Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream (book excerpt)
The following text is excerpted by the permission of Washington State University Press from the book Grand Coulee: harnessing a dream, by Paul C. Pitzer, Pullman, Wash.: Washington State University Press, 1994.
Such a power if developed would operate railroads, factories, mines, irrigation pumps, furnish heat and light in such measure that all in all it would be the most unique, the most interesting, and the most remarkable development of both irrigation and power in this age of industrial and scientific miracles.
-- Rufus Woods
In the 1950s the American Society of Civil Engineers identified the seven civil engineering wonders of the United States. Selection committee members dismissed size and looked at uniqueness and pioneering design as their main criteria. They selected Chicago's Sewage Disposal System, the Colorado River Aqueduct, the Empire State Building, the Panama Canal, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and Hoover Dam. They also included Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project. Seeing significance in what the popular press had dubbed "The Greatest Structure in the World," "The World's Greatest Engineering Wonder," "The Eighth Wonder of the World," and "The Biggest Thing on Earth" hardly surprised anyone. Through the 1930s and 1940s the dam generated sensational nationwide publicity. It collared so much attention that freelance journalist Richard L. Neuberger wrote in 1942, "Everyone in America has heard of Grand Coulee1."
But few Americans, then or now, know much about the Columbia Basin Project - the irrigation network that Grand Coulee Dam makes possible, even though it is the largest single reclamation project ever undertaken in the United States.2 In all, the project area of over 2,500,000 acres is roughly twice the size of the state of Delaware.3 Grand Coulee Dam, once the largest concrete structure on the planet, is its key feature but only one of its many parts, In all, the total includes 333 miles of main canals, 1,993 miles of laterals (smaller distribution canals) 3,498 miles of drains and wasteways, and four large dams besides Grand Coulee. In addition there is an enormous pump-generating plant beside Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake - the reservoir formed by Grand Coulee Dam.4 These irrigation features represent a construction effort larger than Grand Coulee Dam itself.
As of September 1986, the total Columbia Basin Project, since 1933, including Grand Coulee Dam, cost $1,687,000,000.5 Of that amount, well over $500,000,000 was for the pump plants, reservoirs, canals, laterals, and other irrigation works. Over $500,000,000 covered the third Grand Coulee powerhouse.5 In return, the complex can produce more than 6.18 million kilowatts of electrical energy and now irrigates more than 556,000 acres - roughly one-half of the ultimate 1,029,000 acres possible for the entire project. Government officials today estimate that it will take at least another two billion dollars to finish the job.6
The power and the irrigation provided by the Columbia Basin Project make it an important element in the West's economy. Grand Coulee Dam is famous because of the electricity it has generated since 1942 and it is a popular attraction visited by thousands annually. But seldom do the tourists realize that the fields of potatoes, corn, and other crops that they see on their way to Grand Coulee rely on the dam and the sale of its power. The critical link between power and reclamation remains obscure to most Americans.
The businessmen and professionals of Wenatchee, Ephrata, Spokane, and Pasco understood the link. They imagined that damming the river could provide cheap electricity and abundant water transforming the region into an agricultural/industrial empire. On May 14, 1919, Rufus Woods wrote a headline for his Wenatchee Daily World stating that a dam on the Columbia River "Would furnish [the] Power to Run all Industries in [a] Washington Empire." Selling the electricity, he theorized, would eventually pay the costs covered at the outset by the government. That dream of almost-free irrigation, supported by power ratepayers, is one that has plagued the project since the first water arrived on the land. More than other farmers in the West, Columbia Basin Project boosters saw no reason why they should not have the same conditions as the wetter regions to their east. They demanded irrigation to compensate for that lack and they wanted someone else to pay the bills.
Replication and accommodation drove Western Hemisphere expansion and settlement. Individuals who came to new land brought ideas about how to use it based on the place or places they left behind. They aimed to establish New England, New France, New Spain, or New Amsterdam. They wanted a fresh start but, plagued by the twin diseases of culture shock and homesickness, also worked to recreate familiar surroundings. None of the participants lost their desire to replicate what was familiar to them. Those in the West have always wanted to make it as much like the East as possible, while at the same time keeping it vigorous and untainted. The result is a West that is both a continuation and a place unique. Look at the people who came, the ideas they carried with them, and the changes the new environment and association with different peoples forced them to make, and you can understand American history.
The arid West did not easily accede to the goals of its settlers. To accommodate the differences, they made subtle and dramatic changes in their lifestyles. In the process they became the democrats that Frederick Jackson Turner saw when he wrote his famous thesis in 1893. As settlement expanded, leavened by racial, cultural, and economic diversity, the American character changed. It showed continuity with the past, but through a multifaceted dialectic between different peoples with different ideals meeting each other in a variety of new places and conditions over time, it also produced something unique and changing. What happened at Grand Coulee and on the Columbia Basin Project is one tiny piece of a much larger mosaic which, taken together, exhibits this process.
Farmers, businessmen, professionals, and promoters looked to irrigation to make the dry parts of the West bloom. This lure would bring industry, development, and self-sufficiency. Increasingly they expected the federal government to pay the costs. Seldom did they see the paradox as they demanded financial support from the East and at the same time resented their colonial status. They wanted independence, growth, development, and a successful agricultural base to make their regions autonomous, independent, and prosperous. They wanted to remake the East and they accommodated themselves to local conditions and federal largess only enough to accomplish that end. It led them to decry both the stingy support they felt they received from the government and the strings attached to the money they fought so hard to garner.
