The Columbia Basin Project: Seventy-Five Years Later

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Department or Administrative Unit


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The Columbia Basin Project (CBP) is the largest comprehensive reclamation project in the United States. An intertwined system of water diversion, capture, storage, movement, and use for hydroelectric production and irrigation, made famous by the capstone of Grand Coulee Dam, the CBP completely transformed the arid environment of central Washington and the economy of the Pacific Northwest (PNW). As this project stretches now into 75 years of plans, actions, reactions, and potential future actions, there is a surprisingly small amount of literature examining this project and its far-reaching implications. Originally planned as a reclamation project, the CBP morphed over time as values and priorities changed; never achieving completion, approximately two-thirds of the original planned project acreage is currently irrigated, but with escalating ecologic and economic implications. The most obvious ecologic implication has fixated debates about development in the Pacific Northwest, and that is the near annihilation of historic salmon runs due to dam construction. As this question (salmon versus dams) consumes most scholarly literature related to the CBP, we chose instead to examine everything except ecologic implications. This article reviews the existing literature on the CBP from several fields, noting that many economic, social, legal, policy, and agricultural questions remain unanswered after 75 years. Those unanswered questions become particularly important in light of recent discussions within Washington State concerning completing the CBP, thus potentially increasing the size of irrigated lands by one-third in the Columbia Basin Project.


This article was originally published in Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

Due to copyright restrictions, this article is not available for free download from ScholarWorks @ CWU.


Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers


© 2008 by the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers. All rights reserved.



Spatial Coverage (for ex: Ellensburg, WA)

Columbia Basin, WA