Okanogan Irrigation District Homepage
Serving Agriculture Since 1907

Historic Overview

Starting in the late 19th Century Eastern Washington was seen as a fertile land of opportunity for fruit orchards which could be made possible by irrigation. The Okanogan Valley, unlike other parts of Washington State, was settled in the early 1900s long after other regions such as the Puget Sound had been. Being in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains irrigation was seen as a way to make the desert bloom with agriculture. Orchardists and farmers in the Okanogan Valley competed with those in the Yakima Valley to be the first reclamation project in Washington State for the newly formed United States Reclamation Service (USRS). The USRS investigations in 1903-1905 persuaded them to favor and concentrate on the smaller Okanogan Project, in North Central Washington, over the larger Yakima Project.1 The Okanogan Project was approved in 1905 by the USRS, but the Yakima Project was also approved that year.2 The Okanogan Project was authorized for $500,000 in a rugged country 100 miles from the nearest railroad.3 Nonetheless, when the construction started in 1905 the Okanogan Project had the distinction of being the first one built by the USRS in Washington State.

Original construction of the Project was from 1905-1910. During construction, materials were brought up the Columbia River to Brewster via steamboat where they were then freighted by wagon 40 miles to Okanogan. The Okanogan Project was built as a gravity system that used storage reservoirs located high in the Salmon Creek Basin to hold water that would then be released into Salmon Creek and then diverted out of it 12 miles later into a series of canals to deliver water to the lands in the project.4 The storage works, main, upper and lower canals were built by the USRS under a “force account”, due to a lack of bidders and those who bid had estimates which were “considered excessive”.5 The USRS under the Reclamation Act was able to “enter into contracts for the construction of irrigation works or construct such works by labor employed and operated under superintendance and directions of Government officials”.6 The majority of the distribution system was built by private individuals under contract with the USRS. Although, the USRS did not let the contractors build the various wooden structures within them to control and deliver the water from the canal, the USRS built them instead (see Figures 2 & 3). Many of the employees from the Yakima Project were brought up to work on the Okanogan Project’s construction and engineering, such as Mr. Charles H. Swigart, USRS Supervisory Engineer and others when needed. Additionally, various Yakima Project drawings were also used for the system instead of creating new ones just for the Okanogan Project.7 The first lands were irrigated in 1908 with additions in storage and pumping until 1921.8 A patrol house was built in 1909 at the Salmon Creek Diversion Dam on the left downstream side for someone to “be constantly at duty at the intake of the canal”.9

  1. Pfaff, Christine. 2002. Harvest of plenty: A history of the Yakima Irrigation Project, Washington, Denver. CO: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Technical Service Center, p. 23. ↩︎

  2. Rowley, William D. 2006. The Bureau of Reclamation: Origins and Growth to 1945. Denver, CO: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, p. 130; U.S. Department of the Interior, 1907, p. 276 ↩︎

  3. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Reclamation Service. 1913. History of the Washington Division 1902-1913. Volume II. Okanogan Project. North Yakima, WA: Author, p. 19. ↩︎

  4. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. September 1947. Economic Report and Repayment Plan Okanogan Project, Washington. Boise, ID: Author, p. 24. ↩︎

  5. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Reclamation Service, 1913, pp. 26 & 79. ↩︎

  6. U.S. Department of the Interior, 1907, p. 26. ↩︎

  7. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Reclamation Service, 1913, pp. ii, 82 & 85. ↩︎

  8. Pfaff, 2002, p. 27. ↩︎

  9. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Reclamation Service, 1913, p. 91. ↩︎