Columbia River Dams – Everything you need to know

The Columbia River has played host to a number of dams throughout its history, each of which serves an essential purpose to the many communities living along its banks.

These dams provide power, irrigation, navigation, fish passage, and flood control services. Of particular note are some of the largest dams on the river – ones with high water levels and substantial capacity for fish passage.

Here, we’ll delve into why these dams are so important and share 10 amazing facts that will help you appreciate the river even more!

Columbia River Dams

List of Dams on the Columbia River

The Columbia River is an iconic body of water that runs through the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It originates in the Canadian Rockies and flows through seven American states before crossing into the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon.

Along its course, a total of fourteen dams have been built to create hydroelectric power, control flooding, and support commercial navigation. Here is a list of the dams on the Columbia:

1. Grand Coulee Dam

Constructed in 1933, this massive dam spans the river near its source in Washington State and generates power for three states.

2. Chief Joseph Dam

Built between 1956 and 1975, this dam was named after Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe, who fought to protect the lands along the river.

3. Wells Dam

This dam is located in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and was completed in 1967. It is used primarily for flood control.

4. Rocky Reach Dam

Located near Wenatchee, Washington, this dam was built in 1961 and functions as a hydroelectric power plant.

5. Bonneville Dam

Constructed in 1938, Bonneville is the oldest dam on the Columbia and serves to generate electricity, control floods, and facilitate commercial navigation.

6. The Dalles Dam

Located near Portland, Oregon, this dam was finished in 1957 and creates power for the northwestern United States.

7. John Day Dam

Completed in 1971, this dam is located on the Middle Columbia River and is used primarily for flood control.

8. McNary Dam

Built in 1954 near Umatilla, Oregon, this dam generates power while also providing fish passage via an upstream fish ladder.

9. Ice Harbor Dam

Located in Washington, this dam was completed in 1962 and provides power while also regulating river levels for navigation.

10. Lower Granite Dam

Constructed between 1968 and 1975 near Lewiston, Idaho, this dam controls flooding and provides fish passage via a downstream fish ladder.

11. Little Goose Dam

This dam was built in 1970 near Starbuck, Washington, and is used for power generation.

12. Lower Monumental Dam

Constructed between 1967 and 1969 near Kahlotus, Washington, this dam creates hydroelectricity while also providing fish passage via an upstream fish ladder.

13. Priest Rapids Dam

Finished in 1961, this dam is located near the Tri-Cities area of Washington and creates power while also providing fish passage via an upstream fish ladder.

14. Wanapum Dam

Completed in 1964, this dam is located on the Middle Columbia River and provides power while also regulating river levels for navigation.

These fourteen dams play a vital role in the Pacific Northwest economy, providing power and regulating river levels for navigation.

They also serve to protect against flooding and provide fish passage via upstream and downstream ladders. By preserving the natural beauty of the Columbia River, these dams ensure its vitality for future generations.

Columbia River Dams Water Levels

The majestic Columbia River is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest and a key source of power and energy for residents of North America.

The hydroelectric dams dotted along its banks are critical to supplying water for irrigation, transportation, and leisure activities throughout much of Washington state and Oregon. As such, sustaining healthy water levels at these dams is essential to their successful operation.

Regrettably, due to climate change and the growing needs of cities and farms near the river, the water levels in many of these dams have been dropping drastically in recent years.

This can have a huge effect on native ecosystems and put jobs that depend on these waters at risk. It is therefore vital that quick action be taken to guarantee the proper water levels are maintained, preserving this invaluable resource for future generations.

Why Are There Dams on the Columbia River

The Columbia River is an awe-inspiring 1,200-mile-long waterway that spans seven US states and two Canadian provinces.

For centuries, it has been a primary source of sustenance for many Native American tribes, playing a vital role in their economies. In modern times, it has become an invaluable source of electricity, irrigation, and water for millions.

To manage the resources of this great river, dams have been strategically placed to regulate its flow and provide energy, irrigation, and fish passage.

These Columbia River dams are an incredible engineering feat that guarantees the judicious utilization of natural resources for many generations.