All of this drove the construction of Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project. Settlers who came to the arid Columbia Basin in the 1870s and 1880s dreamed of irrigation.7 The Columbia Basin Project is the result of many overlapping and diverse visions, all aiming toward that end, which emerged from the late-nineteenth century through the present. The goal was always reclamation to compensate for "nature's failure." Once irrigated, the promoters felt certain that the land would support thousands of farmers who in turn would provide the human base for an industrial empire. The dam's power would turn machines, illuminate cities, and bring prosperity to an area avoided as a no-man's-land by those with lesser vision. The dam itself would be the biggest thing on earth, man's greatest engineering undertaking, and a demonstration of modern civilization. It would symbolize the West's bigness. It would make a part of the West like the East - the same, only better, and different.
When Franklin Roosevelt's New Dealers began the Columbia Basin Project in 1933, they added the concept of planning. They hoped to create a "Planned Promised Land.8 On small farms of around eighty acres each, displaced Dust Bowl refugees would find homes. Through a controlled economy the government would guarantee the success of those settlers. In the late 1930s, the New Deal planners and others in the region debated how best to achieve their goals.9 Then, before any of the land had received water, World War II and the rapid changes that it brought altered the vision. The project, as it emerged in the 1950s, differed from the blueprint drawn two decades earlier. The changes continued into the 1980s and 1990s.
Every society leaves monuments that tell us what that society held as important. Egyptian tombs show preoccupation with death, and the Great China Wall indicates concern with boundary and security. Electrical power preoccupied the twentieth century. It could unburden our lives and improve our standard of living both physically and spiritually.10 We leave behind as our monuments to this obsession the thousands of dams that barricade our rivers.
This history of Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project is not unlike a biography. As with any person, the dam, too, has its many facets, all complicated and inextricably interconnected. Thousands of people played larger and smaller roles in the political maneuvering that led to construction and more helped to build the dam and irrigation works. Some readers may find the landscape cluttered with personalities while others might regret omission of this or that character. Grand Coulee is a big story and there is insufficient space to include everyone and every detail. Some peripheral issues, such as the struggle between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers or a complete survey of the uses for the dam's power receive mention but are not treated in depth, as they are in themselves expansive topics. The focus here is on the dam and its attendant irrigation works.
The two most prominent aspects of Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project are their political history and their physical construction and operation. In separating the two there is of necessity the need to cover one topic, then drop back to look at the other. Grand Coulee Dam did not come into being easily. The struggle to have the government undertake and then finance the dam and the project stretched across the first five decades of the twentieth century and its roots went back even further. Often those who promoted the vision squabbled among themselves. The dam, the power, and the irrigation exist today as much in spite of as because of the people who worked to accomplish them.
It is fashionable in the late twentieth century to decry the dams and the environmental damage they brought. But, through the first half of the century, dam builders and irrigation backers saw their work as promoting conservation. To them, taming the rivers, stopping erosion and floods, and reclaiming land outweighed any harm that might follow, and they focused on the promise of power and prosperity. Despite the tragic loss seen in retrospect, people in the Northwest are not likely to tear down the Grand Coulee or many other hydroelectric projects.11 The challenge now is to find a way to accommodate the works of the past with the new visions of the future.
So here it stands, a monument to the idea and the power of an idea; a monument to organization; a monument to cooperation; a monument to opposition; a monument to the United States Army Engineers; a monument to the United States Bureau of Reclamation; a monument to the magic spirit of willing men which accomplishes more than the might of money or the marvels of machinery; a monument to the brains, the intellect of great engineers - and you, class of 1942, could you come back here a thousand years hence, or could your spirit hover around this place ten thousand years hence, you would hear the sojourners talking as they behold this "slab of concrete," and you would hear them say, "Here in 1942, indeed there once lived a great people." Rufus Woods to the graduating class of 1942, Grand Coulee High School1
...in this region major projects were started which all believed could achieve the planned promised land.... The dams along the Columbia were designed to achieve the promised land for the people of the Pacific Northwest. Richard Lowitt2
Remember, we play the ball from where it lies. Attributed to Robert Tyre "Bobby" Jones, Jr. by Alistair Cooke3
Rufus Woods titled the eighty-page book that his Wenatchee Daily World printed in 1944 The Twenty-Three Years' Battle for Grand Coulee Dam. He dated the struggle from 1918, when William Clapp first suggested damming the Columbia River at the Grand Coulee, through 1941, the conclusion of construction on the dam itself. Woods underestimated the length of the battle he documented. Promoters and visionaries proposed Big Bend reclamation in the 1890s. In its entirety, the effort to build the great dam and the irrigation spanned not twenty-three, but over 100 years, and it is still incomplete.
Through that century many participated in the effort. In 1963 a modest William Clapp objected when someone called him the father of Grand Coulee Dam. "Too many people," he said, "had experienced the vision - construction engineers, farmers, lawyers, senators, local business people, Franklin Roosevelt - for anyone to pass out credits.4Clapp was wise. There are many who had a part in parenting the dam. Laughlin MacLean proposed his irrigation scheme in 1892 and David R. McGinnis pushed for irrigation of the Quincy area in the early 1900s. Clapp and Elbert F. Blaine suggested alternatives to water dry Big Bend land. Despite Clapp's reluctance, he and Blaine do deserve credit. Their visions led directly and indirectly to the dam in its present form.
In the 1920s Roy Gill, O. L. Waller, Peter McGregor, Marvin Chase, James A. Ford, J.E. McGovern, Fred Adams, George Washington Goethals, and Harvey Lindley - all connected with the Spokane Chamber of Commerce in one way or another - worked for the gravity plan. They kept the idea alive and deserve recognition for its eventual success, albeit in a form they did not embrace. Rufus Woods, James O'Sullivan, Ed Southard, Nat Washington, Gale Matthews, Albert Goss, Hugh Cooper, and hundreds of unnamed supporters pushed for the pumping plan and the dam.
