The Grand Coulee Dam

Calvin Chandler II
December 6, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2015


Fig. 1: Grand Coulee Dam. (Source: Wikimedia Commmons)

At 550 feet tall and 5,223 feet long, the Grand Coulee is the largest concrete structure in the world as well as one of the biggest dams ever created. [1] This dam, which is located on the Columbia River in Washington State, produces hydroelectric power through a series of turbines propelled through the gravitational potential energy of river water. The significance of the completion of this dam has created a multitude of clean energy benefits. However, the dam's establishment has also spurred negative environmental consequences causing the construction of this dam to be controversial.


The creation of one of the world's largest and most powerful dams took over 23 years to be completed. [1] It all started in 1918 when Rufus Woods wrote in a local Washington newspaper of a plan with serious irrigation benefits that could arise from the construction of a dam on the Columbia River. The feasibility of this plan was debated for many years but in 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt and Washington State executives finally approved it. With $162,000,000 raised towards its establishment, the ground was struck and the project officially began within the same year. [1] By the year 1941 the dam was completed and operational with 2 fully functional power plants. During the war 96% of this Dam's energy consumption went toward war efforts. [2] Interestingly enough it was the main power source for the famous Hanover project, which led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. It wasn't until the end of World War 2 that energy demands increased in rural America, leading to a series of power outages in the Northwest. As a result, 2 more power plants were established in 1973 and 1983 to increase maximum energy capacity to what it currently produces today. Fig.1 shows what the enormous, Grand Coulee looks like today.

Benefits and Output

The Grand Coulee produces over 6,435 megawatts per year making it the largest hydropower energy producer in the United States. [1] This is enough energy to power up the entire city of Seattle for 2 years. While there is an exorbitant amount of energy produced from this dam alone, irrigation accounts for 21% of all energy outputs. [2] This energy is expended by pumping its large reservoir of water, Lake Roosevelt, to over 600,000 acres across the Northwest with another 400,000 projected. [2] This allows for a plethora of 60 crops amongst various farms in the region to have adequate watering.

Environmental Significance

This dam however is not perfect. One major issue with the dam is that it was built without any fish ladders. This essentially blocks all fish migration patterns in the given part of the river. As a result the ecosystem has changed dramatically with much local wild life losing a major source of its food supply such as eagles and bears. In addition to the blockage of fish migration patterns, the buildup of reservoir water created from the dam has caused over 21,000 acres of land to be flooded. [3] Likewise many local Native American tribes were displaced which created a lot of controversy about whether the dam had the rights to displace such a large population of people against their will.


While the Grand Coulee dam produces a large abundance of clean energy, it does not come without a fair amount of consequences. Many will agree that the energy output makes it integral for the region and a staple of life in the Northwest. However, the severe impact it has on the environment perhaps explain why similar projects have not been further supported in other rivers.

© Calvin Chandler. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] E. Cohen and A. Toothman, "Grand Coulee Dam History," in World Environmental and Water Resources Congress 2014: Water without Borders, ed. by W. C. Huber (ACME, 2014).

[2] P. Ruckert, "The Fight to Build the Grand Coulee Dam and the Economic Revolution that Transformed the Nation", 23 Feb 13.

[3] C. E. Ashbrook et al., "Migration and Movement Patterns of Adult Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)," Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, June 2008.