Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Columbia Basin Reclamation Project

We were way-bored with I-90 and looking for a good Mexican breakfast so we turned south off the Interstate on Highway 17 and headed toward Othello, Washington.  Our destination was Spokane, still 100 miles away, but we had time, it was a lovely day and if we ate half an hour later in the morning we could probably justify a beer with our huevos rancheros.

Othello is the biggest town in sparsely populated Adams County -- 19,000 -- a county that was carved out of Whitman County in 1883.  The county has a curious look to it, as if it were Nebraska upside down and Othello is splat dab in the center of the panhandle.  It is also at the center of the state’s potato country with some dry land wheat and apple orchards thrown in and is one of two Washington state counties with a majority Hispanic population. 

We found the Benavidez on the southern end of Main Street.  It was in an old, large building that looked like it might have served as a grocery store one day, but today it looked like it was feeling its weight and gravity was giving it a hard time.  It appeared to be just getting up, slowly and a bit unsteadily. 

Four or five farmhands sat at the dark bar drinking coffee.  The number never went below three or above five, but the personnel changed frequently, new people walking past us in the otherwise empty tables to the bar, others getting up and passing us going the other way.  Greetings and goodbyes were mostly in Spanish.  A Fox News channel jabbered away behind the bar, the men sometimes turning toward the glow, but the sound mercifully fell to the floor before it got to our table.  

All the wall and shelf space in the Benevidez was full of photographs, knick-knacks and paintings.  President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez were surrounded by many people we didn’t know at all, some in large painted renderings, many of them in business suits, others in traditional garb with a big sombrero.  I thought of Sandburg’s “Sky Pieces,” wishing I could read it right then with classic Sandburg drama, but recited it silently, so as not to make a fuss.


Proudly the fedoras march on the heads of the somewhat careless men.
Proudly the slouches march on the heads of the still more careless men.
Proudly the panamas perch on the noggins of dapper debonair men.
Comically somber the derbies gloom on the earnest solemn noodles.
And the sombrero, most proud, most careless, most dapper and debonair of all, Somberly the sombrero marches on the heads of important men who know
what they want.

Hats are sky-pieces; hats have a destiny; wish your hat slowly; your hat is you.

There is an old woman, easily 80, maybe even in her 90s, serving coffee to the evolving chorus in front of her, silently dropping menus on our table and, without asking, setting up coffee cups and filling them.  She is alone.  I imagine that her help went home after breakfast rush – around here that is most likely at 6AM – and would return at 11:00 or so.  At least I hoped that.

We ordered the eggs and she came by with refills of coffee.  Precisely at 10:00 AM, we ordered our beers and the plates came minutes later.  Good.  Not great, but authentic for sure.  As we ate, she polished, one by one, apples that she lifted from a box behind the bar.  We paid and tipped well and she brought back an apple for each of us which, as we headed up to Spokane, we decided was probably the best apple we'd eaten in the past decade. 

City of Othello
Our trip had started in Moses Lake which, compared to Othello, looked a quart low.  Othello looked good, if not prosperous.  The streets were clean, there was a new city hall, Pioneer Park’s T-33 Trainer was still shiny on its post, banking slowly, gliding home. 

Othello is in the middle of the Columbia Basin Project, a mammoth irrigation project that we usually attribute to the wrong Roosevelt, Franklin and his New Deal.  In fact, it rises from the Progressive Era and one of its creators, Theodore Roosevelt, whose signature is on the Reclamation Act of 1902, the bill that formed the United States Reclamation Service and placed it in the USGS, the United States Geologic Survey.  It was placed there because John Wesley Powell had set out a strategy in his book, Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, written in 1878, three years before he took over the USGS.

John Wesley Powell About 1871
Arguably our most able westerner, Powell led the expedition that filled in the blanks on the map of America that was the Grand Canyon in 1869.  It was not only a great adventure, but a scientific triumph as well.  They frequently risked their lives for science on the Powell Expedition.  After one of their three boats is wrecked in a bad section of the river and is strewn over an island in the middle of the river, they discover that the wreckage contains all of the expedition’s barometers, key to measuring the altitude profile of the canyon.  They decide, after much conversation, that it is worth the risk to get to the wreckage.  After a harrowing trip to the island, they bring back the barometers.  A footnote to good science is that they also had the good sense to regain possession of a three gallon barrel of whiskey.

Later, Powell climbs to the canyon rim and takes readings with the barometers that show that he is standing 8,000 feet above sea level and 4,000 feet above the river.  Seven years earlier, Powell lost his right arm at Shiloh. 

