Grand Coulee Dam: A staggering production

At the source of power for much of the Pacific Northwest, amazement at what man can build--and sadness at the costs. Photos: A view of Grand Coulee

GRAND COULEE, Wash.--I've got a jetpack on and I'm flying around, over, under and inside the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest power generator in the United States and the largest concrete construction in the country's history.

OK, I'm not literally flying around. It's all virtual--a self-controlled digital fly-around of the dam and its various component parts that's a feature of the dam's visitor center. But for a few seconds there, I swear I could almost feel the wind in my hair.

Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam, which harnesses the immense power of the Columbia River to provide power to millions of Pacific Northwesterners and irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres of previously arid land, is truly a sight to behold.

We're not talking any puny Hoover Dam type of construction here. This is a project that contains enough concrete, or so a friendly recorded female voice in the visitor center informs me, to build a highway across the entire United States.

And as a power generator, the dam--which holds back waters from Lake Roosevelt reservoir and cycles it through three power plants--produces 20 billion kilowatt hours a year worth $950 million.

By itself, the dam's third, and most powerful, generator--which was completed in 1980, decades after the dam's 1942 opening--produces more than 60 percent of its energy output, enough to power Seattle and Portland, Ore.

I've come here as the latest stop on my Road Trip 2006 around the Pacific Northwest. So far, I've seen a number of fantastic and memorable sights: kinetic sculptures that can ford rivers; Howard Hughes' World War II-era wooden behemoth of an airplane; rain forests in Washington state's Olympic National Park; and more.

But this may be the most awesome thing I've seen, and not just because of what it can do. It is simply so big--a mile across and taller than the great Pyramid of Egypt--that it boggles the mind.

The virtual fly-over is not the only technology used to tell the story of the dam. In fact, on Sunday night, before I was able to see the dam in daylight, I arrived in front of the visitor center for the nightly 10 p.m. laser light show that's projected directly onto the monstrous public-works project.

Road Trip 2006

As about 200 spectators sat on concrete bleachers outside the visitor center, a booming voice materialized, along with some cheesy 1980s-era electronic music, as the laser show began flashing across the entire mile-long face of the dam.

"Out of chaos, I was born," the voice shouted. "I am power. I am strength. I am the River Columbia. I am life."

Indeed, the story that accompanies the laser show that tells the dam's history is from the perspective of the Columbia River, the third-largest river in the U.S.

The story begins with a brief history of the river and the Indian tribes whose lifeblood it provided.

"With the greatest respect," the voice boomed," they named me the 'Big River.'"

But as local communities began to depend on the river for the irrigation of crops on otherwise arid lands, they quickly discovered that unnaturally high levels had been born of irregular heavy rains. And when the Great Depression began, the lack of rain and lower water levels threatened local agriculture.

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