David Henny, Willis Batcheller, Major John S. Butler, Dr. Elwood Mead, John Page, Arthur Davis, Harry Bashore, Sam Hill, Wesley Jones, Miles Poindexter, Charles Leavy, Clarence Martin, Warren Magnuson, Henry Jackson, Clarence Dill, and Lewis Schwellenbach number among the prominent figures who promoted and backed Grand Coulee. At the national level were Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt.
The long recitation of names makes the point. Grand Coulee Dam had a legion of "fathers," including the Great Depression of the 1930s. Had Roosevelt's emphasis on planning, controlled land use, and government competition with private power not prevailed when they did, there would be no huge dam at the Grand Coulee today. The Depression provided the conditions that allowed Roosevelt to build the dam. Hugh Gallagher, one of Roosevelt's biographers, wrote that there are monuments commemorating many of the nation's Presidents, some great and some not so great, but that there is still no memorial to Franklin Roosevelt.5 Gallagher may be incorrect, for there could be no more fitting monument erected to Roosevelt than Grand Coulee Dam. It embodies the giant vision that Roosevelt had for the nation, his concepts of public works and of public power, of planning, and of service by a government for its people.
And as with so many things in this world, timing was every-thing. Kirby Billingsley, cousin of Sam B. Hill, wrote in 1962, Had Grand Coulee construction not been started when it was, the dam never would have been built for two reasons: one, be-cause the fish people were just coming to life with the realization that hundreds of miles of fish spawning streams would be cut off from the great annual Columbia River salmon migrations and, two, because the private power companies had started construction of a low dam at Kettle Falls and would have proceeded with this. Either one would have stopped Grand Coulee.6
Billingsley was correct. In the 1930s the government and project backers attempted to preserve the salmon, but when forced to make a choice they selected the dam and reclamation. They would not have that choice today. Over time, values change, giving each generation a different perspective on the past. Decisions once clear and simple are today questioned. Then the benefits of reclamation outweighed environmental preservation, as it is defined today. Those benefits were viewed as positive conservation measures in their day. Despite any new vision, what was done then cannot be easily undone now.
In 1909 the federal government enacted legislation allowing the states to protect the watersheds of navigable streams. This and creation of the Federal Power Commission in 1920 enabled construction of federal dams on the Colorado and Columbia rivers,7 leading directly to public/private competition for production and sale of power. The effort to build Grand Coulee Dam played out against the background of that bitter fight of the 1920s and 1930s.8 Congressional opposition that annually confronted funding of Grand Coulee was only one skirmish in a much larger conflict.9
The debate over Grand Coulee encompassed a number of issues. Besides public versus private power, it included reclamation and the wisdom of opening more agricultural land in a time of food surpluses. Grand Coulee construction gave New Deal opponents a chance to denounce big government spending, and it allowed Westerners a forum where they voiced resentment over the intrusion of Eastern politicians in their affairs.10 This surfaced in the Columbia Valley Authority controversy. Rufus Woods and his minions eagerly sought government money to build their agricultural/industrial empire, but resented any controls suggested by that same government.11
Robert Athearn wrote that in the twentieth century Westerners began seeing themselves as poor relatives spiritually and financially dominated by the East.12 This feeling drove reclamation promoters in the Big Bend. They wanted to build a new, autonomous agricultural/industrial empire that mimicked the humid East, but without its problems. Grand Coulee Dam, they believed, would guarantee ample water and cheap power to pay the bills while serving agriculture and industry. It would make North Central Washington residents independent and prosperous. Yet they wanted the federal taxpayer to cover the cost of that independence.
Wherever people go, they carry with them their cultural baggage.13 They want any new home to resemble the place they left. They want to replicate the familiar. But they must also accommodate themselves to different conditions. The interaction between the two forces has led to innovation and change. Reclamation is one of these accommodations - the way to re-create the wet East and mimic its agricultural/industrial setting. The price tag for creating such an artificiality has been very high both in terms of money and in environmental damage.
Men like Rufus Woods and James O'Sullivan argued that the national taxpayer should cover the costs. They believed that eventually the project would pay for itself. And it has, due to the power ratepayers throughout the region. That subsidy has hidden the astronomical price for the irrigation water. Without it there would be no Columbia Basin Project and probably no Grand Coulee Dam.
The promoters used any argument to support their cause. They talked about population growth and future needs for increased agricultural land. They emphasized power when that seemed more advantageous. They glibly added easing unemployment, flood control, recreation, navigation, conservation, and, during the Second World War, national security. When it suited their purpose, they embraced the multiple use concept, wrapping everything into one package. Their arguments have continued until the present. In 1973 William Warne wrote, "Meanwhile regional, national, and world populations are increasing. Failure to develop resources to support added numbers of people will certainly cause progressive deterioration of man's environment.14 A great deal depends on how one defines "environmental protection." It hardly means the same thing in the 1990s as it did in the 1930s and even now there is little agreement among those who advocate it.
The construction of Rock Island, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee dams began what historian Stewart H. Holbrook called the "Dam-Building-Era" in the Northwest.15 That era is over. It left the Columbia River a series of lakes, and a series of problems that may require dramatic solutions. Those dams, and the irrigation, power, and navigation they provide, have over-burdened the river, devastated fish, polluted waterways, and brought jurisdictional disputes over the finite supply of water. They represent a formidable, technological achievement, yet they have brought formidable unanticipated problems.
