I found poetic justice in cycling to Grand Coulee Dam during the worst wildfire smoke of my journey; climbing to one of mankind’s most stupendous feats of conquering nature while nature raged all around me. When I arrived, the air was so thick I could barely see across the largest concrete structure ever built (until the Chinese surpassed it times three with the Three Gorges Dam). Built during the Depression, Grand Coulee brought water and electricity to a huge swath of the Northwest. But it also delivered hope to the entire country. If we could tame the Columbia River to serve our purposes, we could cure all of our ills.
Grand Coulee Dam was hailed as a universal good. Construction employed 8,000 people during the worst economic period in our history. The dam provided irrigation for vast agriculture and gave thousands of households’ cheap power. Newsreels heralded this wonder of the modern world, businesses thrived, Woody Guthrie wrote odes to its wonder. On inauguration day, forty-eight shapely women poured water from their native states to symbolize that although Grand Coulee was located in Washington, it served us all. People flocked from all over to visit. Cars drove the scenic road along the top of the dam. Renowned architect Marcel Breuer built a landmark visitor center. Guides toured citizens into the bowels of electrical generation.
It was all such an unalloyed good, but nothing is that simple anymore. After 911 security ratcheted down. No more cars cruise the dam. The tour is a token exercise; most of it takes place on a bus. The only interior space we visited was the irrigation pump room – impressive but hardly as relevant as the turbines.
Grand Coulee could never be built today in this country. We do not embrace public works with the enthusiasm this dam received eighty years ago. Whether you consider that a failure of progress or a success in acknowledging complexity depends on your perspective.
Lynne Brougher is the Public Affairs Officer for Grand Coulee Dam. She coordinates media, oversees the Visitor Center, orchestrates the nightly laser show, and addresses environmental issues. We didn’t meet the day I visited the dam; Lynne was at an offsite conference. However, she was kind enough to talk by phone the next week.
“Our mission is to manage water for irrigation and power generation and flood control. When Grand Coulee was conceived, irrigation was the key. By the time the dam was completed and World War II came, hydropower became the priority focus In 1948, the huge flood on the Columbia added our focus on flood control. Its relevance hasn’t changed in over 75 years.”
I asked Lynne why Grand Coulee has celebrity status among dams. “Grand Coulee Dam had cutting edge technology. When it was completed in 1941 it was the largest concrete structure in the world, the largest hydropower facility – sheer size captures people’s imagination. When you think about the size and how it was designed and put together, by slide rule and methods we would consider crude today, the work is so fine.”
Discussion arises from time to time about the fact that salmon cannot swim beyond Grand Coulee Dam. In fact, Chief Joseph Dam, the next one downstream, has no salmon ladders either. I asked Lynne how staff might make upstream salmon access possible. “That is not for us to decide. If Congress decides that salmon will be able to swim upstream, we will make it happen, by whatever means they determine. But we don’t make that decision.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“New technologies will be incorporated here at the dam to make our three main focuses more efficient. Demand for power is not going to go away. In the public sector, people are going to embrace smart technologies, and that will continue to increase the need for hydropower. We are always looking for ways to increase efficiencies in the plant itself. We will use power more efficiently, but we will need more.”
As I rode away from Grand Coulee Dam, past Chief Joseph and on to Brewster on desolate roads through a smudgy sky, I had plenty of time to consider the key issue Grand Coulee symbolizes. What is our proper balance between controlling nature and accepting its vagaries? We have the ingenuity and strength to provide shelter, dig wells, grow crops, pave roads, build bridges, harness electricity, fly planes, build dams. Where do we draw the line between a proper intervention on our planet and an excessive one? Do the benefits of the Grand Coulee Dam outweigh its negative impacts? Not according to the prerogatives of the 1930’s when it was built. Not even by the prerogatives of today, as we continue to keep and use the dam. But we have removed some dams in the Pacific Northwest, and we’re not building new ones. The line between domination and stewardship is a fine one, ever changing.