World. Davenport, WA: Times Publishing Co.
  6. Duck, Donald. 1975. “Construction of the Grand Coulee Third Power Plant.” Journal of Construction Division 101.4: 869-881.
  7. Harden, Blaine. 2012. A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. P. 15.
  8. Marx, Karl. 1853. “The British Rule in India.” The New York Daily Tribune. 1853.
  9. U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. 2005. “Managing Water in the West: Hydroelectric Power.”
  10. United States Geological Survey. “Further Detail Report for: Hanford Reach.”
  11. United States Geological Survey. “Glacial Lake Missoula and the Missoula Floods.
  12. Craig, Joseph A. and Robert L. Hacker. 1940. “The History and Development of the Fisheries of the Columbia River.” Bulletin of the Bureau of Fisheries. P. 196
  13. Learn, Scott. 2012. “Judge James Redden: ‘We Need to Take Those (Snake River) Dams Down.’The Oregonian. April 25.
  14. Image credit (public domain): Army Corps of Engineers. 2003. “Corps-engineers-archives bonneville dam looking east.” Wikimedia Commons.
  15. Image credit (public domain): Falconer, David. 1973. “Grand Coulee Dam 06/1973.” U.S. National Archives. Flickr.
  16. Image credit (Creative Commons): Duk. 2006. “Condit Powerhouse.” Wikimedia Commons.

Isaac Dalke is a fourth-year sociology major at the University of Chicago. From Oregon, he grew up along the banks of the Columbia and remains captivated by the mighty rivers of the West.  Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.