Planning the Columbia Basin: Taking Bearings (The Classroom) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #10
Some notes on a planning experiment for the Columbia Basin.
A few prefatory words
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This week we are back to The Classroom. I've been thinking about moments of big change and how plans and realities are different. Read on!
An environmental catastrophe looms over the nation. An economic crisis crushes confidence. Families face little hope with business as usual; many struggle to pay bills, make stable homes, and find meaningful work. Such desperate times call for experiments.
I’m referring not to the United States in 2022 but to the nation during the Great Depression. And rather than share a national story in a thousand words, I’m aiming only to relate a slice of history from one small section, the Columbia Basin, as emblematic of an approach common at the time.
(This newsletter also sets up one coming in a couple weeks…so take good notes!)
Getting Out of a Chasm
Hindsight is history’s most powerful tool. However, it distorts the past with its near-omniscience. To understand historical choices requires knowing the stories past people told themselves.
In the 1930s, the Northwest’s leading storyteller may have been Richard Neuberger, an Oregon journalist who eventually entered politics. He scribbled his way into national publications profiling the Northwest and praising President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to relieve Americans and reform the economy thrashed by the Great Depression. His 1938 book Our Promised Land told a history of the region in broad strokes.
The Columbia Basin drew Neuberger's interest because of the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. The history he told was clear: railroads received half the land from federal grants, and homesteaders took the rest. It started off working well enough. But in the basin, rain falls infrequently, and drought inevitably came. The Columbia River bisected the region, yet its water lay below, often far below, the fields homesteaders cleared of rocks and seeded with hope. Boomtowns that had arrived with the first railroads failed. Farms dried out. Large parcels of land went to banks. According to Neuberger, the land’s value hovered at about $15 per acre, but the asking price from banks or land companies stood closer to $86. Meanwhile, by the 1930s Dust Bowl refugees from the plains found their way to the dry land and looked longingly at it, because they imagined the river at work bringing a rather desolate land to life.
“Will the victims of natural catastrophes and economic disasters be able to settle on this new territory,” Neuberger asked. And he wasn’t alone.
Planning to Avoid Mistakes
Had settling the Columbia Basin with agricultural aspirations been a mistake? The signs seemed unmistakable through large swaths of the landscape. But old dreams die hard and new dreams rise like the sun.
A new profession had emerged in the interwar period as a midwife to such hopes: regional planning. These reformers (and some radicals) believed that experts might plan economic and community development, connecting people to resources in a less haphazard pattern. Areas for industrial activities, agricultural production, and recreation would be knit together appropriately with minimal waste of human or natural resources. In the Northwest, the Columbia Basin Project can be seen as part of that effort.
Reformers and dreamers, boosters and builders, had been imagining something like this for decades: an integrated enterprise combining dams on the Columbia River, hydroelectric power generators, and vast networks of irrigation canals. Such a project would fuel industrial and agricultural development (mutually reinforcing each other) and get all that dry land watered. Populations would boom; maybe a million new residents, boosters hoped. The enterprise would be not only technically difficult but expensive. All the more reason to plan it.
The Columbia Basin Project hinged on Grand Coulee Dam. A massive reservoir would fill behind it; pumps powered by the hydro generators would push the water up onto the plateau; prosperity would be in hand. This was the promise that Neuberger and countless others enthused about.
Because the inland Northwest had an agricultural basis—albeit sometimes a shaky one—irrigation became the first priority to Columbia Basin Project partisans. Ecologists joined the effort.
Bringing in Ecologists
Rexford Daubenmire, a scientist I’ve written about before, offered his expertise to prepare for better long-term outcomes.
Homesteading had proceeded with little planning. Go out, make a claim, do the work, and cross your fingers. One result: those desiccated farms out on the plains.
But by the time the Depression and Dust Bowl blew through, reformers thought this time, wisdom might prevail. Daubenmire, who spent his career at the University of Idaho and Washington State University, investigated the Basin to provide expert advice for farmers who presumably would arrive once the water did. He found “sorry conditions” when he looked closely at the land.
Overgrazing changed plant communities in ways that destabilized the region’s ecology. Daubenmire also experimented and advised farmers which crops suited different soil types. Daubenmire—and other ecologists like him—hoped to make ecology useful. As he put it, applying ecology was a way for “man to practice what conservation principles he has learned by his past mistakes.” This strategy represented another slice of the planning impulse so significant at the time.
