The Bonneville Dam

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Information about the Bonneville Dam in Oregon

Submitted: September 16, 2013

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Submitted: September 16, 2013



The Bonneville Dam

Once a month, every month, I drive past the Bonneville Dam on my way to see my brother. It’s almost majestic, in a very mechanical way. The dam manages to harness the power of nature, and as I watch the water gushing its way out I am amazed by its strength. Almost more amazing is the fact that it takes over 150 people per year to operate and maintain the dam. This includes engineers, powerhouse and lock operators, office administrators, skilled laborers, warehouse workers, biologists, and park rangers. (America's Byways)

The Bonneville Dam is located about 40 miles east of Portland, near Cascade Locks, Oregon and North Bonneville, Washington (US Army). It is the lowest in the series on the Colombia. The Bonneville Lock and Dam connects Washington and Oregon. It also acts as a National Historic Landmark (America's Byways).

The Bonneville Dam was started in 1934, as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Dams had been considered before this to help with flood control, irrigation, and power generation, but until Roosevelt's administration, no action was taken (Online Highways). The project's first powerhouse, spillway, and navigation lock were finished in 1938. Their purpose was to improve navigation on the Columbia River and provide hydropower to the Pacific Northwest. In 1981, a second powerhouse was completed, and in 1993, a larger navigation lock was installed (US Army). The construction of the original powerhouse took three years, drawing 3,000 workers, and requiring the elevation of the highways and railway lines along the river (Online Highways). In 1987, portions of the Bonneville Lock and Dam Project were declared a National Historic Landmark as a public works administration project of President Roosevelt's New Deal (US Army).

The main purpose of the Bonneville Dam is the production of electricity. The dam produces this energy using a process called hydropower generation in which the moving water strikes turbine blades, turning them like a propeller. The turning turbine spins electromagnets on the rotor which generates an electric current in the coils of copper in the stator. The dam produces over one million kilowatts, which is enough to supply the power needs of nearly 500,000 homes. (US Army)

Unfortunately, the effects of the dam are not solely positive. The insertion of a dam can have damning consequences on the ecological environment in which it is placed. The Bonneville dam altered the river by changing the flow of water, sediment, nutrients, and biota. These changes occurred in many ways. One of the ways in which the river's natural state was altered is in the form of water contamination. Industrial and agricultural pollution can be seen damaging the river's ecology. The pesticides DDE and DDT, as well as PCB have been found in the waters of the Bonneville dam, leading to the deaths of many river species, as well as the contamination of river food supplies. (“Water Quality”)

The species that has been the most affected by the dam is the salmon. The population levels of salmon in the Pacific Northwest have decreased significantly with the addition of the Bonneville Dam. One reason is the pollution. Another is the increased temperatures of the impounded waters. It allows for heat storage to take pace, raises the temperature, and causes a high mortality rate among juvenile salmon. Most significantly however, "no one has invented a salmon restoration plan involving dams that is effective for both the salmon and the parties with lawful interests" (“Salmon…”). Although salmon ladders have attempted to resolve the issue that salmon face when they attempt to return to the natal stream they have imprinted upon, it has not be sufficient. Dams limit the areas of passage allowed to the salmon and do not permit all the salmon to make it back to their natal streams. Additionally, many salmon die on the salmon ladders that are supposed to be safe for them. (“Salmon…”)

Salmon ladders are not the only difficulty that these fish face in the midst of a dam's erection. Salmon need clear flowing water, clean gravel, and a suitable source of food. The single-thread channel effect that the Bonneville Dam uses reduces the flow of water and keeps it off of the flood plain. This eliminates mid-channel bars that are used by the salmon for protection and spawning grounds. These grounds are also lost with the increased depth, decreased temperature, and loss of sediment recruitment that occurs with peak flows and erosion. These things have been happening for years and have largely decreased the overall number of salmon in the system. (“Salmon…”)

Despite the negative aspects of the dam however, the Bonneville dam is a very important asset to the Northwest’s economy. Although not a frequently thought of aspect of a dam, it has provided a reservoir filled with tourist opportunities. Here, people are able to fish, boat, swim, and windsurf. They can also tour the Bonneville Dam, learning about the feat of engineering that created it, and observing the journeys that the salmon partake in. A bit more importantly however, the dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers have allowed for increased imports and exports. In fact, these imports and exports have been able to travel 465 miles inland. In 1997 alone, the Bonneville lock allowed nearly 11 million tons of commodities transportation upriver. (“The Economic Costs…”)

The Bonneville dam has also saved millions of dollars and countless lives from the cost of flooding. Although Bonneville was not a flood control project specifically, floods used to be a frequent occurrence in the Columbia River Basin. With the help of the Bonneville Dam, the raging waters of the Columbia have been tamed enough that other dams upriver from it, such as the John Day Dam, have been able to quell the fear of massive flooding that people in these regions have experienced. (“The Economic Costs…”)

The Bonneville Dam is a way of harnessing our natural resources in an attempt to create renewable energy, limit natural disasters, and increase revenue. Unfortunately, sometimes there are side effects to such meddlesome attempts. Hopefully, a solution exists that will help to curb these harmful occurrences while still retaining as many benefits as possible. And hopefully, it will be found soon. In the meantime, I will continue to drive past the Bonneville Dam. I will marvel at the incredible power and innovation of it. And I will mourn the scarring that nature has once again endured.



Works Cited

America's Byways. "Bonneville Lock and Dam." Bonneville Lock and Dam. US Department of Transportation, n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

"The Economic Costs and Benefits of the Bonneville Dam." The Bonneville Dam. Kenyon College, n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

"Salmon on the Columbia River." The Bonneville Dam. Kenyon College, n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

"Water Quality." The Bonneville Dam. Kenyon College, n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

Online Highways. "Bonneville Dam." Bonneville Dam. Online Highways LLC., n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

US Army. "Building Strong at Bonneville Lock and Dam." Bonneville Lock and Dam. US Army Corps of Engineers, n.d. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

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