Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Columbia Basin Project
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was created 1902 to aid development of dry western states. Central Washington's Columbia River Plateau was a prime candidate- a desert with fertile volcanic soil and the Columbia River passing through.
Competing groups lobbied for different irrigation projects; a Spokane group wanted a 134 mile (216 km) gravity flow canal from Lake Pend Oreille while a Wenatchee group (further south) wanted a large Dam at Grand Coulee. The dam concept involved re-filling an ancient river bed that was almost six hundred feet above the level of the Columbia river.
After thirteen years of debate, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the dam project. Construction of the Grand Coulee Dam began in 1933 and was completed in 1942. Its main purpose of pumping water for irrigation was postponed during WWII in favor of electrical power generation that was used for the war effort. Additional hydroelectric generating capacity would be added decades later, and the reservoir would be named Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake in honor of the President.
The irrigation part of the project began operation in 1951.
The Columbia Basin in Central Washington is fertile due to its volcanic origins, but large portions are a desert, receiving less than ten inches of rain per year. The area is characterized by huge deposits of basalt, thousands of feet thick in places, laid down over the millennia by volcanic eruptions of the Cascade mountians.
During the last ice age glaciers shaped the landscape of the Columbia River Plateau and diverted the Columbia river through the what became the Grand Coulee. Grooves and striations created by glaciers are still visible in the underlying granite bedrock of the area (where the Basalt layers are thin). Ice age glaciers also created Lake Missoula, in what is now Montana. The glacier dam periodically burst creating the Missoula Floods, which gave way to a two thousand foot (600 m) head of water. These floods scoured the Columbia Basin and the Grand Coulee in particular. Unique erosion features, called channeled scablands, are attributed to these amazing floods.
Thousands of years of work by the Colombia River gave final shape to what we see today. The Columbia channel no longer flows through the Grand Coulee which was dry, until modern times.
Reclamation of the Columbia Basin
The Grand Coulee Dam was the largest dam in the world when it was built, but it was only part of the irrigation project. The Grand Coulee had small dams added that turned part of it into the thirty mile (50 km) long Banks Lake . This was the first leg of storage and distribution for the water. Additional canals, siphons and lakes were built for a hundred miles (160 km) south of the dam.
Water is lifted 280 feet from Lake Roosevelt to feed the massive network. Some of the spring runoff is stored in this network for use throughout the growing season.
Between 2 and 3% of the Columbia's flow is currently diverted at the Grand Coulee Dam. There are plans to double the area of irrigated land, according to tour guides at the dam, over the next several decades. However, the Bureau of Reclamation website states that no further development is anticipated, with 671,000 acres (2,720 km²) irrigated out of the original 1.1 million acres (4,450 km²) planned.
Annual values from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation;
- Irrigated crops: $630 million
- Power produced: $950 million
- Flood damage prevented: $20 million
- Recreation: 3 million visits - $50 million
Hydroelectricity was never the primary goal of the project. There was no use at the time for the massive amounts of power available from the Columbia. World War II changed all that. The Hanford nuclear reservation was built just south of the project and aluminum smelting plants flocked to the Columbia Basin. A new power house was built at the Grand Coulee Dam, starting in the late sixties, that tripled the generating capacity. Part of the dam had to be blown up and re-built to make way for the new generators. Electricity is now shipped to Canada and as far south as San Diego.
The numerous new lakes provide all types of water recreation and new habitat was created for fish and game.
The salmon habitat above the dam was decimated. Fish ladders are not an option at the Grand Coulee Dam because of its height. This is especially dire because of the Native Americans who depended on the salmon for a way of life.
- Tributaries of the Columbia River
- Cities on the Columbia River
- Hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River
- Cascades Rapids
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