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A river of power: Seventy-five years of affordable, public hydropower

The rural Pacific Northwest of the 1920s and 1930s was a far cry from what we know today. The promise of the Oregon Trail had been good to many farm families, but many parts of the region experienced abject poverty — even during the boom time of the Roaring Twenties. When the boom went bust at the end of the decade, economic conditions became even worse.

Then came Franklin D. Roosevelt and a promise delivered in Portland during the 1932 presidential campaign. Roosevelt vowed a great federal hydroelectric project would be built on the Columbia River, providing protection against extortionate power rates by the private electric utilities dominant in the region.

The idea was a compassionate one: to bring down the barriers between the rural poor and dreams of a better life through delivery of power at cost, rather than for profit.

Today, Northwest residents reap the largest benefits from the federal hydropower system that encompasses the Pacific Northwest all the way to the crest of the Rocky Mountains in Montana.

“The value of this incredible hydropower system is the envy of the rest of the world,” said Steven Wright, Bonneville Power administrator. Wright visited the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center Dec. 17 to present a retrospective slide show on Bonneville’s first 75 years. The event was also a reception in honor of Wright, who will retire at the end of January after 12 years as administrator and 31 years as a whole with Bonneville.

Wright has given the presentation at least 20 times during Bonneville’s diamond jubilee year, but after all those years with the power marketing agency, he knows it by heart — and has lived through almost half of it. He is proud to be able to share the story with others.

“There is less and less understanding of this incredible hydropower system,” Wright said. His goal is to make sure there is broader understanding. “It’s a public system. You own it. If you don’t understand it, this tremendous opportunity could be lost forever.”

A river for the people

The story starts with the Columbia River and its major tributaries.

“It’s the fourth-largest river in North America and it’s on an incredibly steep hill,” Wright said.

He uses the Mississippi River as a comparison. From its origins near the crest of the Rockies, the Mississippi travels four times as far to reach sea level in the Gulf of Mexico as the Columbia does from the western side of that crest to reach the same level as it empties into the Pacific Ocean, meaning a much steeper river fall over its run.

“It’s an opportunity to produce lots and lots of energy,” Wright said.

Lewis and Clark recognized the inherent power of the river when they heard a great roaring long before they caught sight of the river.

“It had the power to unite people,” Wright said. Historically, the river was the reason native peoples gathered at Celilo Falls and Kettle Falls to fish, trade and celebrate.

“It was the reason people came in Conestoga wagons, Model A’s and Model T’s.”

Editor Rufus Woods of the Wenatchee World was one of the first to urge the development of hydropower dams. He recognized that the large ravine — or grand coulee — through which the Columbia poured between Grant and Okanogan counties in Washington could be the source of tremendous electrical power.

The distribution of electrical power at cost to hundreds of communities in the region promised a variety of economic benefits, as did improved navigation, irrigation and flood control.

Roosevelt made sure the largest share of system benefits were available to the people of the Pacific Northwest, Wright said. The 1937 law establishing Bonneville Power Administration promised that the hydropower would be for “the benefit of the people of the United States or the several states.”

And the people of the Northwest would pay back the massive federal investment in the hydropower system through the cost of the power they use.

An economic engine

People flocked to the Northwest for the jobs the massive projects provided. It was hard, dangerous work in an age when mules were still being used in construction. But the jobs were a lifeline during the Great Depression. They also had deeper meaning for the workers, Wright said.

The idea that the federal government would build these power giants and the people would repay the cost of the investment didn’t make a lot of sense to some people, so Bonneville Power Administration launched a publicity campaign designed to help give the public a sense of the vision and opportunity behind the investment.

As part of that campaign, they called on a politically controversial out-of-work folk singer named Woody Guthrie to write and perform songs about the virtues of the hydropower system.

Guthrie penned dozens of songs during the 30 days he worked and toured the Columbia River System including the most famous, “Roll on, Columbia,” with a line that offers the essence of the dam system philosophy: “River, while you’re ramblin’ you can do some work for me.”

That work became vital to the nation on Dec. 7, 1941, when the bombing of Pearl Harbor launched the United States into World War II. Cheap hydropower and the industrialization that followed was put to the task of mobilizing for war. Some 45,000 planes were built from Pacific Northwest aluminum, Wright said, and a quarter of the naval fleet benefitted from Northwest manufacture.

Northwest power was used in plutonium production at Hanford under the Manhattan Project, which produced nuclear bombs that hastened the end of the war.

From that beginning, the Columbia River hydropower system now numbers 31 federal hydropower projects, which provide power at cost to the region’s public utilities and a few large industries. The utilities in turn sell the power to homes, businesses and other consumers. Today, about one-third of the power consumed in the Pacific Northwest comes from Bonneville.

Reaping the benefits

The demand for cheap public power continues to grow, Wright said. That power has allowed the Pacific Northwest to enjoy energy rates much lower than the national average. It has also provided an environmental advantage.

“If it hadn’t been for the development of the federal hydropower system we would have something like 15 more coal plants here … We produce electricity with zero air emissions,” Wright said.

The energy is also an attraction to economic growth, initially drawing major manufacturers like mid-Columbia aluminum plants, and now drawing high-tech firms like Google to the region.

The federal dams also provide vital flood control. Wright points to 1948, when a devastating flood on the Columbia swept away Vanport, Oregon’s second-largest city. Today the dam system manages flood waters to prevent such devastation.

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