More than its technical accomplishment, Grand Coulee Dam represents one of the great political achievements of the century. In a troubled time when other nations chose military conquest to solve their financial and social dilemmas, the United States government turned to large public works projects. Legislators embraced a plan to irrigate one million acres of fertile land and transplant there, from devastated areas elsewhere, thousands of would-be farmers and their families. They planned new cities with industries powered by cheap electricity provided from publicly owned plants. That overdrawn and unrealistic vision did not emerge as hoped, but this should not entirely negate the fact that the government, in a difficult period, moved to fulfill positive goals. Grand Coulee, the jobs it created, and the promise it held, convinced citizens that their political system still worked. Considering the problems of the 1930s, the fact that Grand Coulee Dam stands in the Columbia River today is the most remarkable aspect of its being.
On Saturday, July 18, 1983, 5,000 people stood in the new third powerhouse. The event was the highlight of three days, from July 17 through the 19, when the old-timers celebrated the dam's first half-century and christened its newest addition. They went to picnics and dances, and they marveled at what they had started sty years before. They took pride in their accomplishment and few doubted that, despite the controversies and environmental debates, the dam was a great success.16 If limited to evaluating just creation of cheap abundant electricity, they were right.
Because Grand Coulee Dam came at a time of unusual economic circumstances and with a priority on creating jobs, few stopped to consider adverse effects. Native American interests suffered, property owners received short shrift, and the salmon did not command enough attention. Despite appreciable planning, unanticipated problems, such as downstream erosion, have plagued the dam. It is, however, unfair to judge actions of five decades ago by contemporary standards. In the 1930s Americans had less sensitivity toward the integrity of the land and limited understanding of ecosystems or their preservation. They knew that something as large as Grand Coulee Dam would significantly change the region. But few questioned that the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks, The opposition to Grand Coulee then was political and economic - not environmental. And it must be repeated that then most people saw the dams and irrigation as conservation measures that enhanced and protected the environment, a view that has been altered over the ensuing decades.
From that time, when the push to build the dam overwhelmed the opposition, the nation has moved to a place where environmentalists today no longer debate benefits versus losses. They oppose any further dam building and even consider removing some already constructed.17 Those sentiments, increased demands on the Columbia, and regional population growth are now rapidly ending the days of low-cost hydroelectric power in the Pacific Northwest. The abundance of energy that led to the development initiated during World War II precipitated today's potential shortages. The multi-use nature of Grand Coulee and other Columbia River dams, seen as progressive then and pursued so vigorously and successfully, means that today there is not enough water in the river to generate all the power, irrigate all the land, float all the ships and barges, support all the fish, carry all the sewage, cool the nuclear reactors, and provide all the recreation.18What will happen to Grand Coulee Dam in the future because of this remains problematical. The government will not tear it down, but there may never be further additions to its powerhouses. The third powerhouse at Grand Coulee ended the dam building era. Today the benefits no longer clearly outweigh the costs. The present reality dims the past triumph.
Still, Grand Coulee is an unquestioned economic success. The electricity generated there has returned over $4 billion.19 Since 1942 there has never been any doubt about the ability of the dam to pay for itself and more. The success of the Columbia River dams supported confidence, cockiness, and ultimately over-expansion. It led to the disaster of the Washington Public Power Supply System which projected construction far beyond need. The proponents of power finally did what conservatives feared in the 1920s and 1930 - they overwhelmed, or nearly overwhelmed, the market with unneeded power.
The reclamation aspect of the dam is another matter. If the explorer, Colonel Thomas William Symons, had revisited the Columbia Basin in 1982, 100 years after his report to Congress, the changes might have surprised him. Traveling east on Interstate Highway 90, he would have dropped down to the bridge at Vantage. The view from the road is spectacular, with dramatic high, brown cliffs on the east side of the wide and scenic river. Once across, Symons would continue on the Interstate, rising up a winding road until at last he emerged on the plateau several hundred feet above. There he would see a large brown sign welcoming him to the Columbia Basin Project. More impressive, he would find rolling green fields irrigated by giant central pivot sprinklers gently making circles on a landscape that before was dry and sage-brush-covered.
To the south, Symons would recognize the familiar and unchanged Frenchman Hills, but in front of them, the rich land now produces wheat and vegetables. Farther east is Moses Lake, a thriving town where Symons could find recreational facilities along the lake and the nearby Potholes Reservoir. Had Symons left the Interstate and moved south, past Othello and toward Pasco, he would pass more green fields, orchards, and vineyards. Here and there he would cross irrigation canals which carry the water that vitalizes the arid land he once described.
Symons could hardly have foreseen the roads, the canals, the fields, the cities, and the lakes. Rufus Woods, who did foresee them, and much more, might look with mixed emotions. Only half of his agricultural/industrial empire exists. World War II industrialized the West. The resulting dramatic hunger for electricity proved the need for the Columbia River dams. But it also drew that power away from North Central Washington and delivered it to established urban areas. While it solidified the public perception that Grand Coulee Dam came just in time, it killed the industrial aspect of the agricultural/industrial empire locally, although it succeeded on a wider regional level.20 The transmission system carried the electricity away and left the dam sitting in the middle of nowhere. Although the government built half of the irrigation project, the industry that followed ended up a long way away. Farmers came, but not nearly enough to provide the market that project promoters expected.21 In 1973 only 2,290 farms operated on the Columbia Basin Project. They supported far fewer than the 80,000 families or 10,000 farms predicted by early visionaries.22
That new agricultural domain is itself artificial and it exists because of heavy subsidies.23 Power ratepayers absorb the cost of irrigation and the federal government adds more benefits because it charges no interest on the money expended to build the project that has not yet been repaid.24 Yet the farmers repeatedly insist that they cannot survive on small plots and farm size has steadily increased. The more land each farmer works, the larger the individual subsidy. This also means fewer people living in the area and increased seasonal labor. The smaller the number of resident farmers, the less chance for an industrial base. Rufus Woods could hardly have predicted the outcome. His vision was flawed, but no more than others who then looked into the future.
