The Columbia Basin Project transformed a vast area of Washington from shrub-steppe to some of the most fertile farmland anywhere. It also created extraordinary habitat for birds and wildlife.

Headlights slice the darkness and fall on a coyote loping across the gravel road. The coyote turns for a moment, and its carnivore eyes flash in the beams before vanishing-swallowed in sagebrush that quilts an aromatic blanket over the gentle hills.

From here, the dark land seems arid, stark, endless.

But when the car shudders over the next washboard rise, the silent air explodes with a cacophony of ducks. The eastern horizon lights up, and layers of flame and slate fall upon calm water, backlighting the grassy hummocks that stretch as far as the first glow of dawn. As the landscape awakens, a squadron of American white pelicans sweeps across the sky, Caspian terns begin diving for small fish, and great blue herons and egrets settle into their hunting haunts along the shore. On the horizon, coyotes yip at the fading moon.

Such bold contradictions clash daily where water meets desert in Washington’s Columbia Basin.

A sage in the brush

The clerk at our motel, who moved to Moses Lake from a mountainous Oregon hamlet, calls her adopted region “ugly.”

Among locals, you occasionally hear the word “wasteland” used to describe sagebrush-studded lands that biologists prefer to call native shrub steppe.

It’s impossible to take such a harsh view when Robert Kent is your guide to the Columbia Basin Wildlife Areas.

The preserved habitats are a vast collection of some 200,000 state-managed acres collected into more than a dozen wildlife areas on federal and state lands within the basin. The complex of wildlife areas is the largest in the state, a full 130 miles from north to south and 500 miles around the edges.

Combining those wildlife areas with more than three times as much irrigated farmland and tracts of high desert, the entire Columbia Basin is a tapestry of colorful crops, diverse desert, teeming wetlands, soaring cliffs, and deep coulees stretching eastward from the Columbia River’s big bend in central Washington.

Kent (’75 Wildlife Management) retired last February after a 27-year career with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He arrived in the Columbia Basin in 1981 and was promoted to manager of the wildlife areas a few years later.

“I spent the rest of my career here,” says Kent, who grew up on a farm 70 miles to the east, survived war in Vietnam, and married his high school sweetheart. “It was a good place to be for me.”

Compactly fit at 56, Kent loses neither footing nor enthusiasm as he hikes through a steep area of shrub steppe overlooking Lind Coulee. Along the way, he points out various species of native sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and wheatgrass that dominate the land on about half the wildlife areas he managed.

Compared to the dramatic cliffs of the Quincy Unit to the west, the flocks of sandhill cranes that make raucous stopovers, or the walleye that bite in Potholes Reservoir, this inconspicuous hillside is no tourist attraction. The path we follow through the sage is far more familiar to cottontail rabbits and mule deer than humans.

Yet this spot illustrates, better than most, what much of the basin looked like before ranchers and farmers arrived in numbers a century ago-and especially before one of the nation’s largest federal irrigation projects transformed a grayish brown land into the vibrant greens and yellows that now color some of the world’s best farmland.

When ranchers ruled, livestock grazed across this hill, mowing the tender grasses while leaving the woody sagebrush in their wake. As a result, even 50-plus years later the long-lived sagebrush covers most of the ground, with sprigs of grass coming up on perhaps a third. The ratio should be reversed, with sagebrush growing on just 30 percent of the land and grasses carpeting the rest, says Kent, citing the research of late Washington State University botany professor Rexford Daubenmire.

“We still have a very disturbed site, even though it’s good for the Columbia Basin,” says Kent, who spent much of his career trying to preserve the very types of extremely wet or especially arid lands that others consider worthless.

“The shrub steppe habitat wasn’t really recognized as important by our agency leaders until after I had recognized it here,” says Kent, who grew up in similar country. “Shrub steppe is kind of like old-growth forest. It’s something you can lose and not get back.”

He kneels beside a big sage with branches that are beginning to buckle and decay. As the bushes age and crowd one another, some will die. It could take decades more, but gaps will form between the sage, grasses will fill those spaces, and the shrub steppe will be restored.

“Daubenmire will be correct,” Kent says. He rises to his feet and scans out across the sagebrush.

“People who are interested in commercial [uses] might call this wasteland,” he says, turning back toward the car, “but wildlife like it.”

Water, water everywhere

When most homesteaders settled the Columbia Basin in the early 1900s, it was a hardscrabble land where fewer than 10 inches of rain fell each year.

The soil was rich and the growing season long, but the country was so parched, farmers had to leave their fields fallow every other year to save up enough moisture for a single wheat crop.

“There was hardly any agriculture, really,” says John Kugler, a WSU Extension educator for Grant and Adams counties. “There were wheat growers, but that was about it.”

Ranchers grazed cattle and sheep, but there was so little forage, it took huge holdings to turn a profit. After spring green-up, ranchers needed hay to get their livestock through the year.

