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Study Draws Lessons from Grand Coulee

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, January 14, 2000

The dam shows public input is vital
before such structures are built, the authors indicate

Washington's massive Grand Coulee Dam probably couldn't be built today, even though it generates more electricity than any other U.S. dam and irrigates 500,000 acres of farmland, the author of a new international study said Thursday.

Since Grand Coulee was completed in 1941, awareness of the environmental and social impacts of dams has increased dramatically, said Leonard Ortolano, a Stanford University professor who was lead author of the study for the World Commission on Dams.

"Virtually no studies were done on the impact on fisheries," Ortolano said. "Communities of people were excluded from the decision process."

The South Africa-based commission is spending two years and $9 million developing guidelines for the construction of new dams and the operation of existing ones throughout the world. The effort includes case studies of Grand Coulee Dam and seven other large dams around the world.

On Thursday, the commission released the first draft of the Grand Coulee study in Portland.

The authors were careful to distinguish their effort from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of the four federal dams on the lower Snake River. The corps is to make a recommendation to Congress this spring on whether the four dams should be breached to aid threatened salmon and steelhead trout populations.

The World Commission on Dams is not considering the possibility of removing 550-foot-tall Grand Coulee, one of the largest dams in the world. The authors of the report said they were not seeking to pass judgment on Grand Coulee but rather to draw lessons that could be applied elsewhere in the world.

Still, there was nervousness Thursday in Portland's Benson Hotel, where corps officials, Bonneville Power Administration executives, irrigators, tribal leaders and others gathered to hear an outline of the report's findings.

"There's a little anxiety here," said John Hyde, a hydraulics engineer for the BPA, which markets electricity generated at Grand Coulee and 28 other federal dams in the Northwest.

"They are challenging the fundamental reason for Bonneville's existence," he said. "If Grand Coulee has not been good for the Northwest, then Bonneville hasn't been good for the Northwest."

Mark Booker, a farmer from Othello, Wash., said he would monitor the study. Booker, who grows grass seed, peas, beans and other crops, said Grand Coulee had been overwhelmingly beneficial to the Northwest and the nation.

Others at the meeting said they welcomed the study.

Michael Marchand, a member of the council of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, said the dam devastated the culture and economy of the tribes because it flooded tribal fishing grounds. The dam was also built without a fish ladder, blocking salmon passage to hundreds of miles of the upper Columbia River.

"One day we were fishermen, the next day there were no fish," Marchand said. "I commend them for doing this study. It should have been done 50 years ago."

The study, which evaluates the degree to which the original goals of dam construction were met, missed or surpassed, is to be completed by August.

Jan Veltrop, an organization commissioner, said about 1,700 large dams are under construction around the world. "The question is whether similar dams should be built in developing countries," he said.

Jonathan Brinckman
Study Draws Lessons from Grand Coulee
The Oregonian, January 14, 2000

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