Today Columbia Basin Project farmers see themselves as deserving the water promised long ago, and they demand that others pay the bill. They demonstrated that belief during the contract renegotiations of the 1950s and 1960s and more recently when the government built the Second Bacon Siphon and Tunnel. In 1976, Columbia Basin Development League President Roger Thieme pointed out that it was natural for the farmers to resist paying for the facilities that brought them water. "It is human nature not to spend any more than you have to," he explained.25 In a sense, the farmers exhibit the combined Physiocrat and century-old Socialist-Populist notions that the government should support their enterprise if they cannot support it themselves.
Behind the farmers, and behind the project from its inception, is a cadre of professionals, business people, and promoters. Exemplary are the Columbia Basin Irrigation League that the Spokane Chamber of Commerce sponsored in the 1920s, and the Columbia Basin Development League that now lobbies for the project. They still see development of the land as the way to lure industry and stimulate economic growth.26 In 1933, Major John S. Butler (later Colonel) expressed their hopes, desires, and underlying motives in a section of his report to the House of Representatives: The farmer as a primary producer is not necessarily the main beneficiary of irrigation development. Local retailers of every kind, banks, public utilities (both power and railroads), labor, wholesalers, jobbers, manufacturers, and the general public are to a surprising degree dependent upon agricultural production, not only because of the food produced for direct consumption and the raw materials supplied to manufacturers, but because of the general business activity which is created.27
Those business people repeatedly demonstrated their weight in Washington state politics from the 1950s through the 1970s. Without difficulty they brought Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, both nationally prominent, influential, and powerful, to their aid. With that support, they thwarted the Bureau of Reclamation and coaxed the State of Washington into helping pay recent construction costs. They succeeded in maintaining a successful farming community that, with its formidable subsidies, contributes significantly to the state's economy.28 The question is whether that contribution exceeds its hidden and apparent economic and environmental costs.
No reclamation project in American history received as much advance study and planning as the Columbia Basin Project. The Joint Investigations alone represented a Herculean undertaking. In 1973, Assistant Reclamation Commissioner William Warne, who worked with them, wrote: The farms on the 516,320 acres of land that have been irrigated on the project have made generally excellent progress. As a result of pre-planning, the project has made greater strides than has any other irrigated area in a similar period in the history of the West. The new farms are wired for electricity and telephone. Schools are conveniently available to all farm families. By and large, settlers in the Columbia Basin Project lands have escaped the austerity and drudgery of pioneers on many other reclamation projects.29
The planning, however, was not as successful as Warner indicated. Three factors contributed to its shortcomings. First, World War II drew personnel away from the Bureau of Reclamation and from the Joint Investigations. Because of this, the government did not complete the intensive geologic studies that might have foreseen later drainage difficulties. Despite the unprecedented planning, the project needed more, although it is possible that there could never have been enough.
Second, the war also postponed project development. The result was critical: World War II delayed settlement for a decade and changed the entire technological structure of United States agriculture. Large scale, low labor requirement, highly specialized, mechanized, efficient farm operating units made the family farm of tradition an outmoded, unrealistic concept. The policies governing the project (and other Bureau of Reclamation projects), however, were unresponsive to the changed post-war conditions. The inflexibility has led to several deplorable aspects as the project's development responded more to outside forces and less and less to control by planners.30
Finally, the farmers who settled the area wanted, and continue to want, subsidy without regulation, plans, or limits. From the start, by renting additional units to augment the size of their farms, they thwarted the original project goals. Through less-than-vigorous enforcement, the Bureau of Reclamation allowed the divergence.
Among the goals for the Columbia Basin Project, envisioned in the 1930s, were that it would promote the family farm and prevent the concentration of benefits in the hands of a few individuals. The maximum number of people possible would settle project lands and share the irrigation water subsidized by the power ratepayers. This was the heart of the "Planned Promised Land" concept. And it failed.
A 1974 study found that the top 5 percent of the farmers received 20 percent of the benefits. The upper 25 percent of the tenant-operators, those who both owned and rented land, received 75 percent of the benefits while the bottom 10 percent received no positive net benefits.31 Some farmers on the project prosper but the benefits are unevenly distributed.
Perhaps increased planning efforts in the post-war years might have anticipated the problems of a changing national economy. This would have allowed the government and the Bureau of Reclamation to reform the Columbia Basin Project Act of 1943. But the New Deal's commitment to planning itself was a scattered and piecemeal effort conducted on the federal and local levels. And the government moved steadily away from such efforts after 1935.32 By the end of World War II there was little government enthusiasm for planning. The shift left the Columbia Basin Project with antiquated and impractical goals even before the first water flowed in its canals. Consequently, all the participants - the Bureau of Reclamation (covertly and intermittently), the farmers, and the business people and professionals in the area - worked from the start to alter the guidelines and limits laid down so carefully by the planners. The changes that have affected, and liberalized, project restrictions came through the efforts of farmers who challenged the laws. They cajoled Congress into expanding those limits. The adjustments since 1952 resulted from farmers responding to outside forces, not continued planning.
