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Public Power, Private Dams: The Hell’s Canyon High Dam Controversy

By Karl Boyd Brooks

Review By Tina Loo

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 152 Winter 2006-2007  | p. 122-4

This is a book about why something did not happen. It is not quite counter-factual history, but it is an approach that works to remind us that nothing is inevitable. In the postwar Northwest, nothing, according to Karl Boyd Brooks, seemed more inevitable than the Hell’s Canyon High Dam on the Snake River in Idaho.

A project of the United States Department of the Interior, Hell’s Canyon was designed to meet the insatiable demand for electricity. Delivered by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), another federal agency, the electricity generated by the dams on the Columbia River powered the rapid economic growth of the region in the 1930s and 1940s. From the bpa’s perspective, it seemed only logical and desirable that hydroelectric development be extended to the Snake River basin, the Columbia’s largest tributary. Damming the Snake at Hell’s Canyon would also have the added benefit of watering millions of acres of high arid land, making them cultivable. But it was not to be; instead, after a long administrative hearing, three small dams were built on the Snake by the privately held Idaho Power Company.

Karl Boyd Brooks wants to know how and why this happened. His answers bear the imprint of his background as a lawyer and Idaho state senator turned environmental historian. Public Power, Private Dams is a largely chronological rendering of the protracted battle over the Hell’s Canyon High Dam, characterized by a close attention to detail and a careful narrative style.

While the controversy pitted a variety of interest groups and personalities against each other, Brooks argues that Hell’s Canyon was the victim of a conservative backlash against the increasing federal government con trol over resources that occurred as part of the New Deal. Federal bureau crats got into the business of electricity generation in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, building the Grand Coulee Dam as a public works project. Pearl Harbor and what followed only deepened federal government involvement: the US war machine ran on electricity, and it was in the public interest that Washington centralize and coordinate it. While two crises helped expand the federal state, Americans came to view its involvement in resource development as almost natural and certainly good.

The New Deal forged a political consensus that made it possible for entire river basins and their fish to be federalized without opposition. By fusing social reform with economic benefit, the electricity generated by Grand Coulee and the Tennessee Valley Authorit y (the other great hydroelectric initiative of the time) lit the way for continued and greater federal government control in the postwar years.

Supporters of Hell’s Canyon invoked the legacy of those two projects, portraying public power as more responsive than private power to the needs of ordinary people. Only a project of this scale could meet growing consumer demand for electricity and serve the interests of irrigators. In the end, however, Idaho Power won the ideological battle, arguing that the only interests supporters of public power served were their own: Hell’s Canyon would deepen federal government control over natural resource and economic development. Despite assurances to the contrary, irrigators could find their water rights seized and agricultural interests subsumed within those of electricity. Big dams were a tool of big government, designed to take away local control.

The debate over public versus private power spilled over into the 1952 presidential election, which Brooks argues was a referendum on the New Deal and its relevance in the postwar period. Eisenhower’s victory sounded a death knell for Hell’s Canyon and signalled a fundamental shift in Washington’s role. Thereafter, the US federal government would no longer be in the business of generating power but would seek partnerships with private enterprise.

Equally important, Brooks suggests, the conservative victory in 1952 and the shelving of Hell’s Canyon in 1957 marked the beginnings of modern environmental politics. With hydro expansion slowed, but demand for electricity met, Americans had space to reflect on the assumptions underlying the debate over public versus private power and New Deal resource policy. Ecological values, marginalized in the previous thirty years of discussion, came to the fore and, eventually, would play a central role in defining public interest.

Brooks’s book should be of interest to this journal’s readers for, despite the different political and constitutional context within which his story unfolds, several aspects of the debate over public versus private power resonate in British Columbia. One of its most interesting insights regards the social, economic, and environmental effects of public power. In the Hell’s Canyon debate, Idaho Power took issue with government projections of electricity demand, suggesting that federal agencies like the BPA had a vested interest in inflating demand, raising the spectre of electricity shortages, brownouts, and slowed growth to convince citizens of the need for its ambitious program of dam-building. In the Northwest, government agencies like Bonneville Power used supply to create demand, artificially suppressing the price of electricity as a way to cultivate residential, commercial, and industrial consumers.

While economic development did occur as a result, the legacy of cheap, available electricity is much more mixed. Brooks argues that vast supplies encouraged overuse, noting that the rates of electricity consumption in the Northwest are among the highest in the United States. Private companies, he argues, would have generated elec tricity more in proportion to demand, selling it at a price that reflected the real costs of generation. Perhaps economic development in the Columbia Basin would not have been so extensive (and that might not have been a bad thing) but neither would the environmental destruction that accompanied it. Nor, moreover, would there have been a sense that cheap power was a birthright. Until the hidden costs of electricity generation are revealed, Brooks suggests, public power will continue to occupy a moral high ground it does not entirely deserve.

These are provocative arguments – and ones that are relevant within the context of the current debate about electricity supply in British Columbia. However, the emphasis on the merits of public versus private generation can oversimplify the issues now at stake. Private power may indeed have been the more environmentally sound option within the context of the existing possibilities for the Snake River in the late 1950s and 1960s. But that does not mean that it is always better. I would suggest that the issue is not so much who generates hydroelectricity as it is the kind of regulatory regime that governments – and ultimately citizens – put in place to manage that generation, whether it happens to be carried out by the state or by a privatesector provider.