The Story of the Columbia Basin Project
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Oldtimers say that years ago even jackrabbits carried a canteen to cross the Columbia Basin. In fact, they maintain, if he couldn't carry his own water supply the jack wouldn't make the trip.

Today, the same rabbit wouldn't bother about a canteen but he might carry a fishing rod or a pair of water skis, because the desert has become a boating, fishing, and water sports mecca. There are almost 500,000 acres of land and water in the project that are open to the public. Where rattlesnakes once sunned themselves, the trout fisherman now takes a limit of scrappy rainbows. Speedboats glide through blue waters 20 feet above a bottom of wind-drifted sand dunes, and children splash and paddle where lizards used to play.

Irrigation water has transformed the desert into a fertile farming region and a prime outdoor recreation and vacation land. Fishing, hunting, camping, and all types of water sports have become an important part of the life and economy of the Columbia Basin.

Corral Lake is one of the many project-created lakes which make up the majority of the more than 100 bodies of water in the Columbia Basin.

On opening day of fishing season, as many as 25,000 fishermen may turn out to try their luck in the lakes of the Columbia Basin Project area. Rainbow trout, silver trout, German browns, crappie, bass, perch, catfish, and ling are some of the fish found in project waters and in fishermen's creels.

However, fishing and water sports are not the only forms of recreation benefiting from the introduction of irrigation water to the area. Family camping has also taken a big upswing in the project. Vacationers who once saw the basin only when passing through, are now spending all or part of their annual holidays in this new sunshiny vacation land.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake provides a great many recreation areas such as this one just above Grand Coulee Dam.

The upland game bird hunter finds more game here each year and the area produces some of the best waterfowl shooting in the Northwest. It is not unusual to see 35,000 geese take off at one time from Brook Lake in the Stratford Game Reserve. A regular stop for the big geese on their way south in the fall and on their return trip in the spring, the area also attracts thousands of ducks during their annual migrations. Many thousands of these ducks and some geese have even become "natives," nesting right in the project region.

Mallards, redheads, canvasbacks, ringnecks, ruddies, gadwalls, teals, baldpates, shovelers, sprigs, bluebills, goldeneyes, and wood ducks make use of the abundant lakes, potholes, and seeps on the project. They offer unsurpassed shooting for the water fowlers who pour into the area every hunting season.

In a recent 59-day pheasant season, upland game hunters took a total of 98,750 rooster pheasants in Grant County, an area comprising roughly two- thirds of the project. There are Hungarian partridges in the lowlands, chukars in the scablands and rimrocks, and growing numbers of California and scaled quail, plus some sage hens to round out the bag.

The deer population is also increasing each year and hunters from the basin now range only short distances from home to fill their licenses. Cottontails are increasing rapidly as the amount of cover and feed increases in the irrigated lands. The native jackrabbit population fluctuates, seemingly dependent on the severity of the winters in the uplands and the nonirrigated sections where he makes his home.

But the booming recreation and sports activity of the basin cannot be solely attributed to the project's irrigation water, for in spite of the area's outstanding natural recreation potential, the cooperation of a great many agencies was needed to produce a sound, workable plan to successfully develop the area's recreation features. Working together in the planning, and still working together toward the full development of the area, are the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Soil Conservation Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the State park department, the State game department, the boards of directors for the three irrigation districts, county and municipal governments, and many other agencies.

In developing the project's recreation potential, a big advantage lay in timing. Recreation sites along lakes which had not yet come into existence were reserved for public use. Regulations were developed to prevent practices that would hurt or limit recreation in the project.

Hunters on the project's Potholes Reservoir near Moses Lake reap a harvest of waterfowl attracted by the many project waterways, seep lakes, and reservoirs.

Today the original 17 lakes in the project area have been joined by a host of new lakes. These lakes rose out of the ground as irrigation water in the area caused the water level in the soil to rise and this higher water table enlarged some of the old lakes, formed new ones, and caused still others to merge into larger bodies of water. There are now over 50,000 surface-acres of water in the Columbia Basin Project area.

As each new lake appeared it was carefully studied and a plan worked out for its development. If the water was deep enough, it was stocked with trout, mostly rainbows. Waters which were infested with rough fish were poisoned and later planted with game fish.

Since irrigation began, the planting of lakes and streams in the Columbia Basin has been stepped up to about 2-1/2 million rainbow trout and silver salmon each year. In addition, a small number of Eastern brook and German brown trout are planted annually. Plantings are not confined to fish, however, for the State game department releases about 2,600 Chinese pheasants and 600—800 chukars, quail, or red-legged partridges each year in the irrigated portions of the basin.

The principal recreational features of the Columbia Basin Project are as scattered and far flung as its irrigation waters. The National Park Service administers one of these features, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake area behind Grand Coulee Dam. This lake stretches 151 miles to the Canadian border and offers boating, fishing, swimming, all types of hunting, and scenery ranging from desert to forest and meadow to mountain. There are 34 campgrounds along the lake's shoreline, which are maintained by the Park Service. In 1963 almost 736,000 persons visited this area of water and wooded shoreline.

North of Soap Lake is the 6-mile-long Lake Lenore. Although this lake is somewhat alkaline at present, seepage from irrigation water and pumping from the lower end of the lake is gradually freshening the water. Officials believe it may become a fishing lake by 1966.

Recreation areas on Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake provide facilities for an afternoon picnic or an extended camping trip for the entire family.

Immediately north of Lake Lenore, separated only by a causeway, is Alkali Lake. Formerly highly alkaline, it has freshened since irrigation started and now offers good summer and fine winter trout fishing.

A half mile above Alkali Lake is Blue Lake. It is 3-1/2 miles long and adjoins the southern end of the Sun Lakes Park area. For several years it has been the outstanding lake in the State on opening day of the lake fishing season. On one recent opening day, more than 9,000 fishermen took more than 90,000 trout from its waters. On opening day 1962, despite blustery winds and showers, 2,000 fishermen caught 13,200 rainbow trout at Blue Lake.

The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is located in the Potholes area. This growing development includes well over 28,000 acres and provides public hunting, fishing, camping, and picnicking areas for thousands of people each year. Acres of marsh and water in the refuge are protected as nesting grounds and planted to food crops for the abundant waterfowl in the area.

From the Canadian border, which marks the upper end of Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, about 200 miles south to Pasco and covering an area up to 75 miles wide, the Columbia Basin Project has created a grand outdoor recreation area, all wrapped up in a climate of clear desert skies with mild winters and long summers and featuring a maximum of sunshine.

A recreation study conducted in 1958 in the Columbia Basin Project showed that well over a million persons took advantage of the project's recreational benefits that year and spent over $6 million in the area. Obviously the recreational aspects of the project will become even more important in the future, both to the economy and to the persons enjoying its vast outdoor playgrounds.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008