Grand Coulee Dam in Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert

PHOTO CREDIT: Farwestern / Gregg M. Erickson. This photo is licensed under the the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

“The astonishing thing about Grand Coulee–about the whole era–was that people just went out and built it, built anything, without knowing exactly how to do it or whether it could even be done. There were no tasks forces, no special commissions, no proposed possible preliminary outlines of conceivable tentative recommendations. Tremendous environmental impacts, but no environmental impact statements.”1

Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert explores a century and half of heroic efforts by United States and Westerners to control water in an arid land. Despite billions of dollars and massive construction projects, the fact that not enough rain falls between the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range and the middle of the continent has not changed. At the heart of these efforts to control the water that does flow in the West were the massive dam projects that began in the 1930s and continued for the next forty years.  Grand Coulee Dam, which is now the largest electricity-producing plant in the United States, was built on the Columbia River in Washington during this time.

Grand Coulee was originally designed and sold to Congress as a low dam in 1933, but Reisner makes a strong case that Franklin D. Roosevelt always intended to build a high dam that would also create a massive irrigation project for the Columbia Basin.  Grand Coulee’s completion in 1941 proved fortuitous for the United States as the country entered World War II.  The enormous amount of electricity produced by the Grand Coulee Dam and Bonneville Dam, further down the Columbia River, made the production of aluminum for airplanes cheap enough for the United States to outproduce Germany.  The same electricity also helped produce plutonium-239 for the Manhattan Project that developed the United States’ first atomic weapons.  When the war ended the cheap hydroelectricity drew hundreds of thousands of people to Northwest.

Read more about Grand Coulee Dam on Wikipedia. Read more about Cadillac Desert and Marc Reisner on Amazon or at a local library.

1Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert. New York: Penguin, 1993. 160. Print.

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