See L. V. Downs, The Mightiest of Them All (rev. ed. 1993); P. C. Pitzer, Grand Coulee (1995).
The reservoir is called Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake, named after the United States President who presided over the completion of the dam. The foundation was built by the MWAK Company, a joint effort of several contractors united for this purpose. Consolidated Builders Incorporated, including industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, completed the dam. The United States Bureau of Reclamation supervised the contractors and operates the dam. Folk singer Woody Guthrie was commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs about the Columbia Basin Project; the songs Roll On Columbia and Grand Coulee Dam are part of that series.
The Grand Coulee Dam is almost a mile long at 5223 feet (1586 m). The spillway is 1,650 feet(503 m) wide. At 550 feet (168 m), it is taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza; all the pyramids at Giza could fit within its base. Its hydraulic height of 380 feet (115 m) is more than twice that of Niagara Falls. There is enough concrete to build a four-foot wide, four-inch deep sidewalk twice around the equator.
By the 1930s, after thirteen years of debate and several studies, and with the Depression in full swing, Roosevelt was eager for large public works. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the dam as a Public Works Administration project, and Congress appropriated funding for the low dam. Two years, and endless political machinations. later, the authorization was changed from the low dam, to the far more expensive, and technically challenging, high dam of today.
Excavation of the site began on July 16, 1933. The initial construction plan was for a shorter dam with one partial completed powerhouse with available expansion from 6 units to 18. During construction, the design was changed to the higher specification in order to employ more people, generate more electricity, and to enlarge the irrigation capacity. Construction was completed in January 1942, soon after the U.S. entered WWII. A total of 77 men died. Its height is 1330 feet above sea level at the roadway, the reservoir height is measured when water reaches the top of the drumgates which is 1290 feet above sea level (10 feet below the roadway). The dam was designed by John L. Savage with Frank A. Banks as chief construction engineer. For several years it was the largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world.
The primary goal of irrigation was postponed as the wartime need for electricity increased. Aluminum smelting was vital to the war effort, and to airplane construction in particular. The electricity was also used to power plutonium production reactors and reprocessing facilities at the Hanford Site, which was part of the then top-secret Manhattan Project.
The dam was instrumental in the industrial development of the Pacific Northwest.
Water is pumped up 280 feet (85 m) from Lake Roosevelt to Banks Lake using twelve 14-foot-wide pipes. Pumped-storage hydroelectricity capability was incorporated into the final six pumps. During low-demand periods, water is pumped into Banks Lake, to be used later during high-demand periods. Water flow is reversed, powering generators as it falls back into Lake Roosevelt. This function is used regularly when irrigation water demand is low and electricity demand is high.
Between 1966 and 1974 the dam was expanded to add the Third Powerhouse. This involved demolishing the northeast side of the dam and building a new forebay section. The addition made the dam more than a mile long and accommodated six new generators. Original designs for the powerhouse had twelve smaller units but was changed to incorporate the largest units available. The new turbines and generators, three 600 MW and three 805 MW units, are today nearly the largest ever produced. The expansion was completed in the early eighties and made the Grand Coulee Dam once again one of the largest hydroelectric producers in the world.
The expansion of the dam also required the installation of over 20 km of oil-cooled cables. These 6" cables, made in Japan by Sumitomo Electric, are rated to a maximum potential of 525 kV and are connected to powerful pumps which circulate the oil through the cables during normal operation.
The architects of the new [Columbia] river have been nearly constant in their protestations of concern for salmon, but they have quite consciously made a choice against the conditions that produce salmon. They have wanted the river and its watershed to say electricity, lumber, cattle, and fruit and together these have translated into carp, shad, and squawfish instead of salmon. If ever a death could be unintended and overdetermined, it is the death of the wild runs of the Columbia River salmon. - Richard White