Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) (1937)

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is a federal agency headquartered in Portland, Oregon. It delivers electric power around the Pacific Northwest, including Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and parts of Montana, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. BPA’s energy production comes from thirty-one federal hydroelectric projects on the rivers of the Columbia River Basin, anchored by the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams built during the New Deal, and several nonfederal power plants. Today, BPA provides about one-third of all electric power around the region [1].

BPA came into existence shortly after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Bonneville Project Act on August 20, 1937 (the law gave initial administration to the Secretary of War and the Chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “pending the establishment of a permanent administration”) [2]. The Public Works Administration (PWA) provided substantial funding for the project [3].

Much like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), one of the main objectives of the BPA was to provide affordable energy to Americans – to “bring down the barriers between the rural poor and dreams of a better life by providing power at the cost of production, rather than for profit” [4]. When President Roosevelt visited the site of the Bonneville Dam in 1934, in the early days of its construction, he said: “Over a year ago, when we first established the principle of commencing great public works projects in every part of the Union, I became firmly convinced that the Federal Government ought immediately to undertake the construction of the Bonneville Dam and the Grand Coulee Dam, and so we got started…the power we shall develop here is going to be power which for all time is going to be controlled by Government” [5].

Similar to the criticisms of federal initiatives today, there were those who made wild claims about the Bonneville Project Act and the BPA, warning that they would “set up all powerful authorities which would destroy State lines, take away local government” and create a totalitarian state [6]. Ironically, the BPA played a key role in America’s victory over the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. For example, defense industries powered by BPA created 750 ships, 10,000 combat airplanes, and numerous B-17 and B-29 bombers. So substantial was BPA’s contribution to the war effort that President Harry Truman later stated, “Without Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams it would have been almost impossible to win this war” [7].

The first administrator of BPA was J.D. Ross (1937-1939). Shortly afterward, Paul J. Raver took over and served longer than any other administrator in BPA’s history (1939-1954) [8]. Today, BPA is part of the US Department of Energy. Times and outlooks change, of course, and the proliferation of dams on the Columbia River system, once seen as a triumph of modern engineering, later came under criticism for its detrimental effect on the rivers, salmon and native peoples of the Northwest [9].

Sources: (1) “About Us,” Bonneville Power Administration, http://www.bpa.gov/news/AboutUs/Pages/default.aspx, accessed June 15, 2015. (2) The full text of the Bonneville Project Act can be found at http://www.usbr.gov/power/legislation/bonnevil.pdf, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (accessed June 15, 2015). (3) See, e.g., U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, http://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/Locations/ColumbiaRiver/Bonneville.aspx, accessed June 15, 2015. (4) “BPA: Celebrating 75 years of serving the Northwest,” Bonneville Power Administration, http://www.bpa.gov/news/aboutus/75thanniversary/pages/default.aspx, accessed June 15, 2015. (5) “Remarks at the Site of the Bonneville Dam, Oregon. August 3, 1934,” American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=14731, accessed June 15, 2015. (6) “[FDR] Address at Bonneville Dam, Oregon. September 28, 1937,” American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=14731, accessed June 15, 2015. (7) “BPA powered the industry that helped win World War II,” Bonneville Power Administration, http://www.bpa.gov/news/newsroom/Pages/BPA-powered-the-industry-that-helped-win-World-War-II.aspx, accessed June 15, 2015. (8) “Administrators of BPA,” Bonneville Power Administration, http://www.bpa.gov/news/AboutUs/Execs/Pages/Administrators-of-BPA.aspx, accessed June 15, 2015.  (9) Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.