The Columbia Basin
Project is an immense irrigation development in central Washington state that
provides water from the Columbia River to about 671,000 acres (268,400
hectares) on the Columbia Plateau. The project is in the Big Bend
area of the river, which includes the cities of Ephrata, Quincy, Moses Lake,
from Lake Roosevelt behind Grand Coulee Dam is pumped uphill to a
27-mile-long reservoir, Banks Lake, from which it flows by gravity into a
series of canals. Outlets for unused water empty into the Columbia above
Richland and Pasco more than 125 miles to the south. The project includes more
than 300 miles of main canals, 2,000 miles of laterals and 3,500 miles of
drains and wasteways. The project provides irrigation water to 2,050 farms.
Apples, wheat and corn are the largest-volume crops. There also are large herds
of dairy cows and beef cattle. Annually, the cash value of farm production in
the Columbia Basin Project is about $630 million.
Dam on Crab Creek about 15 miles south of Moses Lake creates Potholes
Reservoir, which captures return flows from the northern half of the project.
The Potholes Canal flows out of the lake and serves the southern part of the
farmers of the late 19th century recognized the agricultural
potential of the rich soil of the plateau, but with annual rainfall averaging
less than 20 inches, and with most of that falling as snow in the winter,
dryland farming was difficult, at best. The plateau is dotted with the leaning
or collapsed remnants of barns and other buildings abandoned by farmers who
gave up for lack of moisture.
federal Reclamation Service, created in 1902, first investigated the project
area in 1904, but determined water could not be lifted from the Columbia River
canyon, in places more than 500 feet deep, up to the plateau. In 1922, a survey
conducted for the Army by George Goethals described the irrigation potential of
the plateau and recommended that water be delivered to the area via a 200-mile
canal that would tap the Pend Oreille River in northeastern Washington. At the
same time, the government also was investigating the hydropower potential of
the Columbia, which as yet had no dams.
dam that would provide water to the plateau by diverting the Columbia into the
Grand Coulee had been discussed publicly since 1892. Such a dam was one of at
least 10 the Army envisioned in its report, and irrigation promoters seized on
its potential to impound a lake and provide irrigation water. A fierce public
relations battle ensued between those who favored a canal — the “ditchers,”
they were called — and those who favored a dam tall enough at the Grand Coulee
site to make pumping feasible — the “pumpers.” Each side had powerful allies. The
Washington Water Power Company of Spokane, fearing competition from a federal
dam, favored the canal, as did the state of Washington; public power supporters
including Rufus Woods, publisher of the Wenatchee World newspaper,
favored the dam. In the end, with the backing of the Corps of Engineers and
important local and national politicians, including President Franklin
Roosevelt, the dam was built — it was completed in 1941 — and, ultimately,
its companion irrigation project, which Congress initially authorized in the
Rivers and Harbors Act of August 1935 and then reauthorized in the Columbia
Basin Project Act of March 1943.
George Fuller, whose book, A History of the Pacific Northwest with Special
Emphasis on the Inland Empire was published in 1931, when Grand Coulee Dam
was still a dream on blueprints, considered the “uncultivated area of the
Columbia basin which awaits irrigation” to be the greatest potential source of
wealth in the region. He estimated that 2 million acres could be irrigated and
that the Columbia Basin Project would be larger than all other federal
irrigation projects put together. The project, he wrote, “is likely to bring
another million people to the Pacific Northwest.” It didn’t, but the project
did eventually grow to irrigate a vast area, and thousands of people moved into
the area to start farms.
May 29, 1952, the first irrigation water began flowing into the project canals.
Key agricultural products include grain, alfalfa, silage crops, dry beans,
fruit, sugar beets, corn, potatoes, seed and some specialty crops. The project
diverts 2.3 to 2.7 million acre-feet of water annually from Lake Roosevelt,
which is just over 2 percent of the average annual flow at Grand Coulee. The
pumping station is a power plant in its own right, as six of the 12 pumps are
reversible. Water can be sent back down the pipes and through the pumps to
generate electricity. The generating capacity of the pumping station is 314
megawatts, or enough electricity for about 188,000 Northwest homes.