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Kid's Tour to Mars

Grand Coulee Dam

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Concrete and Steel

An incredible feat of ingenuity and hard labor, Grand Coulee Dam is a modern wonder. The US Bureau of Reclamation began to construct Grand Coulee Dam in 1933 during the Great Depression. The project took nine years to build the initial structure and canals for irrigation of the fertile soil of the Columbia Basin. Before President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the construction, a political battle raged between building the dam here or building a 134-mile canal from Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho, to the area.

Massive Grand Coulee Dam fills the channel
Massive Grand Coulee Dam fills the channel.

Grand Coulee Dam stands 550 feet above bedrock which is about as high as the Washington Monument. The height above the water below the dam is 380 feet. The dam is 500 feet wide at the base and the total length of the dam is 5,223 feet, nearly a mile! The spillway measures 1650 feet wide bordered by the left and right powerplants.

Top of Grand Coulee DamLooking up Roosevelt Lake
Top of Grand Coulee Dam (left) and looking up Roosevelt Lake (right).

Visitor Arrival CenterThere is a Visitor Arrival Center (VAC) hosted by the US Bureau of Reclamation (photo at right) just below the dam. After the sun goes down, May through September, a narrated laser light show plays across the water spilling down the front of the dam telling the story of the project. The light is beamed up to 4,000 feet from the VAC and creates an image 300 feet high.

Huge sand pile in Coulee DamAs noted above this huge pile of sand dwarfs the town of Grand Coulee. The green area in lower center is a combination baseball diamond and football field. The sand is just a few blocks away and is part of the 38,574,503 cubic yards of material excavated during the construction. That amount of sand, clay, gravel and boulders that were removed could have built a highway 10,500 miles long. The material was taken by a mile-long conveyor belt system up 500 feet and was called the "river of dirt". Nearly 12 million cubic yards of concrete were used in building the dam. It is estimated that this is enough concrete to build a six-foot wide sidewalk clear around the Earth at the equator.

Grand Coulee Dam PowerhouseThe photo at left shows the powerhouse which was added after the initial construction. The tiny white dots in the bottom left corner are parked cars. Started in 1967, this portion took eight years to build and 757,524 cubic yards of concrete. The total electric power generated by the dam is 6,809 megawatts.

In addition to electric power generation the dam provides a source for irrigation. Water is pumped up 280 feet from Lake Roosevelt into Banks Lake reservoir. Over 500,000 acres of farmland is irrigated, more than twice the size of the state of Delaware.

When an ice dam blocked the Columbia River at this same spot Glacial Lake Columbia was formed. When the ice dam holding Glacial Lake Missoula broke, floodwaters could not get past this ice dam and flowed south creating the Grand Coulee. Banks Lake reservoir partially fills the coulee. This USBR aerial view of the area shows where the ice age floodwaters traveled to create the Grand Coulee. The USGS aerial view shows more of the area.

USBR aerial view of Grand Coulee Dam USGS aerial view of Grand Coulee Dam
Click on image for a detail view.

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Geology Terms

Here are some basic terms used in the tour. Find more geology terms in the Glossary.

A mound of gravel and sand deposited by flowing water. Bretz and other geologists identified many large bars in the Channeled Scablands.
Volcanic rock caused by partial melting of the Earth's crust.
The deepest part of a river or bay.
Channeled Scabland
Area in Washington state where huge floods made channels in a large, deep basalt flow. Named by J Harlan Bretz during the 1920's in various publications. See also Channeled Scablands.
Current Ripple
Mark left on streambed from water current usually less than an inch high and a few inches between the tops (crests) of each ripple. The giant ripples from Lake Missoula floods are as much as 35 feet high and several hundred feet between. See also Ripple Mark.
Lifting and removal of rock, dirt, sand and the like caused by wind, water, or glacial ice.
Large rock or boulder carried by water or glaciers and left behind.
A narrow, winding ridge made of gravel usually formed by streams flowing on a glacier or in a tunnel below the glacier or ice sheet.
The study of the changes in landforms due to volcanoes,
earthquakes, weather, floods, etc.
Rounded rock fragments larger than sand.
Ice Age
A period in Earth's history when much of the continents are covered with ice sheets and glaciers.
A flood created when a body of water held by a glacial dam breaks through the confining walls. The Lake Missoula Floods were jokulhlaups.
Deposits of rocks, boulders, gravel and sand (called glacial drift) left behind by glaciers as they melted. Terminal moraines are at the end of a glacier.
The period of geologic time that began about two or three million years ago and ended approximately 8,000 years ago.
Collection of sand, silt, gravel and organic material that sinks to the bottom of a river, lake or ocean. Some or all of these materials may be present.
Deposit from a glacier of unsorted rocks, boulders, gravel and sand (glacial drift).

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