Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project usa final Report: November 2000


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WCD Case Study  
 
 
 
 
Grand Coulee Dam and  
the Columbia Basin Project 
USA 
 
 
 
 
Final Report: November 2000 
 
 
 
 
Prepared for the World Commission on Dams (WCD) by: 
 
 
 
Leonard Ortolano, Stanford University 
Katherine Kao Cushing, University of California, Berkeley, 
and Contributing Authors   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Secretariat of the World Commission on Dams 
P.O. Box 16002, Vlaeberg, Cape Town 8018, South Africa 
Phone: 27 21 426 4000   Fax: 27 21 426 0036
Website: 
http://www.dams.org
    E-mail: info@dams.org  

Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project 
 
i
 
 
This is a working paper prepared for the World Commission on Dams as part of its information gathering activities. The views, conclusions, 
and recommendations contained in the working paper are not to be taken to represent the views of the Commission 
 
Disclaimer 
 
This is a working paper of the World Commission on Dams - the report published herein was prepared 
for the Commission as part of its information gathering activity. The views, conclusions, and 
recommendations are not intended to represent the views of the Commission.  The Commission's 
views, conclusions, and recommendations will be set forth in the Commission's own report. 
 
Please cite this report as follows: 
Ortolano, L., Kao Cushing, K., and Contributing Authors. 2000. Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project, 
USA, case study report prepared as an input to the World Commission on Dams, Cape Town, 
www.dams.org
 
 
The WCD Knowledge Base  
 
This report is one component of the World Commission on Dams knowledge base from which the 
WCD drew to finalize its report “Dams and Development-A New Framework for Decision Making”. 
The knowledge base consists of seven case studies, two country studies, one briefing paper, seventeen 
thematic reviews of five sectors, a cross check survey of 125 dams, four regional consultations and 
nearly 1000 topic-related submissions. All the reports listed below, are available on CD-ROM or can 
be downloaded from www.dams.org 
 
Case Studies (Focal Dams) 
• 
Grand Coulee Dam, Columbia River Basin, USA 
• 
Tarbela Dam, Indus River Basin, Pakistan 
• 
Aslantas Dam, Ceyhan River Basin, Turkey 
• 
Kariba Dam, Zambezi River, Zambia/Zimbabwe 
• 
Tucurui Dam, Tocantins River, Brazil 
• 
Pak Mun Dam, Mun-Mekong River Basin, 
Thailand 
• 
Glomma and Laagen Basin, Norway 
• 
Pilot Study of the Gariep and Van der Kloof 
dams- Orange River South Africa  
 
Country Studie
• 
India 
• 
China 
Briefing Pape
• 
Russia and NIS 
countries 
Thematic Reviews 
• 
TR I.1:  Social Impact of Large Dams:  Equity and 
Distributional Issues 
• 
TR I.2:  Dams, Indigenous People and Vulnerable 
Ethnic Minorities 
• 
TR I.3:  Displacement, Resettlement, 
Rehabilitation, Reparation and 
Development 
• 
 
• 
TR II.1: Dams, Ecosystem Functions and 
Environmental Restoration 
• 
TRII.1:  Dams, Ecosystem Functions and 
Environmental Restoration 
• 
TR II.2: Dams and Global Change 
 
• 
TR III.1: Economic, Financial and Distributional 
Analysis 
• 
TR III.2: International Trends in Project Financing 
 
• 
TR IV.1: Electricity Supply and Demand 
Management Options 
• 
TR IV.2: Irrigation Options 
• 
TR IV.3: Water Supply Options 
• 
TR IV.4: Flood Control and Management Options 
• 
TR IV.5: Operation, Monitoring and 
Decommissioning of Dams 
• 
 
• 
TR V.1: Planning Approaches 
• 
TR V.2: Environmental and Social Assessment for 
Large Dams 
• 
TR V.3: River Basins – Institutional Frameworks 
and Management Options 
• 
TR V.4: Regulation, Compliance and 
Implementation 
• 
TR V.5:  Participation, Negotiation and Conflict 
Management: Large Dam Projects 
 
