Grand Coulee, Washington

July 2015

Kathy was no longer traveling with me. I was alone again. So I left Spokane and headed into central Washington to regroup. And to visit one of the largest concrete structures in the world.

Spring Canyon Campground

I was in need of a place to chill out for a bit. To get back into my solo travel groove after having an incredible experience traveling with Kathy. A place in the middle of nowhere, yet close to somewhere I last visited many, many years ago. So I chose Spring Canyon Campground for a 5 night stay.

Spring Canyon Campground is one of the 27 campgrounds in the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area. It is the closest National Park Service campground to Grand Coulee Dam, the one place I wanted to visit in the area.

With 87 sites, Spring Canyon is the largest of the NPS campgrounds on Lake Roosevelt, and it is heavily used. Only some of the sites are reservable with the rest being first come, first served. Even though I arrived on a Saturday in July, I was able to get a choice spot. But that isn’t to say it was a peaceful, uncrowded place. Quite the opposite!

Spring Canyon only has dry camping sites with an upper and lower area. Upper area is a couple of big parking lots with tent spaces. Lower area has RV sites (also used by tenters) arranged in a series of circles (or something resembling roundness) with a water spigot in the middle. With zero privacy. And it got crowded. With lots of families. And kids. Loud families with kids. It wasn’t the peaceful place I was hoping it would be. And did I mention it was toasty? It was damn hot, which meant my roof vent fan was getting a workout in attempts to keep me cool.

Probably a really nice place to stay in the off season. Just don’t expect bliss when it is vacay time for the masses!

There is an pretty active day use area at Spring Canyon, where people come to swim and launch their boats. I used the picnic pavilion as an office, giving me a great view of the lake and relative peace and quiet.

Grand Coulee Dam

I grew up in western Washington and visited Grand Coulee Dam on several occasions, but that was a long, long time ago. So I decided to stay in the area for a bit and visit the behemoth, the largest electric producing facility in the United States.

Grand Coulee Dam is 5,223 feet long. Almost a mile. Kinda big. Lots of concrete. A very impressive structure! It is 550 feet high, which is as high as it can be without Lake Roosevelt, the “small” body of water behind the dam, backing up into Canada. Yes, Canada. Lake Roosevelt is 150 miles long. OK, maybe it isn’t so small after all.

Side note: Grand Coulee Dam is named for the Grand Coulee that runs 60 miles starting due southwest of the dam and now is the home of Banks Lake, the reservoir for the irrigation part of the project. What is the Grand Coulee? Click on the link for the details, but I will give you the quick rundown. It is an ancient river bed formed by massive releases of water from an ancient lake which covered much of Idaho and Montana. The lake was held back by an ice dam that occasionally would break releasing a wall of water that travelled up to 65 miles an hour over the Columbia Basin, removing all surface soil and carving deep canyons in the land (creating the Grand Coulee). This happened multiple times over about 2500 years, shaping the land as it is today. Cool stuff!

Environmental Impact

I’m fascinated by dams, but it is a love/hate relationship. I love the engineering that is required to build one and am fascinated by their massive presence. I hate what they do to the area behind the dam, forever changing natural beauty and impacting those who depended on the river flowing freely.

I could go on and on and on about how destructive dams are. From the clearing of the land where the lake will be so that crap doesn’t end up clogging up the spillways and power generators, to displacing of native people and putting an end to their traditions dependent upon a free flowing river, to covering irreplaceable artifacts and natural beauty, to halting salmon migration. On and on I could go. But I won’t. Do some Googling if you wish to learn more.

I will just briefly expand upon one aspect that I found interesting and depressing. Dams stop the migration of fish. The Columbia River used to have one of the largest salmon runs in the world. But no longer, thanks to the 14 dams on the Columbia River.

Fish ladders are used at many dams as a way to allow migrating fish to bypass the dam and continue on upstream. The Grand Coulee Dam doesn’t have one. The next dam downstream, the Chief Joseph Dam (named for the very same Chief Joseph I discussed while in Oregon)also doesn’t have a fish ladder and stops migration of salmon upstream, so it is pointless for Grand Coulee Dam to have a ladder. But if it did, the ladder would have to be 5 miles in length to climb the height of the damn. And that is never going to happen.

Power Generation

When the Grand Coulee Dam project was being discussed there were a couple of camps with opposing views of what the purpose should be. Some wanted it to produce electricity for the region, which would require a lower dam. Others wanted it to provide irrigation water (see below) to the Columbia Basin, which required a much higher dam. The hydroelectric camp won out for fiscal reasons with a low dam design being approved. Before the first concrete was poured, President Roosevelt visited the site and pushed for a high dam design that would also allow for irrigation. So the design was changed.

