Top Ten Public Works Projects of the Century


Editor's Note: APWA developed the Top Ten Public Works Projects of the Century Program to honor the ten most outstanding public works projects of the 20th Century that significantly affected and improved the quality of life in the United States or Canada. Our goal was to generate awareness of the positive contributions public works has made as well as to build appreciation for public works and its contributions to North America.


The APWA Reporter will highlight each of the outstanding projects through the October 2001 issue. This issue features the Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project.

The Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project

Managing Agency: Bureau of Reclamation, United States Department of the Interior Nominated by: Pacific Northwest Region, Bureau of Reclamation

The Columbia Basin Project is one of the Bureau of Reclamation's largest and most valuable multi-purpose projects. The central project is Grand Coulee Dam and its three major hydroelectric power generation plants. Containing about 12 million cubic yards of concrete, Grand Coulee Dam is one of the largest concrete structures ever built.

Power production facilities at Grand Coulee Dam are among the largest in the world; the total generating capacity is rated at 6,809 megawatts. Revenues from the sale of power generated at Grand Coulee help to repay the power investment and a portion of the irrigation investment on the Columbia Basin Project. Grand Coulee Dam is operated as part of a coordinated federal system of hydroelectric facilities, which provides 75% of the entire power supply of the Pacific Northwest. Grand Coulee Dam also provides critical ancillary services required by the power system. Grand Coulee Dam is managed to meet several related but sometimes conflicting objectives: providing adequate flood storage for control of spring runoff; maintaining probability that the reservoir will refill to meet needs for irrigation, recreation, and power generation; and providing flows and spills for fish migration. In addition, Reclamation funds a complex of three hatcheries to mitigate for lost anadromous fish runs.

Authorized under the National Industrial Recovery Act and later by the Rivers and Harbors Act, the Grand Coulee Dam and Powerplant was constructed between 1933-1942. The Columbia Basin Project Act of 1943, based on extensive studies known as the Columbia Basin Joint Investigations, authorized construction of the Columbia Basin Project, which consists of 330 miles of major distribution canals, lakes and reservoirs, and about 2,000 miles of laterals that irrigate and 670,000 acres of land. The gross value of agricultural crops was estimated in 1992 at $1,210 per acre.

The economic values of the Columbia Basin Project include irrigated crops valued at more than half a billion dollars annually, annual hydropower production of approximately $585 million, and the prevention of more than $206 million in flood damages since 1950. The Columbia Basin Project also resulted in the creation of vast acres of wetlands and riparian areas and provides recreation benefits to about four million visitors each year.

But beyond economics, this project, more than any other, made possible the development of the Pacific Northwest. Its influence spread outward to benefit all United States citizens. Construction of Grand Coulee Dam put thousands to work during the Great Depression. Grand Coulee's generators played an important role in the winning of World War II. Following the war, the Columbia Basin Project provided opportunity to returning veterans. With construction of the Third Powerplant in 1966, Grand Coulee's status as the largest hydropower generating facility in the United States was assured, and tangible benefits to Canadian residents were realized. Today's environmental challenges, including declining runs of anadromous fish species, are being addressed through an extraordinary effort of interagency cooperation.

The benefits and magnitude of the Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project uniquely qualify it as one of the crowning achievements in public works of the 20th Century.