Like many westerners, Powell was bothered by both the geology and the politics of water.  It was deeply frustrating to watch all that water flowing by knowing that the soil chemistry of much of the desert US would produce excellent crops.  Also frustrating were the clumsy attempts by local farmers to divert water to crops or cattle.  He was frustrated by the laws that grew up around water in the west, and how they favored individuals, often to the disadvantage of the larger community.   He watched in disgust as eastern jurisdictions tapped into the federal treasury for rivers and harbors improvements while western states went begging with their irrigation ideas.  He hated the speculation that was tying up lands in the west and the lack of community development that federal inaction meant.  He saw the ideals of the Homestead Act perverted by the fact that so much of the homesteading land in the west was not worth a damn without water. 

Powell’s USGS estimated that 30 million acres could be farmed if there was water yet, in 1890, four years before he would leave the USGS, only 3.5 million acres of arid land were actively farmed.

The aptly named Francis Newlands, the only member of the House of Representatives from the new state of Nevada, shared those ideas and frustrations and brought them effectively to Congress.  Newlands soon won over the Vice-President, Teddy Roosevelt, though President McKinley thought it best to go slow on irrigation.  Six months after McKinley died and Roosevelt became the President, Roosevelt signed Newlands’ Reclamation Act, in 1902.

The legislation committed the proceeds from the sales of federal lands to irrigation projects in several states and territories: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.  Some of these states were still territories in 1902 and Texas had no federally owned land, but was added as a reclamation state in 1906.  The legislation had a strict ‘user pays’ idea, requiring the beneficiaries of projects to pay their share of the costs. 

The first five projects were soon underway.  They were carefully selected for their good politics, for the kinds of problems they presented that needed to be solved and for their prospects of success.  Another criterion was whether there was a good possibility that towns and communities would follow after the irrigation came in.  In March of 1903, just eleven months after the bill became law, the US Geological Survey recommended to the Secretary of the Interior that water projects be started on the Sweetwater/North Platte in Wyoming and Nebraska, the Milk River in Montana, the Truckee in Nevada, the Gunnison in Colorado, and the Salt River in Central Arizona.  A week later, Interior Secretary Ethan A. Hitchcock concurred with the suggestions and authorized the Reclamation Service to do what was necessary to get underway. 

Bureau of Reclamation
Teddy Roosevelt was soon doing what he liked best, travelling across the west, hunting big game animals and dedicating water projects, including this one, Roosevelt Dam on Arizona’s Salt River, the first increment of what has become the enormous Salt River Project.

Soon, the Reclamation Service was the largest developer of water projects on the globe, building far too many projects too quickly and running into a lot of trouble.  In 1923, an investigatory body, The Fact Finder’s Commission, showed that despite investing $135 million in water projects, repayment of just $10 million was in the bank.  There had been cost overruns and a number of other unmet expectations. 

As part of the reform, payback provisions in loans were doubled from twenty to forty years, but even then, several projects were abandoned, even when the money came without interest.  Electricity production was allowed to became a major part of project economics.  Other events intervened.  The great Mississippi flood set out a host of flood control projects on that river and those concepts soon transferred to the Colorado River and Hoover Dam and would find their way later to the Columbia.

During this time of rethinking reclamation, the Columbia Basin Project had settled into an argument between the pumpers, those who saw irrigation accomplished by building a high dam at Grand Coulee and pumping water out of the impoundment behind the dam and into a distribution system.  The other protagonists here were the ditchers.  They were largely private interests, led by Washington Water Power, who would divert water from lakes in Idaho and the Pend Oreille River in northeastern Washington into irrigation canals and send it by gravity, south and west.  It was also a cultural fight.  The ditchers were wealthy businessmen who thought of the pumpers as hayseeds.  The hayseeds won.

President Hoover authorized a study of the Columbia River Project and the resulting report advocated ten dams, some in British Columbia.  Grand Coulee, the largest, was at an elevation of 550 feet that would create a volume of water for both power and irrigation.  While the report was a defeat for the ditchers, it was also a tremendous disappointment for the pumpers.  Franklin Roosevelt was president by now and recommended a lower dam, similar in size to the Bonneville Dam down river that would provide for power generation only. 

There was a compromise, however.  The federal government would provide the wherewithal to build the foundations of the dam in such a way that additional height could be added if it seemed wise.  The wisdom came early for Roosevelt.  In three years he had reversed himself, deciding that the higher dam was not only a good idea but among the most important ideas in front of the country, so he federalized Grand Coulee and it was managed by the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. 

It is easy to wonder if FDR did this two-step dance as a political move because he needed to deflect criticism of spending so much on one project – more than the Panama Canal! – or because he was a guy who had the guts to look at information and change his mind.

Engine next to ice house
Wade Stevenson
At the time the reclamation service got started, there were just 15 or so homesteaders in the Othello area and a couple of thousand people countywide.  A year after the reclamation service opened its doors they told the Columbia Valley farmers that any project there was infeasible.  They were dry land farmers, mostly farming winter wheat and they had a small stream, Crab Creek, that supplied some water.  The railroads were good to Othello and assorted business grew up loading wheat and shipping other products, some of which required cooling.  An ice plant sprung up, a hotel, a big switch yard.  The Great Northern was first in Othello, but pulled out when they fell behind other competitors.  But the first linkage between the Great Lakes and Puget Sound came about when the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroad took over the Great Northern properties and completed the linkage to Tacoma in 1909.  The town did well, growing to 650 people.

