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Grand Coulee Dam, one of the largest concrete structures in the world, is an awesome sight. After decades of planning, it was built over an 8-year period, starting in 1933, as a depression relief project.
What it does
Grand Coulee is a hydroelectric dam, and part of the Columbia River Hydro System, a series of 14 dams harnessing the energy of the mighty Columbia River. Interestingly, the System is an example of the close ties between Canada and the US in this Pacific Northwest region, as it includes 3 dams above the border. Grand Coulee Dam is the largest U.S. producer of hydro-electric energy, generating 6,800 of the 35,000 megawatts of electricity generated by the System. That translates to about $500 million worth of power that is supplied to British Columbia and hundreds of towns and cities in the western states.
Grand Coulee Dam also provides water that irrigates over 500,000 acres of eastern Washington, and without which much of the farming you see would not be possible. In addition to Franklin D Roosevelt Lake, water is actually pumped out of the dam to create Banks Lake above which functions as a stabilizing reservoir and also stores irrigation water. This was quite a controversial design decision at the time, and took advantage of an existing containment area in the form of the upper Grand Coulee Canyon.
Viewing the dam
A good place to view the dam, (as well as the town and its monumental sand pile) is from "Crown Point" lookout, about two miles west out of Coulee Dam, just off WA-174. The lookout can be spotted from the town below. In terms of photo opportunities, the evening sun shows off the downstream side to its best advantage, while the morning sun bathes the upstream side.
In the open desert landscape of low rolling hills it can be hard to gain a perspective of just how large this structure is. One exercise is to look at the town, then look at the dam... the dam is a lot bigger!
The dam has its own Visitor Arrival Center overlooking the downstream dam wall. In summer there are tours of parts of the dam including a ride down the face of the dam in a glass-enclosed elevator, designed to access the powerhouses. You can make a picnic dinner of the evening laser light shows projected onto the dam wall. The are free, run for 36 minutes, include music and narration and have been updated in 2014.
Best selection of books on the Northwest.
Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream by Paul C. Pitzer and Isabel Valle. Informative book providing an in-depth look at the dam as well as the political decisions that allowed the dam to be built. Learn about the history of the dam from its first conception to modern times. Order now...
Moon Washington, 9th Edition. by Ericka Chickowski. From urban cities to rural towns, this native gives an insider's perspective on everything the Evergreen State has to offer featuring great places to eat, scenic drives and volunteer vacations. Discover Seattle's arts and culture, climbing Mt. Rainier, sleeping in a train car near Elbe and much more. Order now...
Great Places: Washington: A Recreational Guide to Washington's Public Lands and Historic Places for Birding, Hiking, Photography, Fishing, Hunting and Camping by John Kruse. The geology, animal and plant life, and history of Washington's most-storied and scenic locales, including the best local lodging and amenities are explained in this full color guide. Order now...
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