In February, 1996 an estimated 3.2 billion dollars in flood damage was avoided by government agencies and non-federal hydro operators working together. The Army Corps reacted by orchestrating reservoir releases at regional dams, including Grand Coulee. This action, in concert with Canadian authorities, significantly reduced water flows into the Columbia and thus avoided a much larger disaster.
To do this without interrupting electrical service was no small task. The Grand Coulee Dam went from generating 4300 megawatts to 1300 megawatts of power. In less than six hours, the Bonneville Power Administration found about 1400 megawatts of power from other sources. In dollar terms, Bonneville spent five million dollars to purchase additional power while at the same time losing five million dollars in foregone sales.
The Willamette Valley dams, although controlling only 27 percent of the water in their Basin, were able to reduce river levels six feet at the downtown seawall in Portland, seven and one-half feet in Salem and nine feet in Eugene. In Portland, the visual result is that the river crested just two inches below the seawall. As a result, Portland escaped up to 1.1 billion dollars in estimated damages.
In short, the Northwest landscape could have looked like the Midwest flood-plains during the summer of 1993. This flood killed 50 people, made 70,000 homeless and caused 12 billion dollars of damage.
An editorial by The Oregonian highlighted both the value of this flood control plan and the on-going tension of managing the Columbia River Basin to meet the needs of many masters. The editorial remarked that:
“The recent flood is a reminder that flood control remains a central regional priority. Indeed, one can’t argue with a strategy that prevented $3.2 billion in damages, perhaps saved lives and clearly saved more fish than it killed.
“On the other hand, the Corps should not use its sterling flood-control performance last week to procrastinate on its commitments to provide enough stream flow this spring for moving endangered salmon smolt to the sea.