First irrigation water reaches Pasco on May 15, 1948.

  • By Elizabeth Gibson
  • Posted 12/03/2005
  • Essay 7555

On May 15, 1948, a Pasco farm receives the first water pumped from the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. At about 11:15 a.m., Pasco Judge B. B. Horrigan gives the signal to open the canal gate. The water results from decades of dreams and the completion of Grand Coulee Dam.

Efforts to Irrigate

The event marked the culmination of decades of struggle to irrigate the arid Columbia basin.  As far back as 1898, the Great Northern Railway and the Cooperative Irrigation Company attempted an irrigation project in the area.  They planned to use water from Brook Lake to water a 1,200-acre area between Stratford and Ephrata.  Quincy, Moses Lake, Beverly, Wahluke, and other towns attempted to irrigate, but these projects failed too. It became clear that a dam on the Columbia River was needed to create a large reservoir from which water could be pumped.

William M. Clapp (1877-1965), an Ephrata attorney, convinced county commissioners to study the construction of a dam on the Columbia.  The dam would be the cornerstone of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project (CBIP). The State of Washington also considered a proposal by the state Public Service Commission to provide irrigation by damming the Pend Oreille River by Newport and diverting water through canals to a reservoir near Ritzville. In 1919, the state studied the two proposals, but tabled a decision for a few years. 

A drought in 1929-1930 pushed state officials into making a decision to build a dam on the Columbia River.  But now that the state was ready to move forward, Congress would not authorize funds for the project. Jobs and money were both in short supply because of the national depression. President Herbert Hoover claimed that there would be no new farms to take advantage of the irrigation project.

Grand Coulee Dam

However, when Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) took office in 1933, he had a different opinion. He added the dam to his Public Works Administration Program because it would put people back to work. The construction contract for Grand Coulee Dam was signed on July 13, 1934, as both an irrigation and hydroelectric project.  On October 4, 1941 the first 100,000 KW generator came on line. Two months later the United States entered World War II, and the virtually unlimited electrical power from Grand Coulee Dam powered the state’s war industries, particularly building airplanes and ships, along with the secret Hanford nuclear weapons project. 

After the war was over, Columbia Basin Irrigation Project officials shifted their emphasis from using the dam for power to its original purpose of irrigation.  They built pumps, canals, and siphons, drew maps, and sampled soils.  They classified the land in accordance with its horticultural potential.

Though it seemed that the project would finally become a reality, it was still taking years to build. The Bureau of Reclamation wanted to show how productive the land would be if only it had adequate water. Bureau officials felt this "demonstration" was needed in order to keep federal funds pumped into the project.  The bureau contracted with J. A. Terteling Co. of Boise to install 23 miles of laterals and wasteways made of concrete, asphalt, and mortar.  By July 1947, Terteling completed a seven-mile canal system in Irrigation Block No. 1, north of Pasco, bordering the Columbia River.  The James Construction Company of Seattle completed the pumping plant. Agutter Electric Company of Seattle erected power lines from the pumping plants. 

A Momentous Occasion

On May 15, 1948, a crowd gathered at the head of a Franklin County canal.  At least 200 people attended a ceremony started by M. E. Swanson, president of the Pasco Chamber of Commerce. He introduced members of the celebration committee and presented Art Garton as master of ceremonies. 

Many others attended, including Al Hales, chairman of Chambers Agricultural Committee; Del Isaacson, chairman of the celebration committee; Loen Parik of the Columbia Basin Commission; Don Bowsher, Spokane Chamber of Commerce; Bruce Wilson, editor of the Ritzville Journal-Times; John Ott of the Ritzville Chamber of Commerce; Bureau of Reclamation engineers C. W. Seeholzer, Bill Niemi, and Art Swanson; Russell Richmond, Walla Walla district manager of the Bonneville Power Administration; and Jake Weber, Walter Frantz, John Betziner, Paul Booker, C. W. Neff, O. P. Hailey, W. W. Johnson, and W. H. Tuller, from the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project.

Judge B. B. Horrigan spoke about the pioneer dream for irrigation. He pointed out a nearby irrigation canal from the early days. He hoped to return the land to rich grassland after it recovered from past years of overgrazing.

At 11:15 a.m., Horrigan moved to the head of the irrigation ditch. He turned to a nearby Boy Scout and gave a signal. The Scout used flags to signal another Scout about a quarter mile away at the pumping plant. That boy signaled the workmen at the pumps.  At 11:27, the vertical steel cover over the end of the discharge pipe came up and water rushed into the canal at 78 cubic feet per second. 

A half-hour later, the water reached the property of O. C. Gillum, two miles from the canal. Everyone drove to the farm. Frank Lowden of Walla Walla, another tireless champion of irrigation, opened the headgate to deliver the water to Gillum’s land. Two of Gillum’s sons stood in the ditch with their father as the water flowed in to water their oats and wheat.

After this momentous occasion, the Bureau of Reclamation mailed 2,500 announcements about the newly irrigated land. There were so many applicants that 35 separate drawings were held. Small plots were placed under irrigation in 1949 and 1950. 

More Benefits

In August 1951, water finally came through the irrigation project's main canal. The canal was attached to the lower end of Bank’s Lake, a 27-mile-long reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam.  The water flowed out of the canal and over Summer Falls into Billy Clapp Lake.  From the lake, water flowed into another canal, which divides into east and west lines. The west canal ran 88 miles to Soap Lake, through Ephrata, Quincy, and George. The east canal ran 87 miles south through Grant County to the Potholes Reservoir, Othello, and the Wahluke Slope, and to Scootenay Reservoir in north Franklin County. Several wasteways capture run-off, which is returned to the system.

The Columbia Basin Irrigation Project had other benefits. The project created many lakes that double for outdoor recreation.  Project construction also attracted people who had left during the previous two decades. With new crops came a need for food processing plants, which created more jobs.  Ranchers returned to raising livestock. And the sale of hydroelectricity ultimately paid the construction price of the dam and all its canals, estimated to be $969.5 million in 1964 dollars.


The Story of the Columbia Basin Project, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1964); Ted Van Arsdol, “First Water 40 Years Ago,” Franklin Flyer, Franklin County Historical Society (Pasco), Vol. 21, No. 1 (April 1988), pp. 2-5; Hugh A. Scott, "First Acres Receive Water this Morning,” Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), May 15, 1948, p. 1.
This essay was corrected on December 17, 2007, and revised and corrected on March 21, 2017.

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