It is fair to ask what the project might be like today had the original planners achieved their goals. It would be a collection of family farms ranging from forty to eighty acres, none of them capable of supplying their owners with a satisfactory living. The area would be a rural slum. It is for the best that this aspect of the project failed.
The lesson of the Columbia Basin Project has wider implications. Not only rapid economic transitions, but also new administrations with new priorities and different visions, affected the direction of the project. From the start, the Bureau of Reclamation and others involved recognized that irrigation of the million-plus acres would take a number of decades. Yet, in the planning they did not allow for the alterations that political, social, and economic change might require. In retrospect, long-term planning, under this country's political system, with its frequent shifts in direction and the alterations in emphasis that come with each new administration, is impossible or, at least, impractical. It is also true that any study of Western development must include Eastern politics. The two are inextricable.
The Columbia Basin does differ markedly from large irrigation projects in California. The anti-speculation legislation laid a foundation for limited ownership that, despite subsequent changes, has remained. There are no huge agribusiness enterprises. In this, the project has so far succeeded.
As viewed in the 1930s, the Columbia River seemingly held an abundance of water rather than the shortage that plagues the Southwest. The only difficulty for North Central Washington was getting that water up onto the land. The river provided the answers. From the start, backers of the Columbia Basin Project linked it directly to Grand Coulee Dam. The dam generated the power to lift the water. It also supplied the electricity that, when sold, paid for the irrigation. In the Columbia they found an abundance that solved their problem.
But this linkage, based on the myth of plenty - that the river would always have a surplus of water - led to a misunderstanding. Repeatedly, promoters claimed that the Columbia Basin Project would amortize itself and not cost the federal taxpayer anything. For thirty years, from the early 1920s through the 1950s, the Bureau of Reclamation, and project backers, like Rufus Woods and James O'Sullivan, insisted that the water would be virtually free. This gave farmers a sense of independence and caused resentment when costs rose. They feel that the power subsidy, built into the project from its inception, allows them the freedom to challenge the Bureau of Reclamation and demand that all costs be covered by the government no matter how high they might climb. They have come, with some justification, to expect something for nothing. The increasing realization that there is no excess water in the Columbia now exposes the myth of its abundance, and the financial reality, brought by shortage, haunts the project's future.
Critics may wonder whether the project was a mistake. From 1952 through 1974 the government's investment of nearly $500 million had directly benefited about 20,000 people.33 Depending on the method of calculation, those people are repaying anywhere between 5 percent and 15 percent of the total. Power ratepayers, the federal taxpayer, and taxpayers in Washington state cover the rest. The estimated cost for completing the project's irrigation aspect is now over $2 billion. Despite this, however, the answer to whether the government should have built the project at all - and now whether to expand it - depends not on the cost alone but more on the desired outcome.
If farmers, taxpayers, and power ratepayers together agree to cover all costs, no matter how high, the project is a success and it should continue. Although the price of irrigation, added to power rates, is minimal for each household, the willingness of those people to pay the bill is debatable.34 Because the government charges no interest, the subsidy is considerable, and will never be returned. The project is not and never was self-liquidating. It pays only if the government links irrigation, power, and taxes. If the project is to pay its own way and compete with other farms nationally, then it is a failure and was a mistake. None of this includes the problem of crop surpluses and the actual need for what grows there.
If everyone realized what the anal price of reclamation projects might be, it is possible that the public would object and the government would not fund them. Anthony Netboy pointed out that, consequently, Congress builds large things, like the Columbia Basin Project, piecemeal.35 Once started, despite accelerating estimates, Congress seldom, if ever, stops a project. Itis significant then, that this is exactly the approach that the Bureau is suggesting today for building the project's second half. It is recommending adding facilities in slow steps over a period of years rather than all at once.36 This would provide incremental costs that might appear more palatable to legislators than the $2 billion projected for full development. Neither this nor the full completion approach considers the possibility of high cost overruns which have consistently appeared in the recent past.
The Bureau of Reclamation - renamed the Federal Water Power Resources Service during the Carter administration and in 1981 changed back to the Bureau of Reclamation - has learned and it has evolved. It is sensitive to criticism that the private sector might do its job more efficiently.37 On the Columbia Basin Project, it realized that allowing farmers to pay construction costs directly makes them more amenable to higher charges, especially when they compare government charges with the cost of privately obtained water on adjacent lands. When the farmers build more of the delivery facilities themselves, and control operation and maintenance, they understand better the problems involved, and expect less from the government. Since the 1970s the Bureau has moved increasingly in this direction on the Columbia Basin Project. Nationally in the 1990s the agency has begun redefining its role. Under Reclamation Commissioner Dan Beard and the William Clinton administration, it hopes to become a smaller, efficient "water management bureau with a more environmental mission.38
In considering project completion, state and federal government officials must today ask difficult questions. How much are power ratepayers willing to subsidize irrigation? Is there sufficient water in the Columbia River to accommodate irrigation, power needs, fish, navigation, and recreation? What further environmental damage might extended irrigation bring? What are Native American needs and rights? Does the nation require additional farm land? What are the real long-term costs of increased irrigation, and who will pay? How much should government subsidize a few farmers producing what will perhaps become surplus crops? The key is to ask the right questions, including the tough environmental ones that are possibly unpopular.
