A Brief Look At: The Dams Of The Columbia River

The dams of the Columbia River have played an important role in the history of the Pacific Northwest. From British Columbia down to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River and the dams that cross it bring hydroelectric power, transportation, outdoor recreation, and wildlife to the people that live within close proximity to it’s shores. Here is a look at the dams of the Columbia River.


The Mica Dam is the most upstream dam on the Columbia River. It was completed in 1973 and is one of the largest earthfill dams in the entire world. The water backed up behind Mica Dam forms Kinbasket Lake. The dam is the first of three dams built in British Columbia as part of the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada.


Next on the way down the Columbia River is Revelstoke Dam. The dam is located just north of the community of Revelstoke. The powerhouse was completed in 1984 and the reservoir behind the dam is named Lake Revelstoke.


The third and last Columbia River dam in Canada is the Keenleyside Dam which was built in 1968 and sits just upstream of the community of Castlegar. The water backed up behind Keenleyside Dam pools in a number of locations and is referred to as Arrow Lakes. In fact, the original name of the dam was the High Arrow Dam.


Grand Coulee Dam is probably the most famous dam on the Columbia River. It was the key dam in the plan of harnessing the Columbia River for hydroelectric power. The dam was opened in 1942 after construction had begun nine years earlier in 1933. The Grand Coulee Dam is the largest concrete structure in North America. Tours of the facility are very popular, as is the laser light show that is performed on the face of the dam from late May through the end of September. The reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam is named Lake Roosevelt and stretches for 151 miles.


Chief Joseph Dam is located just upriver from Bridgeport, Washington and is America’s second largest hydroelectric power producing dam. The dam was authorized in 1946 as the Foster Creek Dam, but was renamed the Chief Joseph Dam in 1948, though construction on the dam didn’t begin until 1949. The reservoir behind the dam is known as Rufus Woods Lake.


Wells Dam is located just south of the community of Pateros. Both the Okanogan River and the Methow River flow into the Columbia River just above the Wells Dam. The dam was opened in 1967 and is a major power producer in the region. The reservoir behind the dam is named Lake Pateros.


Construction began on Rocky Reach Dam in 1956, though the location had been under consideration as a site for a hydroelectric dam since 1934. Local residents are very proud of the fact that no tax revenue was used to finance the construction of the dam, it was all paid for with revenue bonds. Because of the rising water behind the dam, the city of Entiat had to be evacuated and relocated to higher ground. The reservoir behind the dam is named Lake Entiat.


The first dam to span the Columbia River at any point was Rock Island Dam. Construction began in 1930 and the dam was finished in 1933. The dam is located just downriver from the community of Rock Island and just upriver from the resort area of Crescent Bar. The reservoir behind Rock Island Dam is known as Rock Island Pool.


Wanapum Dam, which backs up water into Lake Wanapum, is located just south of Vantage and very near the small communities of Beverly and Schawana. One of the responsibilities that the licensee of the Wanapum Dam, the Grand County PUD, is to protect over 600 archaeological sites in the vicinity of the dam that have ties to the Wanapum tribe of Native Americans.


The Priest Rapids Dam on the Columbia River is located in a rather unique spot, right between the Yakima Firing Range on the western shore and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation nearby on the eastern shore. The nearest communities to the Priest Rapids Dam are Desert Aire and Mattawa. The dam was completed in 1961 and the reservoir behind it is called Priest Rapids Lake.


Construction began on McNary Dam, just east of the town of Umatilla, Oregon, in 1947 and the dam was fully completed in 1957. The water behind the dam was known as the Umatilla Rapids before the dam flooded them and the body of water was renamed Lake Wallula. The dam itself is nearly a mile and a half long.


Lake Umatilla is made up of the water impounded behind the next dam on the Columbia River, John Day Dam. The navigational lock on the northern side of the dam is interesting in that it raises watercraft higher (110 feet) than any other navigational lock in the United States. The dam was completed in 1971 after construction was started in 1958. John Day dam is fairly remote with the closest community in Washington being Goldendale, which is more than 20 miles to the north, and the closest Oregon community is The Dalles which is nearly 30 miles west.


Less than two miles east of The Dalles is The Dalles Dam. Construction began on the dam in 1952 and it was surrounded by a great deal of controversy as when it was complete it submerged the beautiful and historically significant Celilo Falls which were located just upstream. The water built up behind the dam is called Lake Celilo and extends 24 miles upriver to John Day Dam. One of the guest speakers at the ceremony marking the opening of the dam was then Vice-President Richard Nixon.


Construction began on the Bonneville Dam in 1933 and the dam opened in 1937. This, along with Grand Coulee Dam, was one of the larger public works projects in the Pacific Northwest that was a part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The dam is one of the more unique dams on the river as it makes use of islands in the river in a way that essentially makes three separate sections of dam infrastructure. Tours of the Bonneville Dam have been popular with locals and tourists for many years.

The dams of the Columbia River are fascinating for a number of reasons. Each one is different from all of the rest, and they all have a unique history all to themselves. Some of the dams are visually impressive because of their size, while others are interesting in an engineering or architectural sense. All of them perform incredible feats on a daily basis though and enable residents, businesses, and visitors to enjoy affordable hydroelectric power, great water recreation, and even transportation.

See photos of the Columbia River dams located in North Central Washington right here at NCWpics.com in our NCW Dams Photo Gallery.