Almost from his beginning, man has been aware of the vital role of water in the production of food. It is probable that the Egyptians were the first to make extensive use of irrigation. Pictures on monuments dating back about 4,000 years show men bailing water out of the Nile to pour on to their fields.
Years later, early irrigators began building canals to carry the water to their more distant fields. In many countries, China and Italy, for example, these canals were large enough to accommodate boats and were used both as a source of water for irrigation and an artery of transportation. Machines for lifting irrigation water into the fields were developed. Most of these machines seem crude and inefficient to modern eyes, but many of them are still used in China, India, and Egypt.
In addition to streams, early irrigators used natural lakes, ponds, wells, and springs as sources of irrigation water. The next logical step was the building of small dams to save the water for the dry season, when it was needed most for the fields. Low dams or weirs have been common place during much of the history of irrigation, and storage wells or tanks are still common today in India.
The very early settlers in eastern Washington State also used water from the streams and lakes of the area to irrigate their farms and orchards be cause the rainfall was generally scarce. When Marcus Whitman arrived in southeast Washington in 1836, he found the fur traders irrigating vegetable gardens at the trading posts. He later used irrigation on a larger scale at his mission farm just east of Fort Walla Walla. The Oblate Fathers began using irrigation in the Yakima Valley in 1850, and shortly thereafter some irrigation farming was practiced in the Okanogan country to the north.
Years later this same continuing quest for water to make the land productive was the driving force behind the building of Grand Coulee Dam. The electric power potential of the proposed dam was secondary. Primarily it was the belief that water from the Columbia River would turn the desert lands of the Columbia Basin into a prosperous and productive region that was responsible for the building of Grand Coulee Dam and the huge Columbia Basin Irrigation Project.
Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008