Which towns would be flooded by the Grand Coulee Dam if it were to break?

Tourist Attractions

By Kristy Tolley

The Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam is a large concrete gravity dam located on the Columbia River in the state of Washington, USA. It is one of the largest dams in the world and was built during the Great Depression as part of a federal program to provide jobs and boost the economy. The dam was completed in 1942 and has since been an important source of hydroelectric power and irrigation water for the region.

However, the Grand Coulee Dam is not without its risks. If the dam were to break, it could cause a catastrophic flood that could devastate the surrounding area. This article will explore the potential impact of a dam break and the measures that are in place to prevent such a disaster.

History of the Grand Coulee Dam

The idea for the Grand Coulee Dam was first proposed in the early 20th century as a way to harness the power of the Columbia River for irrigation and hydroelectric power. The project was authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1933 and construction began in 1934. The dam was built by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers and was completed in 1942.

The Grand Coulee Dam was a major engineering feat and was one of the largest construction projects of its time. It required the excavation of over 20 million cubic yards of dirt and rock and the placement of over 12 million cubic yards of concrete. The dam is over 500 feet tall and 4,000 feet long and contains three power plants that generate over 6,000 megawatts of electricity.

What would happen if the Grand Coulee Dam broke?

If the Grand Coulee Dam were to break, it could cause a catastrophic flood downstream. The breach of the dam could release a wall of water that could reach speeds of over 70 miles per hour and be up to 400 feet high in some areas. The flood could travel over 100 miles downstream, inundating towns and farmland along the way.

The impact of a dam break would be devastating. It could cause loss of life, property damage, and economic disruption on a massive scale. The potential for a dam break is a serious concern and is something that engineers and policymakers must take into consideration when managing the dam.

The danger of a catastrophic flood

The danger of a catastrophic flood is very real. There have been several instances in history where dams have failed, causing devastating floods. The most famous example is the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, where a dam failure resulted in over 2,200 deaths. More recently, in 2017, the Oroville Dam in California experienced a crisis when its spillway was damaged, leading to the evacuation of over 180,000 people.

The danger of a dam failure is not just limited to the Grand Coulee Dam. There are thousands of dams across the country that are aging and in need of repair. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the nation’s dams a grade of "D" on their infrastructure report card. This highlights the need for continued investment in dam safety and maintenance.

Towns in danger: a list of potential flooded areas

If the Grand Coulee Dam were to break, it could flood several towns and cities downstream. Some of the towns that could be affected include:

  • Grand Coulee
  • Electric City
  • Coulee Dam
  • Bridgeport
  • Pateros
  • Brewster
  • Malott
  • Okanogan
  • Omak
  • Tonasket

These towns are located along the Columbia River and its tributaries and would be directly in the path of the floodwaters. The impact on these communities would be devastating and could take years to recover from.

The impact on agriculture and economy

The impact of a dam break on the region’s agriculture and economy would be significant. The area around the Grand Coulee Dam is a major agricultural region, producing crops such as apples, cherries, and potatoes. A flood could damage or destroy crops, leading to food shortages and economic losses.

The region also relies heavily on hydroelectric power generated by the dam. A dam break could disrupt power generation and lead to power outages and economic losses. The impact on the region’s economy could be felt for years to come and would require significant investment in rebuilding and recovery efforts.

The impact on the ecology of the region

A dam break would also have a significant impact on the ecology of the region. The Columbia River is home to several species of fish, including salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon. A flood could disrupt their migration patterns and cause significant damage to their habitats. The impact of a dam break on the region’s ecosystem could be felt for years to come.

The response plan in case of a dam break

In the event of a dam break, the response plan would be similar to that of a natural disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake. Emergency services would be mobilized to evacuate residents and provide assistance. The Army Corps of Engineers would be responsible for managing the breach and trying to prevent further damage.

There are also measures in place to try and prevent a dam break from occurring in the first place. The Grand Coulee Dam is regularly inspected and maintained to ensure its safety. There are also emergency spillways that can be used to release excess water in the event of a flood.

The importance of dam safety regulations

The potential impact of a dam break highlights the importance of dam safety regulations. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is responsible for regulating the safety of dams that generate hydroelectric power. The agency ensures that dams are inspected and maintained to prevent failures.

However, there is still much work to be done to ensure the safety of the nation’s dams. Many dams are old and in need of repairs and upgrades. The government must prioritize investment in dam safety to prevent disasters like a dam break from occurring.

The future of the Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam will continue to play an important role in the region’s economy and energy infrastructure for years to come. However, it is important to ensure that the dam is maintained and upgraded to ensure its safety. The aging infrastructure of the dam will require significant investment in the coming years to ensure that it continues to provide power and irrigation for the region.

Conclusion: The need for continued vigilance

The potential impact of a dam break cannot be overstated. It is important that engineers and policymakers continue to prioritize the safety of the nation’s dams. The Grand Coulee Dam is a testament to the power of engineering and the importance of infrastructure, but it is also a reminder of the risks that come with such projects. With continued vigilance and investment in dam safety, we can ensure that the Grand Coulee Dam and other dams like it continue to serve their important role in our society.

References and further reading

  • American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021). 2021 Infrastructure Report Card. Retrieved from https://infrastructurereportcard.org/
  • Bureau of Reclamation. (2021). About Grand Coulee Dam. Retrieved from https://www.usbr.gov/pn/grandcoulee/about/index.html
  • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. (2021). Dam Safety Program. Retrieved from
  • National Park Service. (2021). Grand Coulee Dam. Retrieved from
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Kristy Tolley

Kristy Tolley, an accomplished editor at TravelAsker, boasts a rich background in travel content creation. Before TravelAsker, she led editorial efforts at Red Ventures Puerto Rico, shaping content for Platea English. Kristy's extensive two-decade career spans writing and editing travel topics, from destinations to road trips. Her passion for travel and storytelling inspire readers to embark on their own journeys.

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