Adjusting the Plans
Even though regional boosters saw irrigation as the first impetus to dam the Columbia at Grand Coulee, hydroelectric development came first. After years of construction, the powerhouses at Grand Coulee Dam turned on in 1942 and electricity traveled the lines throughout the region. Initially, that power overwhelmingly went to the war effort in various factories. It also eventually found its ways to rural households, which transformed rural families’ lives.
And those rural families multiplied when the Columbia Basin Project formally opened and water flowed through canals.
The planners of the Columbia Basin Project, though, wished to avoid economic and social mistakes along with the ecological ones the likes of which Daubenmire aimed to solve. The full project intended to deliver water to a bit more than a million acres across the Columbia Basin, settling families on more than 17,000 new, irrigated farms. (The most ambitious figures I’ve seen suggested 80,000 new residents on 30,000 new farms!)
Restrictions seemed necessary. For instance, ownership was limited to 160 acres. Existing landowners would even have to sell excess land at prewater prices. These conditions aimed to limit speculation, a great bane of equitable agricultural economies. As Neuberger aptly put it, “Both the Dust Bowl wanderers and the Alliance Trust Company cannot benefit from the same project.” Most land sales were plots of 40, 60, or 80 acres. This ideal dangled a promise in front of desperate people, the same promise that had been sacred since the times of Jefferson: virtuous family farmers as the foundation of the republic.
Would you be surprised that the results varied from the intent? In the first four years of the project, one in four farms failed. To date, the total project irrigated hit only about 60 percent of the plan. The acreage restrictions were lifted. Then lifted again. Owners were supposed to live locally—as a way to make sure that the economic and ecological values conformed to regional impulses, not global market-based ones. That requirement was waived eventually as well.
The project’s plan had been to rebuild this rural region, to transform it into small landholders in decentralized communities, growing crops appropriate to soil and climate conditions. Instead, farms grew and grew, eventually relying on large seasonal labor pools. The farms received large subsidies from taxpayers. The Bureau of Reclamation in 1988 estimated that it spent $2164.40 per acre within the project. If a farm was 350 acres, the subsidy amounted to three-quarters of a million dollars. This hardly seemed what Roosevelt or the Dust Bowlers or regional planners imagined.
When Neuberger published his essay on Grand Coulee Dam and the larger project, he wondered if it would be worth the cost. In 1938, he had no doubts. He also did not glimpse a future that continued and exacerbated the social and economic divisions laid bare in the Depression. Whether this was a failure of regional planning or a failure to follow regional planning may be the key question to answer.
One of the bureaucrats at work on the project noted that they planned for people, not with them. This, it seems to me, presents a clear lesson worth contemplating even now.
I relied on several sources, including Blaine Harden, A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia; Paul W. Hirt, “Developing a Plentiful Resource: Transboundary Rivers in the Pacific Northwest,” in Water, Place, and Equity, ed. John M. Whiteley, Helen Ingram, and Richard Warren Perry; my own essay, “Rexford F. Daubenmire and the Ecology of Place: Applied Ecology in the Mid-Twentieth-Century American West,” in New Perspectives on the History of Life Sciences and Agriculture, ed. Denise Phillips and Sharon Kingsland; Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River; Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West; and of course, Richard Neuberger, Our Promised Land.
Last weekend, the Los Angeles Times published an essay in their opinion pages that I wrote. It relates to a newsletter issue from a few weeks back but includes a distinct argument. Check it out:
Op-Ed: How the U.S. came to protect the natural world — and exploit it at the same time — www.latimes.com One 1872 U.S. law aimed to preserve the natural world, establishing Yellowstone park. The other, the General Mining Act, sacrificed public lands.
Years ago, I wrote a book chapter on Daubenmire that I drew on above. I also wrote a short story about him that I think you might enjoy. You can read it below:
Traveling ecologist Rexford F. Daubenmire | Washington State Magazine | Washington State University — magazine.wsu.edu Devotion to answering one of ecology’s central theoretical and practical questions.
Taking Bearings Next Week
Next week, we return to The Field Trip, which will be a bit less literal than previous excursions. But I think you'll find it worthwhile and interesting.
As always, thank you for reading and please share.