As the Columbia Basin Project stands now, it is the result of visionaries and promoters, like Rufus Woods in Wenatchee and Spokane Chamber of Commerce members who worked for decades to irrigate the Big Bend. That it exists at all is a tribute to their persistence. It is the story of attempted planning, at least partial planning, for land use by the largest number of people. It is the tale of a successful dam that brought cheap power and industry to the greater region if not the immediate vicinity. The unexpected, combined with social, economic, and political changes, has channeled its development, sometimes in directions unintended at the outset. Despite complaints and problems, the government is not likely to tear it down. The pyramids, much smaller than the dam and so often compared with it, have lasted for millennia and Grand Coulee will undoubtedly be around for a long time too. The reality today is a project that continues to hold unrealized potential and at the same time poses difficult and unanswered questions. In answering those questions, planners must "play the ball from where it lies." At Grand Coulee and on the Columbia Basin Project, there is much yet to be done. This is a story not yet completed.
1. Richard L. Neuberger, "Man's Greatest Structure," New York Times Magazine (August 9, 1942): 14.
2. "The Columbia Basin Project is the largest single irrigation development in the history of reclamation in the United States, and probably also in the world." The irrigation network in California's Central Valley is larger, but it is not a single project. Murray A. Straus and Bernard D. Parrish, The Columbia Basin Settler: A Study of Social and Economic Resources in New Land Settlement, Bulletin 566 (Pullman: Washington Agricultural Experiment Stations Institute of Agricultural Sciences, State of Washington, May 1956), p. 1.
3. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, The Story of the Columbia Basin Project (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964), p. 5.
4. For a more detailed description of the Columbia Basin Project's physical features see the Appendix.
5. The Bureau of Reclamation accounting system has charged $497 million to irrigation, $888 million to the electric plant, and $302 million to multipurpose aspects of the project. Some features of Grand Coulee Dam itself are credited to irrigation, and some to power generation. Some costs of the pump-generator plant are charged to power generation, and some to irrigation. This system makes it difficult to determine exactly how much the irrigation features of the project actually cost because some of those charges have been attributed to multipurpose aspects such as flood control, recreation, and navigation. The changing value of the dollar further complicates the problem. (Neither here nor anywhere throughout this work have corrections been made to compensate for the changing value of the dollar.)
6. Charles Howard & Associates, Ltd., Arthur Peterson and William Beyers, Preliminary Socioeconomic Analysis: Second Half of the Columbia Basin Project (Olympia: Washington State Department of Ecology and State Printing Plant, March 1985), pp. I-9, I-14, I-16, I-18, I-19, I-21, I-23, I-28.
7. Speaking of the same phenomenon in Texas, Donald Worster wrote, "There was nothing uniquely western in [Walter Prescott] Webb's dream of the future. Essentially it amounted to a vision of replication of the East, where Texas would earnestly make the fullest use of their limited water in the pursuit of money and industrial giantism." See Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), p. 265. Worster might well have said the same about eastern Washington and the Columbia Basin.
8. Richard Lowitt, The New Deal and the West (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 152.
9. Ibid., pp. 138-152, 157.
10. See Wesley Arden Dick, "Visions of Abundance: The Public Power Crusade in the Pacific Northwest in the Era of J. D. Ross and the New Deal" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 1973), esp. pp. 5-37.
11. Tearing down some or all of the dams has been suggested. See Portland Oregonian (October 13, 1990), p. Al.
Notes for Afterword
1. Rufus Woods, The Twenty-Three Years' Battle for Grand Coulee Dam (Wenatchee: Wenatchee Daily World, 1944), p. 6.
2. Richard Lowitt, The New Deal and the West (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 152.
3. Alistair Cooke, Alistair Cooke's America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973), p. 323.
4. Phil Hamburger (?) "Notes for a Gazetter - XLIII" New Yorker 39 (October 1963): 204. C. C. Dill suffered no such attack of modesty. In his autobiography he wrote that he is "known as the Father of Grand Coulee dam." Clarence C. Dill, Where Water Falls (Spokane, Wash.: C. W. Hill, Printers, 1970), p. iv.
5. Hugh Gregory Gallagher, FDR's Splendid Deception (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1985), p. 211.
6. In saying that the private power companies had started construction, Billingsley means that they had begun preliminary investigations. See "Great Rivers of the West," Electrical West 129 (August 1962): 344-372.
7. Roy M. Robbins, Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain 1776-1936 (New York: Peter Smith, 1950), pp. 368-370, 393-396.
8. Gene Tollefson, BPA and the Struggle for Power at Cost (Portland: Bonneville Power Administration, 1987), p. 194.
9. Donald C. Swain, "The Bureau of Reclamation and the New Deal, 1933-1940," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 61 July 1970): 143.
11. Gerald Nash points out that national or regional planning was never popular in the West See Gerald D. Nash, World War II and the West: Reshaping the Economy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), p. xi.
12. Robert G. Athearn, The Mythic West in Twentieth Century America (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1986), pp. 50, 70, 109. Also see Nash, World War II and the West, p. 20.
13. William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, Under An Open Sky: Rethinking America's Western Past (New York: Norton @ Co., 1992), p. 9.
14. William E. Warne, The Bureau of Reclamation (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973), p. 16.
15. Steart H. Holbrook, The Columbia (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1956), p.323.
16. Wenatchee World (April 18, 1983), p. 8; June 27, 1983), p. 2; July 3, 1983), p. 2; July 8, 1983), p. 1; July 18, 1983), p. l.
17. Warne, The Bureau of Reclamation, p. 16; Oregonian (October 13, 1990), p. Al.
18. Kai N. Lee, Donna Lee Klemka, and Marion E. Marts, Electric Power and the Future of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980), passim.
19. Data board at Grand Coulee Information Center, June 24, 1989.
20. Lowitt, The New Deal and the West, pp. 162-163. Note that the placement of the aluminum industry during World War II depended on the availability of power and not its cost. It was not cheap power that brought in factories but simply the fact that the power existed in large blocks. The largest aluminum plant in the United States was located in Queens, Long Island because the New York City public utility systems had a surplus of power at that time. See Edwin J. Cohn Jr., Industry in the Pacific Northwest and the Location Theory (New York: King's Crown Press, Columbia University, 1954), p. 123.
21. William Ira Davisson, "The Impact of Electric Power on the Economic Development of the Pacific Northwest" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1961), p. 97. Early project planners anticipated that between 350,000 and 400,000 people would live in the project area when all of the 1,029,000 acres received irrigation. As the project stands half finished, the population today, then, should be around 175,000 to 200,000. In 1970, 65,753 people lived in the area, and that reflected an unanticipated group of workers at Hanford and their families. See Ronald Albert Weinkauf, "The Columbia Basin Project, Washington: Concept and Reality, Lessons for Public Policy" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Oregon State University, 1973), p. 161.
22. As of 1973, the 2,290 farms operated on 5,700 units. The units were established when the project was laid out in the late 1940s. Many units have been combined to make single farms, either through direct consolidation or through renting. The presence of the military during and since World War II at Moses Lake and at Hanford has made it impossible to assess exactly the demographic effect of the Columbia Basin Project. See Bureau of Reclamation, Columbia Basin Project Data Sheet, 1973; Weinkauf, "The Columbia Basin Project, Washington," p. 92.
23. Subsidy is a theme that appears to run through Western history. Robert Athearn, in his book The Mythic West in Twentieth- Century America, p. 206, quotes historian Joe Franz as stating that the West is the "child of subsidy." Patricia Limerick also comments on the role of subsidy in building the West. See Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1987), pp. 78- 96.
24. In their study on the Bureau of Reclamation in 1973, a Ralph Nader group reported that without electric power and industrial water benefits, very few reclamation projects would be economically feasible. See Richard L. Berkman and W. Kip Viscusi, Damming the West: Ralph Nader's Study Group Report on the Bureau of Reclamation (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1973), p. 90.
25. Oregonian (June 24, 1976), p. B7.
26. In their study on the Bureau of Reclamation in 1973, a Ralph Nader group reported that reclamation projects have generally been built for special interest groups, and not for the general welfare of the nation. They also concluded that Native Americans are used to help get appropriations passed for reclamation but are almost always left out or receive only token aid. See Berkman and Viscusi, Damming the West, p. 151.
27. United States House of Representatives, Columbia River and Minor Tributaries House Document No. 103, 73rd Congress, 1st Session (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933), pp. 537-538. In the same government document, Secretary of Agriculture Arthur M. Hyde is represented by a long letter in which he points out that only businessmen will benefit from the project. See pp. 538-544. The section quoted here also appears in Cornelis Walterus Johannes Maria Crossmit, "An Analysis of Social Over-head Capital Expenditures on the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, 1950-1970" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Washington State University, 1973), p. 25.
28. In 1980 farmers on the Columbia Basin Project grew seventy different crops on 514,390 acres for a value of $275.1 million. That represented 13.5 per-cent of the total crop valuation for the state of Washington. See Herbert R. Hinman, M. Anthony Wright, and Gayle S. Willett, 1982 Crop Enterprise Budgets for the Columbia Basin, Washington, Extension Bulletin 1019, College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Division (Pullman: Washington State University, January 1982), p. l
29. Warne, The Bureau of Reclamation, p. 139. Also see, Oregonian June 24, 1976), p. B7
30. Weinkauf, The Columbia Basin Project, Washington: Concept and Reality, Lessons for Public Policy, p. 172.
31. Craig Lynn Infanger, "Income Distributional Consequences of Publicly Pro-vided Irrigation: The Columbia Basin Project" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Washington State University, 1974), p. 131. Infanger stated flatly that the income redistribution pattern was not in favor of the poor, pp. 141, vi. For a similar conclusion, see Yahaya Doka, "Policy Objectives, Land Tenure, and Settlement Performance: Implications for Equity and Economic Efficiency in the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Washington State University, 1979), p. 132.
32. 0tis L. Graham Jr., Toward A Planned Society: From Roosevelt to Nixon (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 67.
33. Total investment in the irrigation aspect of the project in 1986 was tabulated by the Bureau of Reclamation to be $496 million. The 20,000 people include actual farm operators, people who both owned and rented land at the same time, and those who owned land but did not farm it themselves. See Infanger, "Income Distributional Consequences of Publicly Provided Irrigation," p. 75.
34. For a discussion of the costs involved, see CH2M Hill, Draft Environmental Impact Statement: Continued Development of the Columbia Basin Project, Washington (Boise, Ida.: Bureau of Reclamation, September 1989), p. III-78-81. For a full evaluation of the cost, the cost potential of the power lost because of water removed for irrigation, plus the direct subsidy to irrigation costs, must be computed. Should the project be completed, the CH2M Hill study estimates that for Public Utility District ratepayers in the project area the average rate increase could reach $15.65 per household.
35. Anthony Netboy, The Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Trout: Their Fight for Survival (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980), p. 87.
36. Draft Environmental Impact Statement: Continued Development of the Columbia Basin Project, Washington, pp. viii, II-1-30. Craig Infanger points out that efforts like the Columbia Basin Project, built over many years, and financed piecemeal, result in taking money from one generation and giving it to succeeding generations. See Infanger, "Income Distributional Consequences of Publicly Provided Irrigation, p. 120.
37. Eric Ernest Elder, "Economic Impacts of Irrigation Development in Washington" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Washington State University, 1985), p. l.
38. Oregonian (November 2, 1993), p. A10; "Interior Reorganizes Bureau," X Press Information Services, Ltd., April 13, 1994.