• 
Regional Consultations – Hanoi, Colombo, Sao Paulo and Cairo
 
 
• 
Cross-check Survey of 125 dams 

Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project 
 
ii
 
 
This is a working paper prepared for the World Commission on Dams as part of its information gathering activities. The views, conclusions, 
and recommendations contained in the working paper are not to be taken to represent the views of the Commission 
 
Acknowledgements 
 
 
The editors and contributing authors wish to thank federal agency staff from the Bureau of 
Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, and BC Hydro for assisting 
throughout the research process. In particular, we would like to thank Jim Mumford (USBR), Craig 
Sprankle (USBR), John Moody (USBR), Al Reiners (USBR), Brayton Willis (USACE), Peter Brooks 
(USACE), Ron Rodewald (BPA), John Hyde (BPA), Anthony White (BPA), Mary Algar (BC Hydro), 
Daryl Fields (BC Hydro), and Tim Newton (BC Hydro). 
 
Additionally, we are grateful to Adeline Fredin and Mike Marchand of the Colville Confederated 
Tribes and Brian Flett and Tony Atkins of the Spokane Tribe of Indians for their participation in the 
study.  
We would also like to thank Sophie Pierre and William Green, representing Canadian First Nations for 
their contribution to the case study. Thanks are also due to Josh Smienk of the Columbia Basin Trust. 
 
Other significant contributors to the report include Kathryn Utter, Mark Frigo, John Pizzimenti, Peter 
Donatek, and Stan Hayes of Harza Engineering. 
 
Finally, we are indebted to individuals representing various stakeholder groups, which included 
farmers, public utility districts, local government representatives, tribal members, and 
environmentalists, who allowed us to interview them.  
 

Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project 
 
iii
 
 
This is a working paper prepared for the World Commission on Dams as part of its information gathering activities. The views, conclusions, 
and recommendations contained in the working paper are not to be taken to represent the views of the Commission 
 
Financial and in-kind Contributors: 
 
Financial and in-kind support for the WCD process was received from 54 contributors including 
governments, international agencies, the private sector, NGOs and various foundations. According to 
the mandate of the Commission, all funds received were ‘untied’-i.e. these funds were provided with 
no conditions attached to them.  
 
 
• 
ABB 
• 
ADB - Asian Development Bank 
• 
AID - Assistance for India's Development 
• 
Atlas Copco 
• 
Australia - AusAID 
• 
Berne Declaration 
• 
British Dam Society 
• 
Canada - CIDA 
• 
Carnegie Foundation 
• 
Coyne et Bellier 
• 
C.S. Mott Foundation 
• 
Denmark - Ministry of Foreign Affairs 
• 
EDF - Electricité de France 
• 
Engevix 
• 
ENRON International 
• 
Finland - Ministry of Foreign Affairs 
• 
Germany - BMZ: Federal Ministry for Economic 
Co-operation 
• 
Goldman Environmental Foundation 
• 
GTZ - Deutsche Geschellschaft für Technische 
Zusammenarbeit 
• 
Halcrow Water 
• 
Harza Engineering 
• 
Hydro Quebec  
• 
Novib 
• 
David and Lucille Packard Foundation 
• 
Paul Rizzo and Associates 
• 
People's Republic of China 
• 
Rockefeller Brothers Foundation 
• 
Skanska 
• 
SNC Lavalin 
• 
South Africa - Ministry of Water Affairs and 
Forestry 
• 
Statkraft 
• 
Sweden - Sida  
• 
IADB - Inter-American Development Bank 
• 
Ireland - Ministry of Foreign Affairs 
• 
IUCN - The World Conservation Union 
• 
Japan - Ministry of Foreign Affairs 
• 
KfW - Kredietanstalt für Wiederaufbau 
• 
Lahmeyer International 
• 
Lotek Engineering 
• 
Manitoba Hydro 
• 
National Wildlife Federation, USA 
• 
Norplan 
• 
Norway - Ministry of Foreign Affairs 
• 
Switzerland - SDC 
• 
The Netherlands - Ministry of Foreign Affairs 
• 
The World Bank 
• 
Tractebel Engineering 
• 
United Kingdom - DFID 
• 
UNEP - United Nations Environment 
Programme 
• 
United Nations Foundation 
• 
USA Bureau of Reclamation 
• 
Voith Siemens 
• 
Worley International 
• 
WWF International 

Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project 
 
iv
 
 
This is a working paper prepared for the World Commission on Dams as part of its information gathering activities. The views, conclusions, 
and recommendations contained in the working paper are not to be taken to represent the views of the Commission 
 
Study Team 
 
Editors and principal authors:  
 
Leonard Ortolano, Stanford University and  
Katherine Kao Cushing, University of California, Berkeley 
 
Additional authors: 
 
Nicole T. Carter 
Stanford University 
 
 
Social impacts and Native Americans 
William 
Green 
 CCRITFC 
   Canadian 
First 
Nations 
Carl Gotsch 
 
Stanford University 
 
 
Irrigation and hydropower 
Kris 
May  Stanford 
University 
  Anadromous 
fish 
Tim 
Newton 
 B.C. 
Hydro 
   Columbia 
River 
Treaty 
Paul Pitzer 
 
Beaverton, Oregon 
 
 
History of decision-making 
Sophie Pierre   
Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council 
Canadian First Nations 
Josh Smienk 
 
Columbia Basin Trust   
 
Columbia River Treaty projects 
Michael Soules  
University of California, Berkeley 
Irrigation and hydropower 
Marilyn Watkins 
Watkins Historical Research 
 
Native Americans 
Harza Engineering  
Chicago, Illinois 
 
 
Hydropower and system operations 
  
Reviewers 
 
William Bennett 
University of California, Davis   
Anadromous fish 
Gordon MacNabb 
G. MacNabb & Associates 
 
Columbia River Treaty projects 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project 
 
v
 
 
This is a working paper prepared for the World Commission on Dams as part of its information gathering activities. The views, conclusions, 
and recommendations contained in the working paper are not to be taken to represent the views of the Commission 
 
Executive Summary 
 
1. THE WORLD COMMISSION ON DAMS GLOBAL CASE STUDY 
PROGRAMME 
 
This study is one of eight case studies being undertaken worldwide with a common methodology and 
approach to inform the World Commission on Dams investigation of the development effectiveness of 
large dams. This particular case study concerns Grand Coulee Dam (GCD) and the Columbia Basin 
Project (CBP), which were originally authorised as a single project but today they have come to be 
known by the two principal parts of the original project. GCD constitutes the dam and powerplant, 
Lake Roosevelt, and ancillary facilities at the dam. CBP constitutes the project to pump water from 
Lake Roosevelt to irrigate more than one million acres of land in the semi-arid region in the State of 
Washington known as the Columbia Plateau. 
 
 
2. CONTEXT AND SCOPE OF THE GRAND COULEE DAM AND 
COLUMBIA BASIN PROJECT CASE STUDY   
 
During the early 1930s, the US Army Corps of Engineers (“the Corps”) and the Bureau of Reclamation 
(“Reclamation”) each produced similar but separate plans for a dam near an enormous canyon known 
as the Grand Coulee. Each report contained a plan for pumping water from a reservoir behind the dam 
to be pumped into an equalising reservoir that would then feed a series of canals, which would then 
irrigate part of the Columbia Plateau. Each plan recognised that hydroelectric power revenues would 
have to be used to subsidise irrigation water because without a substantial subsidy, farmers would not 
be able to earn their livelihood by cultivating the semi-arid lands. The Corps recommended against 
federal implementation of their plan, in part because it was felt there was insufficient demand for 
power. In contrast, Reclamation supported federal involvement in carrying out their plan. According to 
the Commissioner of Reclamation, by the time the project was completed, the demand for power would 
be sufficient to absorb the electricity generated at GCD, and the increased population from major cities 
in the region — Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland — would provide a local market for the 
products of irrigated farms.
 