Construction of the dam started in 1933, first concrete was poured in 1935, land started to be cleared in 1938 to make room for the lake, and the initial dam was completed in 1941. Damn, it takes a long time to build a dam!

For those who paid attention in history class, something was going on in the world in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s. A war broke out. One that the US entered in late 1941. President Roosevelt saw the writing on the wall in early 1941 and the Grand Coulee Dam was declared a national defense project in April 1941, which greatly accelerated construction. It seems that the Pacific Northwest needed a source of electricity to support the upcoming war effort and the Grand Coulee Dam was that source. So the production of hydroelectric power became the primary focus of the facility, putting irrigation on hold.

This is where a conspiracy theorist might say something along the lines of why was the dam project declared a national defense project six months before the US entered the war? Remember, the US was attacked by the Japanese on 7 December 1941. A surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. One that the US allegedly didn’t know was going to happen.

As I am not much of a conspiracy theorist, nor a student of the US’s involvement in World War II before December 1941, I will assume there was good reason for acceleration of dam construction to support war efforts. And leave it at that. 🙂

OK, back to the main topic of this section – power generation. After World War II, power demands in the Pacific Northwest continued to rise. Grand Coulee Dam needed to generate more power. In 1953 a feasibility study was conducted to add a third power plant, but this would require a new Columbia River water treaty to be signed with Canada. It wasn’t until 1964 that all the ducks were in a row and the project received the green light. Construction happened between 1967 and 1974 with the first generator of the third power plant coming online in 1975 and the last in 1980.

Grand Coulee Dam is now the largest hydropower plant in the United State, capable of producing 6,809 megawatts of electricity via its 33 generators. It supplies power to eleven western states and Canada. It’s kind of a big deal in the hydroelectric community.

Irrigation

Much of the Columbia Basin is arid land that farmers tried to cultivate in the early 1900’s. They had a few successful years due to abnormally large rainfall amounts, but once rain levels went back to their norm, there just wasn’t enough water to support farming and the land was abandoned. This didn’t bode well for the government’s efforts to convince people that living in the west was a thing they should pursue, so something must be done! That something was irrigating an otherwise dry land to allow people to farm a barren landscape. Makes perfect sense to me!

Even though irrigation was one of the primary reasons to build the Grand Coulee Dam when construction happened in the 1930’s and 40’s, the actual irrigation project was put on hold due to the war and hydroelectric power became the main priority. In 1943, Congress authorized the Columbia Basin Project which was the grand plan to provide water to a planned 1,100,000 acres of dry land. Construction of the project began in 1948 when Banks Lake was formed with the building of two earth dams in the north section of the Grand Coulee, just to the west/southwest of Grand Coulee Dam.

Banks Lake is 27 miles long but sits higher than the Columbia River, requiring water to be pumped up 280 feet from Lake Roosevelt. This is done via 12 rather massive pumps “lifting” the water up thru 12 rather large pipes, into a 1.6 mile long canal that carries the water into Banks Lake. From here it is distributed into 2,000 miles of canal to provide water for farms in the region.

While the plan was to provide water for 1,100,000 acres of land, currently only 671,000 acres of arid land receive this water. Apparently there aren’t any plans to expand the canal network for more irrigation. I guess the need to turn more desert into farms just isn’t there. Hmmm…

Tour

I took the free tour of Grand Coulee dam, which was not nearly as cool as the tour I took of Glen Canyon Dam. The Grand Coulee tour starts on the east side of the dam at a small metal building where you watch the intro video and go through a metal detector before loading onto a bus. You are then taken to the west side of the dam, go through a massive gate onto the dam proper and stop about midway across. Here you get to look over the sides of the dam and get yelled at if you stray to far from the group.

Next you load back onto the bus, drive back over to the west end of the dam, and enter the pump-generating plant. Down an elevator you go into a viewing room, where you see the 12 massive pumps that carry the water up into the canal that takes it to Banks Lake.

Then you get back on the bus and are delivered to the east side of the dam where you started from. Yes, the tour really was that exciting!

Laser Show

There is a laser show at the dam that runs nightly from Memorial Day thru the end of September. This 30 minute show projects lasers onto the face of the dam, telling a narrated story. It is pretty cool to see. No pics (except the one below) were taken as my iPhone takes crappy pics at night of a moving laser show.

Normally the spillways are opened every night to give the lasers a backdrop of water cascading down the dam face. Unfortunately one of the spillways had a torn seal that gets damaged more each time the spillway gates are opened, so there was no water backdrop for the show I saw. The seal wasn’t going to be repaired until lake levels dropped below the spillway gates. This happens later in the year as water levels are depleted during the summer. When I visited, water levels were almost at maximum height due to the spring runoffs being captured.

My second visit to a dam during this journey didn’t disappoint. The structure is awesome and is something one must see in person to appreciate. Assuming you can appreciate these sorts of things.

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