Asahel Curtis
Depending on how you look at it, the completion of the Panama Canal in 1915 and what they call ‘the end of the wet era’ in 1919 was where Othello topped out.  The canal reduced the need for as much transcontinental rail shipping and, after 1919, the weather got drier and drier.  People needed huge amounts of land to grow wheat and then some farmes could only crop it every other year.  The 1928-1931 drought was particularly brutal, with many farmers unable to feed the thousands of horses used to work a wheat crop.   And, by 1928, the Milwaukee Road went into receivership.  From its peak of 650 people in 1920 to its nadir in 1940 of 332 souls, Othello had sunk. 

Moses Lake Chamber
Even with the completion of Grand Coulee in 1942, it would be years before the water works would find their way to Othello and the rest of Adams County.  However, the Bureau of Reclamation arrived anyway, five years before the water, and established a district office there of the Columbia Basin Project.  It helped make the modern town.  Mayor Victor Bjorkland of Ephrata, a town just up the road to the North, summed up the optimism people felt in 1947:

"If Ephrata wants to taste the dust again, they'll have to import the stuff!"

East Adams Museum and Art Center

Rita and Martin Seedorf, Eastern Washington historians, wrote in Columbia Magazine in 1994 about this booming optimism:

“The "Farm-in-a-Day" event began at 12:01 A.M. and continued until 11:30 P.M. on May 29, 1952. During that period 300 people worked to clear and level the land, build a house and out-buildings, and plant crops. The day became a full-blown media event covered by all major wire services, magazines, newspapers and newsreels of the day.

The completed farm was presented to Donald D. Dunn, "the nation's most worthy World War II veteran," who had been selected in a Veterans of Foreign Wars drawing.”

In 1952, the Bureau of Reclamation held several drawings in which thousands of veterans were entered.  In Othello, the last of the drawings, 7,000 veterans were entered. Just 42 names were picked but they had the opportunity to buy the public properties that used to be desert. 

Most of the irrigated land was private with the water managed and delivered by Irrigation Districts and other special purpose governments. The project kept growing through the sixties and Othello was well-positioned to not only grow crops, but add value through processing. 

In 1961, Othello’s first frozen food packer, Othello Packers, begins processing peas, carrots and corn. The farmer commitment to potatoes pays off with another processor, Chef Ready French Fries in 1964. Soon Simplot is moving in, then Nestle, the Canadian processor, McClain.

Largely because of the Columbia Reclamation Project, Washington state provides 20% of all the potatoes grown in the country and is a very large processor of French fries.  A large percentage of French fries eaten in America started on their way to the hot oil from Adams County. Nine of ten potatoes grown in Adams County and the state are used elsewhere with 75% of them in the form of French fries. If you eat a French fry in America, there is a high probability it will carry an Othello terroir.

The Columbia Basin Reclamation is an amazing infrastructure. Besides Grand Coulee there are seven small hydroelectric plants, three major reservoirs holding 11 and a half million acre feet of water, twelve pumping facilities – six at 65,000 horsepower and 9600 cubic feet per second -- and six at 67,500 horsepower – 10,200 cubic feet/second. There are 2360 miles of canals and laterals and 3438 miles of drains and wasteways irrigating 670,000 acres. It cost $531 million and $73 million has been paid by water users. About $458 million has been paid by Grand Coulee power sales.

The project is only half finished and some projects and facilities are on hold. The state gave water rights to additional users based on the assumption that the project would ultimately be completed, so the regional aquifer has and continues to be used faster than it can recharge. 

The future issues close in and become uncomfortable, but I prefer to think about the here and now, the apple in my hand, the day ahead of us, playing golf in the afternoon at Indian Canyon, Spokane’s lovely golf course, the best ever built by the Works Progress Administration. I think with those who lived here, as they walked to their cars, as they contemplated the world after World War II, the irrigation coming closer and closer, that recovery is just around the corner.


  1. Bob,
    You may want to read Robert Glennon's work on western water issues. It brings some of those "uncomfortable issues" home.

    Robert Cromwell

  2. The "Farm in a Day" event is fascinating. I would like to find out what happened to the 42 winners and their property throughout the years.

  3. Bob, my parents were one of the 42 winners of this land. they went up from Oregon City to look at the property-and my mother only needed one look-they spent the rest of their days in Oregon City. I still have the plans for the house they had planned on building there.Interesting article.

    1. Could you send me a note about how I can be in touch? I plan on a later posting that would find some of those people who won the four drawings held in 1952 to see what happened to their lives. You can click on Connect and find me at Gallatin, Bobr@gallatin.com .

      Thanks for reading this post.