  
After the presidential election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, members of the Roosevelt 
administration decided to go ahead with a different version of the plans advocated by the Corps and 
Reclamation. Roosevelt’s principal objective in building a dam at the Grand Coulee was to make good 
on campaign promises by putting unemployed people to work building the dam. Roosevelt was also an 
advocate of public power, and he felt that inexpensive power provided by a dam at the Grand Coulee 
would curb tendencies of private utilities to charge excessively high rates for power. The version of the 
dam authorised by Roosevelt’s administrators was a low dam at the Grand Coulee that would provide 
hydropower, but not irrigation water. Roosevelt was concerned about the price of the project as 
proposed (ie, a high dam plus irrigation facilities), particularly since he had already committed to 
supporting Bonneville Dam and was troubled about investing more of the New Deal’s funding in the 
Northwest than its population warranted. Initially, the project was to be constructed by the State of 
Washington with federal funds, but GCD and CBP soon became a federal project to be built and 
operated by Reclamation. 
 
In 1935, Roosevelt’s administrators shifted their position by supporting a high dam that would provide 
both hydropower and irrigation water according to the 1932 plan developed by Reclamation. Lobbying 
for the high dam had been intense and it came from a number of quarters, including Reclamation, a 
congressional delegation from Washington, and local project supporters. Moreover, the irrigation 
components were a means of meeting Roosevelt’s goals for a planned project where farmers from other 
parts of the country could be relocated, and for an ample supply of cheap public power that could help 
reduce the high rates being charged by private utilities. Following the Roosevelt administration’s 

Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project 
 
vi
 
 
This is a working paper prepared for the World Commission on Dams as part of its information gathering activities. The views, conclusions, 
and recommendations contained in the working paper are not to be taken to represent the views of the Commission 
 
decision, a Supreme Court decision gave Congress an opportunity to authorise the dam, which it did. 
The congressional authorisation indicated that the project would be for the purpose of controlling 
floods, improving navigation, regulating stream flow, providing irrigation water for the reclamation of 
public lands and Indian reservations, and “for other beneficial uses”. The authorisation called for “the 
generation of electric energy as a means of financially aiding and assisting such undertakings”. 
 
GCD, which is a mile wide and 550ft (170m) high, is the largest producer of electricity in the US and 
the third largest producer of electricity in the world. Construction of GCD and its associated electrical 
generating facilities was carried out in two stages, separated by nearly three decades. The first stage, 
which consisted of the dam and two powerhouses, started in 1933 and was completed in 1951. The 
second stage, consisting of the “Third Powerplant,” began in the mid-1960s and was completed in 
1975. GCD has a total generating capacity of 6 809MW, and during the 1990s, gross generation in 
some years was greater then 25 billion kWh. 
 
Construction of CBP began in 1945 and was largely completed in 1955. Detailed planning for 
settlement and CBP agricultural activities was conducted under the auspices of the Columbia Basin 
Joint Investigations in the mid-1940s. Settlement of project lands began in 1949, and the last addition 
of lands to CBP occurred in 1985.  
 
Remaining sections of this report are organised as follows. Section 3 describes the projected and actual 
impacts, as well as unintended consequences, of GCD and CBP. There are eight major sub-sections 
contained within Section 3 and they discuss, in consecutive order, the following issues: irrigation, 
hydropower, flood control, recreation, ecosystem impacts, social effects on non-indigenous peoples, 
effects on Native Americans in the US, and effects on First Nations in Canada. Section 4 considers 
system-wide operations and basin-wide impacts; Section 5 examines the distribution of costs and 
benefits and provides stakeholder perspectives on the project. Section 6 examines the decision-making 
process for the construction of GCD and CBP, while Section 7 examines the evolution of policies 
affecting GCD and CBP from the time the projects were first built to the mid-1990s. Finally, Section 8 
introduces lessons learned from the case study. Below we summarise the principal findings from each 
of these sections. 
 
