A Dam Obsession

I don't know why I like dams. While sometimes impressive, they are rarely beautiful, and I freely admit that my obsession with photographing dams makes little sense. My wife doesn't understand it, but show me a dam, and I will want to make a picture of it.

My interest probably dates back to my childhood. Growing up near the Clackamas River in western Oregon, my friends and I spent many a happy hour fishing for Rainbow Trout in Faraday Lake. The lake, a man-made reservoir upstream from Estacada, had a modest, but wholesome dam at its western end. I spent many hours beneath that dam: one of my father's friends worked in the powerhouse, and he had showed me where you could dig fossils out of the water-cut layers beneath the spillway. So, with rock hammer in hand, I could often be found excavating ancient leaves from the time-frozen sediment. Above me was a massive horn and red warning lights --- "Run if those ever go off," I'd been told --- that announced water was going to be released over the dam. It was a simpler time; I'm certain that the employees of the power company would quickly chase budding geologists away in this liability-conscious age.

In any event, I've always had a fondness for dams, so here is a small tribute: the dams of the Spokane River. The river originates in Idaho's Lake Coeur d'Alene, and flows 111 miles to dump into the Columbia River. En-route, it passes through six dams.

The first, the Post Falls Dam, is found nine miles downstream from Idaho's Lake Coeur d'Alene, just a few miles short of the Washington border. Built in 1908, the dam is 64 feet tall and generates 15 megawatts of electricity per year. It is also used to control the water level in Lake Coeur d'Alene, restricting the flow in the drier summer months.

Post Falls Dam
Post Falls Dam

Traveling downstream, we next come to Upriver Dam, which is just west of Millwood, adjacent to a small airport, Felts Field. Upriver Dam is unique in that it is the only one of the six dams that is not owned and operated by Avista, the local electric utility. In fact, the dam is owned by the city of Spokane, and the power it generated is used to pump water throughout the water supply system. This dam was built in 1933, replacing an older wooden dam. It generates 17 megawatts of power.

Upriver Dam
Upriver Dam

The river continues westward, eventually flowing into the Spokane city limits. It passes through Riverfront Park, in the heart of the city, and here it encounters two dams. The first, Upper Falls Dam, is more of a flow diverter than a proper dam. Water is held back by this dam to redirect water onto a southern route, that passes the convention center, carousel, and then funnels underground into a large powerhouse situated between the Spokane Falls and the Monroe Street Dam. Upper Falls Dam was built in 1922, is 35 feet tall, and its powerhouse generates 10 megawatts of electricity.

Upper Falls Dam
Upper Falls Dam

A short hike downstream brings us to the Monroe Street Dam, which is the oldest on the Spokane River, as well as the longest running hydroelectric installation in Washington. Constructed in 1890, it stands 24 feet tall, and diverts water into a hidden powerhouse, that produces 15 megawatts of annual power.

Monroe Street Dam
Monroe Street Dam

Leaving Spokane, the river flows unchecked for several miles until it reaches Nine Mile Dam. This structure was finished in 1908. It was originally built to provide electricity for 130 miles of electric train track. At this time the Spokane and Inland Empire Railway operated electric street cars in downtown Spokane. At its height, the network ran electric train out to Coeur d'Alene and as far south as Colfax and Moscow, Idaho. To supply power for his railway, Spokane businessman Jay Graves built the dam. It stands 58 feet tall and generates 26 megawatts of power. Unfortunately, Spokane no longer has an electric streetcar system, and so today the dam feeds the local power grid.

Nine Mile Dam
Nine Mile Dam

The final dam on the river, 30 miles northwest of Spokane, is Long Lake Dam. It is the largest and most impressive of the collection. Finished in 1915, it stands 213 feet tall, and its powerhouse produces 71 megawatts of electricity each year. The dam holds back the water from the 24 mile Long Lake.

Long Lake Dam
Long Lake Dam

Collectively the dams are able (depending on stream flow) to produce 154 megawatts of power each year. None of these dams are fish-friendly: the construction of Long Lake Dam ended the annual salmon migrations that once reached Spokane. On the other hand, they do produce fairly clean power, and until a better solution is devised, would seem preferable to a hydrocarbon-belching power plant of equivalent capacity. Now if we could just get those street cars and electric trains back.

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Copyright, 2016 Richard J. Goodrich