75 Years of Renewable, Reliable and Affordable Hydropower in the Missouri River Basin

Russia’s Floating Nuclear Plant is Now Online
July 9, 2019
Electric Deregulation is Bad for Florida
July 15, 2019

Almost 75 years ago many brave servicemen were fighting and dying at the pivotal World War II battle — the Battle of the Bulge. During the carnage that ensued as Hitler’s Armies made one last attempt in Belgium to dominate Western Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Flood Control Act of 1944 on December 22, 1944.

The enactment of this landmark legislation marked the compromise reached after the President squashed the bickering between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (“Bureau”) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) over whose plan would be used to develop the great Federal Dams of the Missouri River Basin. More importantly, it marked the beginning of the flow of renewable, reliable and affordable hydropower that has served the mostly rural and even frontier communities of the Missouri River Basin so well since its inception during one of the mightiest battles of World War II.


Oahe Dam

The fact that a plan even came to fruition to develop the Missouri River Basin is an astonishing accomplishment in and of itself. To understand the development of Hydropower within the Missouri River Basin requires a knowledge of the competition between the two politically potent agencies charged with taming and cultivating the great river basins of the expansive American West.

For much of the 20th century, the Bureau and the Corps battled to control the River Basins of the West based on two different philosophies. Congress created the Bureau at the at the turn of the last century to “reclaim” the arid land of America’s 17 most western states – from Kansas to California and everything in between. This mission to irrigate the West led to the construction of two of the biggest dams in the world – Hoover Dam on the Colorado and Grand Coulee on the Columbia. These massive engineering feats became more known for the prodigious amounts of clean renewable hydropower they produced than for any other purpose for which they were also or originally intended.

Whereas the Bureau’s main purpose was to reclaim the West from its arid environment with hydropower generation as an added benefit, the Corps’ pursuit in constructing Federal dams throughout the entire U.S. was multi-faceted including flood control, navigation, recreation and hydropower development.

When it came to the development of the Missouri River Basin the Corps clearly had a bullseye on taming the mighty Missouri particularly after a bad flood that wreaked havoc on Omaha during 1943 and in the midst of World War II. The flood put Omaha Airport under eight feet of water — disabling a crucial wartime logistics station.

The undisciplined nature of the 1943 flood was too much for the commander of the Corps’ Omaha District – Colonel William Pick. In short order, he drafted and presented a plan to Congress calling for a series of dams on the main-stem (as opposed to tributaries) of the Missouri. The total cost of the Colonel’s plan was $490 million in 1944 and primarily called for flood control and navigation dams with hydropower as an afterthought.

The Bureau was totally caught off-guard by the Pick plan and rushed to complete plans for irrigated development of the Missouri that it had started under the leadership of one of its engineers — Glen Sloan — during the depression years of the 1930s. The plans were being drafted to bring the basin out of “Dust-Bowl” status, and called for projects totaling $1.26 billion ($17.9 billion in 2018 dollars).

With each agency having its supporters in Congress neither the Corps’ nor the Bureau’s plan passed and members of Congress started to envision a Tennessee Valley Authority type approach for the Basin. Given this ominous possibility — the Corps and Bureau reached a compromise where the Corps would develop dams on the main stem of the Missouri River and the Bureau would be responsible for development of its tributaries.

Today the dams of Missouri River Pick-Sloan Power program produce 2,981 megawatts of affordable and reliable hydropower (2501 MW Corps and 480 Bureau), which is marketed by the Western Area Power Administration primarily for electric cooperatives and municipal-owned utilities.

In the past Energy Fairness has discussed the importance and benefits of clean renewable large-scale hydropower to the consumer. In celebrating the 75th anniversary of the legislation that gave birth to affordable and reliable federal hydropower in the Missouri River Basin, we celebrate the benefits that this power has bestowed on so many millions of Americans.