The Story of the Columbia Basin Project
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Long before the Washington Territory was settled, Indian tribes in the area had made use of irrigation to cultivate fields of potatoes and corn.

On the present site of Ephrata, the Kawachin Indians used irrigation to grow food, obtaining the water from a creek that ran down a canyon into the area from the west.

These same Indians, who were known too as the Moses tribe or the Columbia River Indians, had also farmed on irrigation lands at the mouth of Douglas Creek in Moses Coulee near Palisades. How long those irrigated areas were farmed is problematical, but it is known that they were in existence shortly after the beginning of the 19th century.

With the coming of the white man and his Iron Horse, attention was sharply focused on the problem of obtaining water for the land. With increasingly efficient transportation facilities, there was a mounting demand for water to increase production of agricultural products which now could reach a market.

One of the earliest attempts at irrigation in the Columbia Basin area now served by the project was a joint venture in 1898 of the Great Northern Railway and the Co-operative Irrigation Co. The plan was to bring water from Brook Lake, near Stratford, to irrigate about half a township south and east of Soap Lake, between Ephrata and Stratford.

Homesteaders who settled here at the turn of the century were forced to leave the land when their crops failed.

Before the project was finished, however, the company failed and was succeeded by the Adrian Irrigation Co., of Wenatchee. After several years of work, this company also failed to complete the project. The Stratford Irrigation Co., a cooperative organized in Spokane, was finally successful and the first water was delivered to about 1,200 acres of land in 1912. The Stratford Irrigation Co. finally failed in 1918, however, due to a combination of high pumping costs and low produce returns.

Shortly before World War I, a tract of 440 acres was planted to orchard west of Brook Lake and directly north of Stratford. Water was pumped to the land from Round Lake, 3 miles south of the orchard. The trees produced well, but the high pumping cost and a few years of low prices caused the project to fail.

Almost a section of land was planted to orchard in the Winchester area shortly after the turn of the century by a group of settlers from North Dakota. Irrigation was from deep wells drilled on the site of the orchards and pumping was done by gasoline engines. But as the trees matured, the water supply became inadequate. In a desperate attempt to make the water supply stretch, the promoters of the project finally removed every other tree, but the development had to be abandoned. For years, the area was a forest of dead trees, mute witness to another failure.

Another dream, and another failure.

And another.

Henry C. Lewis, a stockman who ran horses and cattle in the region around Moses Lake, recognized the potential water source represented by the lake, and in 1900 filed a homestead in what is now the Cascade Valley. He proved his homestead by 1906 and sold out to Charles Tichacek, a Bohemian experienced in orchard and vineyard culture. Tichacek planted about 6 acres of vineyards and 10-15 acres of orchard, which he irrigated from the lake by pumping the water with a steamplant fired with coal hauled from the railroad at Ephrata. In the next 6 years, several other small pumping plants were built along the shores of the lake as more homesteaders turned to irrigation with Moses Lake water.

In 1907, the Quincy Valley Water Users Association was formed. This organization proposed assessing its members and securing other financial help to pay for reclamation studies of the Quincy Valley. Joseph Jacobs, Seattle consulting engineer, made a study of the possibility of bringing water from Lake Wenatchee to irrigate the valley. The results were encouraging enough to prompt the association to form the Quincy Valley Irrigation District in 1910. The new district proposed that the State of Washington be bonded for $40 million to irrigate 400,000 to 500,000 acres in the Quincy Valley. But in a general election voters of the State rejected the proposal and, while the district continued to work for the adoption of the plan, there was little tangible progress in succeeding years.

A novel experiment in pumping water from the Columbia was attempted in 1907 when Willard H. Babcock, operating the land on what is now known as Babcock Ridge overlooking Trinidad, built six windmills on the side of the cliffs above the river. His intention was to pump drinking water up the hill to his cattle with the windmills, but his operation was watched by others who saw the possibility of furnishing irrigation water to the land by this method if it proved successful. It is probable that Babcock's plan would have actually worked if the pumpline had been built with a reservoir at the top of each lift so each windmill could have pumped independently. However, without these reservoirs the successful operation of the system called for pumping by all of the windmills at the same time. But the wind proved to be fickle, turning some of the mills fast, some slow, and even allowing one of them to stop occasionally. After several attempts to modify and adapt the system, Babcock was finally forced to abandon it.

Before irrigation—sparse desert vegetation and a faint road running across the prairies like a hint of hope.

People in the lower reaches of the Columbia Basin were not without their dreams and schemes for irrigation either. From Vantage south along the river, the topography lends itself more to the pumping of water from the river and this advantage was quickly noted by early settlers. At Beverly in 1908, a company attempted to irrigate about 500 acres of land in that area by using a coal-fired pumping plant. Operations had to be halted after a year of work had shown the cost of irrigating the land to be $15 to $20 an acre, too high for profitable operation in those days.

Near Corfu, at the foot of the Saddle Mountain range, a company composed mainly of railroad men put in some irrigated orchards and farms from about 1905 to 1907. Water for irrigation came from Goose Lake, north of the site, through a gravity canal. A dam-and-gate system was built at the lake to conserve the water that poured into the lake when the inflowing Lower Crab Creek was high from the spring runoff. This operation was continued for several years with some success until breaks in the canal, falling farm prices, and a couple of bad crop years made it too costly.

In 1909, a company known as Delarm and Biehl began an ambitious irrigation project on the Wahluke Slope. Their plan was to pump from the Columbia at a point about halfway between Priest Rapids and the town of Wahluke into a canal which would run in a semicircle and finally return to the river at Wahluke. The project was financed by the sale of bonds and the bonds were backed by mortgages of about $100 an acre from the homesteaders who had filed desert claims on the lands.

The sand dunes in the center of the project were pretty at times, but not very productive. Much of this area is now covered by the waters of the Potholes Reservoir.

A pumphouse, equipped with gasoline engines and the latest and best pumping machinery, was built on the bank of the river and an unlined canal was gouged out of the sagebrush. However, no water was ever pumped and the company was declared bankrupt in 1912. One of the promoters disappeared and a body identified as the other was pulled from the Columbia River not far from the site of the pumphouse. More than a million dollars from the sale of bonds disappeared also.

Several other irrigation ventures were attempted along the lower reaches of the river by small companies or individuals, but none of them were successful enough to warrant continuing operations. The high cost of initial investment and operation was apparently more than a small operation could stand. What was needed was a large-scale irrigation project that could spread the cost over hundreds of thousands of acres and also bring in other revenues from the river's resources to make the project economically sound. What was needed was a multipurpose project.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008