Straddling the Idaho–Oregon border and holding firm to the walls of Hells Canyon, the Hells Canyon Dam provides hydroelectric power and irrigation channels to surrounding localities. A creation of the Idaho Power Company, the concrete dam is one of three in the Hells Canyon Complex, the largest privately-owned hydroelectric power complex in the nation, whose motivations and consequences can be felt politically and ecologically.
The Hells Canyon Complex was controversial before even being built, ever since the Idaho public scrutinized the Idaho Power Company’s request to license three dams on the Snake River in 1947. During the New Deal era, public power—a method of energy administration defined in which communities owned infrastructure under local government—was the norm for hydroelectricity; while Idaho Power wanted to privately run three dams, advocates for public power in the region instead contended against Idaho Power in favor of establishing a single, high dam. After a long battle, private power won when the Federal Power Commission issued Idaho Power a license in 1955, allowing them to build a private hydroelectric complex, in turn signaling a decline of public power’s favor nationwide. Due to the Hells Canyon dam construction in the deepest gorge on the North American continent, the construction process proved difficult, and builders had to dig a twenty-three-mile access road into the Idaho side of the canyon. Along with the road, contractors set up offices, facilities, housing, and a mess hall for construction workers. In a matter of six months, the Hells Canyon Dam’s construction was complete in 1967, and it began generating electricity shortly after.
The political controversy in the postwar years about whether hydropower was something to be publicly or privately owned has roots deep in the ecological. The Hells Canyon Complex sits on the Snake River Basin, a desert ecosystem, while many of the models that public ownership advocates used were based on dams built on the Columbia River Basin, which was forested and mountainous. Because of the ecological differences inherent to these basins, people interacted differently with these water systems, and as a result, their priorities varied in what services a dam should provide. In the Columbia Basin, priority was given to energy production, while in the Snake Basin, priority was given to irrigation. This is largely due to the relationship people had with the land. In the Snake Basin, people cultivated the land for crop harvest, so they wanted the Hells Canyon Complex to have irrigation as its chief operating principle. This gave wind to Idaho Power’s licensing for the three Snake River dams; a single high dam would better serve power generation, but Idaho Power contended that the three-dam complex better served irrigation.While ecology shaped Hells Canyon Dam, the dam also reshaped the environment. By its very design, the Hells Canyon Complex has no passage for andronomous fish species, a type of fish that migrates from freshwater to the ocean in the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Limiting certain fish species’ ability to access any of the upper Snake River Basin between the complex to Shoshone Falls has dramatically reduced the species’ population and disturbed several ecosystems. This can be traced back to the general neglect of biological research before the construction of dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers.