As the deepest river gorge in North America, Hells Canyon is known for its iconic scenic vistas. Each year, visitors flock to see its wide, steep canyon, marvel at the gorgeous scenery, and fish and raft on the Snake River. But did you know Hells Canyon is also home to a complex dam system?

Today, this system creates the majority of Idaho Power’s hydroelectricity. In addition to having a major impact on the area surrounding Hells Canyon today, the Hells Canyon dam system has played a pivotal role in the region’s economy and environment throughout history.

You’re in luck if you want to learn more about the fascinating Hells Canyon region. Today, we’ll take a look at the rich history of Hells Canyon’s dam system.

Early History and Indigenous Connections

Before we dive into the history of Hells Canyon’s dam system, it’s important to look at the history of the area that predates the area’s first hydroelectric dam. For Indigenous peoples such as the Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock, Northern Paiute, and Cayuse tribes, Hells Canyon was a source of sustenance and spirituality. The canyon was home to plentiful fishing areas and sacred and cultural sites for these tribes.

In 1806, the first European explorers entered the Hells Canyon region. With them came significant changes to the area. As time passed, more and more settlers came to the area, and many prospectors and miners hoped to find gold and other valuable minerals during the gold rush. These settlers and explorers had conflicts over the development of the area. However, the canyon’s remote and challenging terrain ultimately limited large-scale development in the region.

Emergence of Hydroelectric Power

Years later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people began to look toward renewable energy resources, such as power generated from river currents. In 1878, the first hydroelectric power was successfully used to power a lamp. In 1881, the world’s first hydroelectric dam opened near Niagara Falls, inspiring plans for many more hydroelectric dams throughout the US and worldwide.

In the 1930s, the US federal government began developing hydroelectric dams along the Snake River, including within Hells Canyon. By building these hydroelectric dams, the government aimed to stimulate economic growth through energy production and provide electricity to growing urban areas in the Pacific Northwest.

Construction of the Hells Canyon Project

Federal agencies such as the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation led the Hells Canyon Project. The goal was to create reservoirs for irrigation and flood control and harness the power of the Snake River to generate electricity to meet growing energy demands.

The Hells Canyon Project consisted of three hydroelectric dams—The Brownlee Dam, Oxbow Dam, and Hells Canyon Dam—built along the Snake River. Originally, the project was planned for one single high dam. However, the project was ultimately replaced with the Hells Canyon Project’s three-dam system.

The dam construction took place over the course of 10 years. It began with the Brownlee Dam, which was completed in 1958, and ended with the Hells Canyon Dam in 1967 by Idaho Power Company.

Economic Impact

Completing the Hells Canyon Dam System brought significant economic benefits to the region. The hydroelectric power the dams generated was able to fuel industrial growth, support agricultural irrigation projects, and provide electricity to communities across the Pacific Northwest.

The dam system’s reliable and renewable energy source contributed to the region’s energy independence and economic stability. Industries such as manufacturing, mining, and agriculture relied on the steady electricity supply, driving productivity and economic prosperity. However, this production and prosperity came at a cost.

The Dams’ Consequences

While the dam system brought economic opportunities, it also had profound environmental and cultural consequences. The creation of reservoirs altered the natural flow regimes of the Snake River, impacting fish migration, water quality, and natural ecosystems.

Native fish species, such as salmon and steelhead, had difficulty migrating, leading to population declines and ecological disruptions. The loss of free-flowing rivers and changes in water temperatures and sediment transport further impacted the region’s aquatic habitats and biodiversity.

The original high dam proposal was effectively blocked due to the negative ecological impact it would have had, but the three-dam system created its own problems.

The construction of the dam system also raised important questions about cultural heritage, traditional lands, and Indigenous rights. Native American tribes, including the Nez Perce, who were the first known people in the region, voiced concerns about the loss of sacred sites, fishing grounds, and cultural practices due to dam development.

Ongoing Disputes

Since the 1960s, various efforts have been attempted to protect the fish and ecology of the Hells Canyon region. However, the dam system has remained a source of discourse in Idaho since its construction.

In 2003, when Idaho Power filed to relicense the dams, American Rivers and Idaho Rivers United pushed to get the government involved. They wanted to ensure that new conservation efforts would become mandatory for Idaho Power, the dams’ owner.

Ultimately, Idaho Power signed an agreement to pay $20 million USD over the course of 20 years to improve water quality around the dams and contribute to conservation research and efforts.

The Dams Today

Today, the Hells Canyon dam system remains a battleground for the power company and the land’s Indigenous and eco-conscious populations. In 2023, Idaho Power applied to relicense the dams for the next 50 years.

As they await approval, tribes have been campaigning for the government to create stricter conservation requirements for the power company. They highlight their cultural and spiritual connection to the land and the fish who live in Snake River.

As other renewable resources become popular, like wind and solar power, there is room for the power company to lean less on the hydroelectric dams for the power they supply to Idaho. However, it is unclear what the federal government will decide concerning the future regulations of the Hells Canyon dams.

From the early days of exploration and settlement to modern-day conservation and cultural battles, the Hells Canyon dam system’s story is intertwined with the region’s history. To truly understand Hells Canyon as it is today and the region’s current political issues, we had to go back in time to take a look at the history of Hells Canyon’s dam system.

If you’re interested in experiencing this scenic, historic canyon for yourself, check out River Adventures. We offer one of the best Hells Canyon jet boat tours for getting close to the scenery and wildlife that makes the deepest canyon in North America so special.

A Look at the History of Hells Canyon’s Dam System