The Dalles Dam

By: William F. Willingham

SITTING ASTRIDE THE COLUMBIA RIVER on the eastern approach to the city of The Dalles, the massive, L-shaped concrete structure presents an imposing presence on the landscape. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction in February 1952 and had completed the project by May 1957. The main portion of the dam consists of a 1,380-foot concrete spillway section containing 23 radial gates, each 50 feet wide and 43 feet high. The powerhouse, expanded in 1973, has an installed generating capacity of 1.8 million kilowatts of power produced by 22 units. The 86-by-675-foot navigation lock located on the north side of the spillway section provides a maximum lift of 87.5 feet for barge traffic. The project also contains fish passage facilities costing approximately $27 million to accommodate part of the annual anadromous fish runs passing up and down the Columbia River. These fishways only partially mitigated the losses to Native Americans from the drowning of the fishery at Celilo Falls caused by the dam’s backwater.1
      The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed building The Dalles Dam in the early 1930s as part of a ten-dam comprehensive plan to develop the hydropower, flood control, navigation, and irrigation potential of the Columbia River. Congress had ordered the Corps to survey ten of the nation’s major river basins, including the Columbia River and tributaries, for their water resources development potential in 1927. The Corps’ report was completed in 1931, and Congress approved construction of Grand Coulee Dam by the Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Dam by the Corps of Engineers; it did not take action on the other recommended dams until after World War II.2
      The Corps conducted studies in the late 1940s to update the original Columbia River comprehensive development plan. The agency found that power loads had tripled between 1937 and 1946, and it projected a similar increase by 1960. The Dalles Dam would help meet that electrical power demand and, in 1950, Congress authorized its construction, primarily for hydropower and navigation. A modern navigation lock at The Dalles Dam would replace the Corps’ small, outmoded Dalles-Celilo Canal, completed in 1915. The dam would also meet the needs of the larger barge tows already accommodated by the locks and slackwater pools created downstream by Bonneville Dam and upstream by McNary Dam. As evidence of the need for navigation improvements, the Corps noted that river tonnage above Bonneville Dam had increased by 13 percent between 1937 and 1947. Tugs pushing up to five large barges each carried petroleum products upstream and agricultural and wood products downstream. The barge traffic replaced the small, shallow-draft steamboats that had previously plied the Columbia River.3
      Important economic and conservation groups challenged the advisability of constructing a dam at The Dalles, but major business, shipping, and agricultural interests lobbied Congress for a high dam that would generate power for regional industrial growth and enhance inland navigation to cheaply transport agricultural produce from the Inland Empire. The commercial and recreational salmon fishery interests and Native American tribes, on the other hand, feared the impact of The Dalles Dam on the anadromous fish runs and fought the project. Thousands of Indians fished at Celilo Falls in much the same manner as their ancestors had for generations. Under treaties negotiated with the United States in 1855, certain tribes retained the right to take fish at all their usual and accustomed places. In the end, the main concessions fishery and tribal groups gained from the Corps involved a payment of $23.5 million to compensate for lost treaty fishing rights at Celilo Falls and increased scientific research to achieve better conservation of the fish runs. The government also promised to construct a new Indian village near the Celilo site, which is in the process of being built today.4
      The continuing decline of salmon runs has resulted in the federal government listing eleven species of salmon as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In response, the Corps has attempted to aid salmon migrations by increasing spill over the dam gates, installing turbine screens, constructing elaborate bypass facilities, and transporting downstream migrants in barges. These undertakings annually run into millions of dollars. Operating The Dalles Dam in a time of diminishing salmon runs continues to be a complex task that requires the balancing of many competing interests, including tribes, agricultural and business groups, power users, and environmentalists.5

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