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Public Power, Private Dams

The Hells Canyon High Dam Controversy

by Karl Boyd Brooks

Publication Year: 2009

Published by: University of Washington Press

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Foreword: Why So Important a Story Is So Little Known

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pp. ix-xiv

In the decade following the Second World War, the government of the United States proposed to build the world's highest dam in the nation's deepest gorge, a place called Hells Canyon on the Snake River between Idaho and Oregon. Deeper by more than a quarter mile than the Grand Canyon of Arizona, Hells Canyon was—and is—virtually unknown to most...

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pp. xv-xxi

The morning's Kansas City Star flew a banner headline about the collapse of a proposed merger between the region's two great electric utility companies. The business of making and selling electricity was changing fast. The two corporations would probably have to find new partners or other power companies would snap them up. My...

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pp. xxiii-xxv

Any work of historical scholarship owes debts too vast and numerous to be catalogued fully and accurately. This book is no exception. Its dedication salutes the two people who, more than any others, got me thinking about living in the Northwest. From my mother I learned to read. Her passion for the written word still nourishes me. My...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xxvii

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1. Introduction: Hells Canyon High Dam and the Postwar Northwest

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pp. 3-22

Both nature and people made Hells Canyon's postwar history. Fish swimming from sea to mountains and drifting back again weave two diverse watersheds, the Snake and Columbia, into the Pacific Northwest. Water flowing through Hells Canyon links the Snake Basin to the Columbia. Yet, as the twentieth century unfolded, Snake and...

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2. At Hell’s Gates

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pp. 23-38

Idaho's Seven Devils Mountains overlook Hells Canyon. Seven thousand feet below their granite ridges the Snake River rushes toward the Columbia River, 140 miles northwestward. Seen from the Seven Devils on a crisp autumn afternoon, the Snake glints silver-bright, a thin blade slicing stacks of leather-colored rock. Scattered pines and sagebrush fringe the...

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3. Nationalizing Nature: The New Deal Legacy of Snake Basin Hydropower

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pp. 39-59

Federal plans to electrify Hells Canyon originated during the New Deal. Public power's transformation of the Columbia Basin inspired activists and ordinary citizens across America to dream of pushing out hydroelectricity's frontiers. Building new federal dams became more than matters of engineering judgment and cost-benefit analysis: they...

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4. Taming Rivers and Presidents: The Hells Canyon Controversy Goes National

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pp. 60-80

Big main-stem dams and levees had gentled the Snake and Columbia rivers enough to encourage settlement along their banks. By the end of World War II, nearly sixty thousand people inhabited Vanport, Oregon, a low spot where the Willamette River swung westward into the Columbia near Portland. Oregon's second-largest city—its name coined...

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5. Planning for Permanent Control: The New Deal Legacy of Northwest Fishery Policy

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pp. 81-92

The New Deal in the Columbia Basin conditioned federal hydroelectric planners to manage fish as portable, temporary obstructions. Dams would eliminate the fish from watersheds dedicated to power production. The survivors would then be transferred to other waters where they could not impede public power's upriver...

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6. Sacrificing Hells Canyon’s Fish: Death by Committee

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pp. 93-117

Congress and President Truman feared rapid demobilization after World War II would throw thousands of northwesterners out of work. Worries about another economic slump impelled more of the federal pump priming that had built Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. Just as the New Deal did, postwar public-power dams created...

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7. Unplugging the New Deal: Hells Canyon High Dam and the Postwar Public-Power Debate

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pp. 118-139

Hells Canyon became a national controversy because the High Dam symbolized deep postwar political differences over electricity's ownership and water's social purposes. What might have been a regional scrap about the best dam to build across the Snake River fueled a wider national debate over the New Deal promise to transform...

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8. Claiming the Public Interest: Idaho Power Moves on Hells Canyon

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pp. 140-175

Planning power = hydroelectric expansion. Since 1946, federal power agencies had been trying to apply this formula in the Snake Basin. The Columbia Basin Inter-Agency Committee's 1951 Comprehensive Plan for the Development of the Natural Resources of the Northwest proclaimed, "Development must provide for maximum returns from...

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9. Privatizing Hells Canyon: Dwight Eisenhower’s Partnership with Idaho Power

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pp. 176-216

The postwar West still seemed a New Deal stronghold as the parties plotted their 1952 campaigns. Controlling the White House and Congress for two decades had entrenched the Democrats. In 1948 Harry Truman, like Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, had carried all but one state between the High Plains and Pacific. Even popular California...

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10. From Energy to Environment: The Aftermath of the Hells Canyon Controversy

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pp. 217-225

Just months after the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress ratified Idaho Power's triumph in the Hells Canyon controversy, the Eisenhower administration redefined northwestern hydropower's central issue. Speaking to managers of western state conservation agencies at their 1957 annual conference, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Ross Leffler...


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pp. 227-259


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pp. 261-274


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pp. 275-290

E-ISBN-13: 9780295989761
E-ISBN-10: 0295989769
Print-ISBN-13: 9780295989129
Print-ISBN-10: 0295989122

Publication Year: 2009