The Economic History of the Bonneville Dam

From the early pioneer days, people dreamed of taming the turbulent waters of the Columbia River. Because the Columbia River was so temperamental by nature, farmers had no choice but to dig deep wells in order to get water for irrigation and consumption. Navigators had to portage six miles around the Cascade rapids for safety (a particular hindrance to the logging industry). Both of these factors contributed to the slow economic growth of the region . In 1929, the Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, after being consulted by the US Geologic Survey, and the Bureau of Reclamation, created a report recommending the construction of 10 dams on the Columbia River. The report included plans for irrigation, flood control, navigation, and hydro-power. It was not until Franklin Roosevelt entered office in 1933 with the hopes of resuscitating the waning US economy from its state of depression, that the Bonneville Dam project got underway. The Bonneville Dam began as a public works administration project under the National Industrial Recovery Act and was one of the many new projects included in Roosevelt's New Deal. The Pacific Northwest Regional Planning Commission (1934-1943) did extensive economic research on the Northwest and arranged a proposed power distribution plan that took into account regional economic development in the area, both for industry and residential sectors. From this, the Department of the Interior created the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) with Roy Bessey at the helm. The BPA was the main agency in charge of organizing distribution of power and became the backbone of the Pacific Northwest's economic viability where electricity was concerned.

Roosevelt's administration acted on each issue of the Bonneville's construction and development with alarming speed. After the dams generators began commercial production in 1938, high voltage lines found $3.5 million in funding through congress before the year was over. The cost of power at the onset of the dam's completion was $17.50 per kilowatt year. This rate stayed constant for 28 years. The stability of this rate was primarily caused by the BPA's administrator, Paul J. Raver who, from 1939 to 1954, aimed to "distribute Bonneville power at retail prices that reflect the lowest wholesale schedule in America." The dam presented some costly problems for some of the industries it was supplying power to. For example: The dam made it very difficult for salmon migration and to enable the fishing industry to stay afloat, the Army Corps of Engineers, the body that designed and assembled the dam, spent $7 million on the design and implementation of fish ladders to combat this problem (NW Energy Coalition , 1:20pm 10-24-98 and Springer,1976).

The Bonneville Dam is currently generating electricity for many cities and small towns through out the Northwest and provides an economically viable and efficient source of power. (Springer,1976).

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