They have enabled people in the Pacific Northwest to enjoy a secure and prosperous future through their exceptional service.

Moreover, these technological marvels act as a reminder that with the right effort, we can protect our environment and make great use of our resources.

Lastly, they demonstrate how this river will continue to provide us with energy, water, and recreation for years to come.

Largest Dams on the Columbia River

The colossal Grand Coulee Dam is the most distinguished edifice on the Columbia River, built between 1933 and 1942.

It provides up to 6,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power, serving much of Central and Eastern Washington State. Secondly comes the John Day Dam in Oregon, completed in 1971 with a capacity of 1,084 megawatts.

The Bonneville Dam, constructed between 1933 and 1938, produces 810 megawatts for navigation and recreation. Chief Joseph Dam in Washington is responsible for flood control in addition to power production, while McNary Dam of Oregon also supports navigation.

Altogether these five dams generate a majority of the hydroelectricity required on the Columbia River. These formidable dams are vital to providing resources, like power and leisure activities, for the people living near or dependent on the Columbia River. Thus these structures remain paramount to the development of the region.

Columbia River Dams Fish Count

The Columbia River Dams Fish Count is a crucial resource that helps manage fish populations sustainably. This data provides insight into the abundance, distribution, and population dynamics of certain species affected by dams in this major river system.

It also serves as a baseline for monitoring changes over time, enabling scientists to examine how factors like water temperature and food availability can affect species.

Moreover, the count assists fisheries managers in regulating catch limits and harvests, ensuring that anglers can fish responsibly. Ultimately, the Columbia River Dams Fish Count is an invaluable tool for preserving the health of Pacific Northwest fish populations.

How Many Dams Are on the Columbia River and Its Tributaries?

The Columbia River, along with its tributaries which stretch from the Canadian border in British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon, is home to more than 50 massive dams.

The Grand Coulee Dam, situated in Washington state and over 550 feet tall and spanning a mile, is the largest of these structures.

It provides an abundance of clean electricity to millions daily and is hailed as one of the biggest hydroelectric power plants in the world.

Plus, dams such as The Dalles Dam in Oregon, John Day Dam in Washington, and Chief Joseph Dam in Washington provide different services including irrigation, navigation, and recreational activities.

Furthermore, many smaller dams which generate electricity for surrounding communities exist around the Columbia River, including Wanapum Dam, Bonneville Dam in Washington, and McNary Dam in Oregon.

10 Facts About the Columbia River

  1. Spanning 1,243 miles, the Columbia River is the longest river in North America’s Pacific Northwest region, beginning in British Columbia, Canada, and snaking its way south through Oregon and Washington in the U.S.
  2. Emerging from glaciers as a small stream high in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, the Columbia River steadily grows in magnitude until it reaches the Pacific.
  3. In 1792, American explorer Robert Gray christened the river by sailing into it, on a quest for a maritime passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
  4. This majestic waterway is home to more than 300 varieties of fish, from steelhead trout, salmon, and sturgeon, to bass, walleye, and shad.
  5. More dams than any other river in the world have been erected along the Columbia River, forming an expansive reservoir system that provides electricity and irrigation water, aids flood control, and offers recreational opportunities.
  6. Most notable of these is the Grand Coulee Dam – the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world – able to generate enough energy to sustain over 3 million households.
  7. The Columbia River serves as a habitat for an array of wildlife, such as bald eagles, ospreys and beavers, mink and muskrats, plus harbor seals and sea lions.
  8. It’s also been named an American Heritage River, a recognition of its cultural and natural importance.
  9. For centuries the Chinook people, Yakama Nation, and Nez Perce tribe have resided alongside this powerful river.
  10. A major draw for travelers is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area boasting spectacular views of rolling hills, deep canyons, cascading waterfalls, and lush forests. Here hikers, bikers, and boaters can discover the outstanding natural beauty of this remarkable river.


The Columbia River is an awe-inspiring spectacle that has enriched countless lives throughout history. Whether it’s embarking on an outdoor adventure or simply soaking up its majestic scenery, this remarkable waterway is sure to captivate visitors from near and far.

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