3. PROJECTED AND ACTUAL IMPACTS OF THE GRAND COULEE 
DAM AND COLUMBIA BASIN PROJECT 
 
Irrigation  
 
Only about half of the 1 029 000 acres (416 000ha) proposed for CBP (as of 1945) are receiving 
irrigation water because the "second half " of project lands were never developed. Although the actual 
acreage that received water is almost half of what was planned, the rate of development of irrigated 
acreage was faster than originally anticipated. 
 
Gross value of output per acre (in constant dollars) doubled from 1962 to 1992. This resulted from 
improved crop yields, the shift from traditional field crops to high-value fruits and vegetables, and farm 
size expansions that took advantage of improved farm technologies and economies of scale. CBP land 
areas devoted to wheat, potatoes and tree crops were underestimated by Columbia Basin Joint 
Investigations planners in the 1940s; those crops have been instrumental in generating substantial 
growth in the gross value of CBP agriculture. If the predicted crops had been grown in the expected 
proportions, the 530 000 acres (215 000ha) irrigated in 1992 would have produced approximately $338 
million in $1998. The actual cropping patterns resulted in a gross value of production of $637 million 
in 1998 US dollars, nearly twice as much as predicted. Average CBP farm size is about 500 acres 
(200ha), far greater then early constraints of 160 acres. Government restrictions on maximum farm size 
and actual farm sizes have both increased as a result of changes in farm technology and economics. 
 
Reclamation estimated the construction cost to bring irrigation water to 560 000 acres (227 000ha) at 

Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project 
 
vii
 
 
This is a working paper prepared for the World Commission on Dams as part of its information gathering activities. The views, conclusions, 
and recommendations contained in the working paper are not to be taken to represent the views of the Commission 
 
$1.25 billion, whereas the actual cost was $3.6 billion, nearly three times the predicted value for the 
same area. The original (1932) goal of having CBP farmers repay 50% of the cost of constructing 
irrigation works, including drainage facilities, has long since been replaced by estimates closer to 
between 10% and 15%. The subsidy to irrigators results, in part from payments made by the US 
Treasury (and in the future, to be made by Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) ratepayers) for a 
substantial portion of the total construction costs allocated to irrigation. There has been no link between 
repayment schedules and total irrigation project costs. Instead, irrigators are charged based on their 
“ability to pay”. 
 
In 1932, Reclamation envisaged substantial pumping subsidies for irrigators. Although comparisons 
depend heavily on assumptions made about rates that BPA charges its customers (which vary by type 
of customers), the predictions of the power subsidy in 1932 (ie approximately $19 million a year) are a 
reasonable approximation of the actual subsidy. However, foregone revenues from power sales are only 
one dimension of the energy-related subsidy to CBP. Another dimension involves revenues forgone 
because water that could otherwise be used to generate hydropower is diverted to irrigation. A 
conservative estimate places the annual value of these forgone revenues at $39 million. In addition, 
withdrawal of water from the Columbia River for irrigation purposes means there is less in-stream flow 
to support the river’s anadromous fisheries. Irrigation has also decreased the quality of return flows and 
groundwater aquifers. 
 
Prices of CBP irrigation water were set low as a matter of public policy. The justification for subsidies 
to irrigators was based on meeting a policy objective of fostering the growth of rural communities with 
many small family farms. However, this policy objective was only partially satisfied because of factors 
such as changing agricultural technology and economics, and unanticipated drainage costs. Originally 
estimated at about $5 million (about 60 million in $1998), drainage costs have grown to close to $130 
million (in nominal dollars; ie dollars spent in the years in which costs were incurred). Part of the 
spiralling drainage cost was absorbed by Reclamation, and (in 1962) part of the cost was shifted to 
irrigators when their repayment obligation was raised from an average of $85 ($775 in $1998) per acre 
to about $132 ($710 in $1998) per acre. 
 
Multiplier effects predicted qualitatively in 1932 have occurred, evidenced by the economic vitality of 
the CBP area. While these indirect economic benefits are important from a regional perspective, their 
significance is diminished when a national accounting stance is adopted. 
 


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