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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. Thus, the government began to conceive of a great public-works project that could harness the Columbia to simultaneously irrigate agricultural lands for miles around and provide power to much of the Pacific Northwest.

On July 16, 1933, 7,000 men and women began working on the dam that the federal government, and in particular President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had championed. Of course, this was only after 22 million cubic yards of dirt had been removed from the valley in which the dam was to be built.

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Video: Grand Coulee in black-and-white
CNET's Daniel Terdiman found some up-to-date happenings at the historic dam in Washington. Here's an old-fashioned look at it.

And when we talk about the Grand Coulee Dam being the largest concrete construction in American history, we're not just talking about a truck or two filled with bags of concrete. The dam required the use of 12 million cubic yards of the building material.

Initially, the power produced by the dam went to communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. But when World War II broke out, Roosevelt demanded the construction of 60,000 fighter planes for the war effort. So the dam was converted to powering the manufacture of huge amounts of aluminum for the planes.

Meanwhile, the dam is a central part of the Columbia Basin Project and the Federal Columbia River Power System, which provides power to Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and even Nevada.

As such, the basin project is about half complete and is expected to provide the ability to irrigate 1.1 million acres of land by the middle of the 21st century and to pump 1 billion gallons a day.

Currently, the dam provides irrigation via the Columbia and 300 miles of canals and 3,000 miles of irrigation ditches to half a million acres of land, and the resulting crops are worth half a billion dollars a year.

All told, in fact, the Columbia River stretches 1,200 miles from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, and descends 2,600 feet in the process.

And that descent is what makes the Columbia the "mightiest" in the U.S., according to the laser show story. It's the power provided by running the water through the generators that creates the giant amount of hydroelectric power.

But such immense utility came at a staggering cost.

Upon the construction and completion of the dam, 12 communities, many belonging to tribal reservations, were flooded out or relocated. And with the flooding, which hit anything in the path of the river below 1,310 feet, came a brutal hit to the local salmon populations. Even today, the salmon have not fully returned.

At the visitor center, there is a section devoted to the uprooting of the Spokane and Colville tribes, and it is sobering to be reminded of the human cost paid for a project that benefited so many.

On one sign on display in the visitor center, that reminder is made very clear.

"Sometimes even now, I find a lonely spot where the river still runs wild," the sign quotes Spokane tribe member Alex Sherwood as having said. "I find myself talking to it. I might ask, 'River, do you remember how it used to be--the game, the fish, the pure water, the roar of the falls, boats, canoes, fishing platforms? You fed and took care of our people then. For thousands of years, we walked your banks and used your waters.'...Sometimes I stand and shout, 'River, do you remember us?'"

"Up next: Technology, or the lack thereof, in baseball's minor leagues."