Then along came the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Columbia Basin Project.

The agency, then the fledgling Reclamation Service, set its sights on the basin a hundred years ago, at about the same time dry-land farming grabbed hold. However, it took half a century to work through the political process, the acquisition of private lands, the engineering challenges, the multimillion-dollar costs, and the difficult construction of Grand Coulee Dam. World War II elevated the nation’s need for inexpensive electricity, and Grand Coulee would soon become the largest federal hydroelectric plant.

In 1952, a decade after the major construction of Grand Coulee Dam was complete and a year after installation of the last electricity generators and power pumps, the first irrigation water diverted from the dam to Banks Lake started flowing southward. That year, the water reached about 66,000 acres of farmland in the basin.

Today, the project delivers water to 10 times that much acreage -671,000 acres-the rough equivalent of irrigating half the state of Delaware. At the early summer peak of irrigation season, canals deliver about 9,000 cubic feet of water every second to fields in the basin. That’s enough water to fill a million-gallon Olympic pool within 15 seconds, but it’s still only a fraction of the Columbia River’s natural flow.

The ingenious system employs 300 miles of large canals, 2,000 miles of smaller “laterals,” 3,500 miles of drains and wasteways, a handful of large reservoirs, and natural features such as depressions, coulees, and underground passages to move and hold water. The system delivers, recollects, and redelivers irrigation water down a hundred-mile corridor from Coulee City to Tri-Cities.

The federal government still owns tens of thousands of acres in the Columbia Basin used to operate the system or that remain unsuited for agriculture. The agency contracts with the state to manage about 160,000 of those acres for wildlife habitat and recreation. The wildlife areas contain another 40,000 acres of state lands.

Originally, during the Great Depression, the federal government allotted $63 million to build the project under the National Industrial Recovery Act. Now, in an average year, the project’s value is about $20 million in prevented flood damage, $50 million in recreational opportunity, $500 million in power generation-and a whopping $700 million-plus at the farm gate for agricultural products.

“That wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the project’s development and the acquisition of lands,” says Bill Gray, the Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy area manager. “The area would have ended up in large sheep and cattle ranches.”

Gray (’74 Recreation) oversees the Columbia Basin Project and 15 other federal irrigation projects in northwestern states from his Ephrata office in the heart of the basin. Without the irrigation water, he figures, the basin would have few jobs, a tiny tax base, and scant recreation.

In other words, says Extension’s Kugler, “The place would dry up.”

Outstanding in the field

For the past 50 years, the Columbia Basin has helped drive Washington’s large agricultural economy. In fact, the basin is one of the world’s best places to grow potatoes, carrots, onions, beans, mint, hay, vegetable seeds, and dozens of other vegetables, fruits, and grains, as well as dairy and beef cattle.

Many of the region’s new farmers were World War II veterans, allowed to enter a drawing to buy a share of those lands the federal government reverted back to private ownership in the newly irrigated basin. They repaid government loans with the fruits of their toil.

Lee Williams’s farm and other holdings along Lind Coulee originally were sold to those veterans. Williams calls his farm the Trail’s End Ranch, partly because he never plans to leave this patch of sandy soil south of Moses Lake.

By the basin’s big standards, Williams (’64 D.V.M.) is a small-time farmer, growing five acres of chestnuts and leasing the rest of his property to another farmer, who rotates crops such as potatoes with the dark green alfalfa growing there now. Williams also is a full-time field veterinarian for the state Department of Agriculture.

Williams takes us to a ridge on the far side of his property, where his circle irrigation system passes across an eye-shaped patch of brush as it slowly pivots across the alfalfa. The water creates lush places for wildlife to feed and hide. Across the alfalfa, he’s planted a few acres of millet, which brings cover and food for songbirds and ringneck pheasants. A nearby pile of woody debris, he says with a chuckle, is “rabbitat.”

Williams is among the farmers who worked out a trade with Robert Kent and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In exchange for dedicating some of his own acreage and water rights to improve wildlife habitat, Williams farms nearly 20 acres of wildlife-area land that falls under the sweep of his irrigator.

“I’ve tried to work with the neighbors as much as possible,” Kent says. “We almost always get more [from the trade than is required]. People like to do things for wildlife, in general.”

Williams agrees: “You’ve got to give back a little bit sometimes.”

Suddenly, something catches the farmer’s eye. He points toward the water at the bottom of Lind Coulee, to a four-point buck swimming toward the sagebrush hill where Kent stood the morning before.

“He’s a big son of a gun.”

A cast of thousands

This clear October day is rare for Bob Peterson.

Peterson didn’t fool a single walleye before pulling his boat from a ramp where Lind Coulee forms an arm of Potholes Reservoir, a giant storage facility that gathers up irrigation water from the northern end of the Columbia Basin to reroute it to farms in the south.

Peterson is far from alone among outdoor lovers, who make well over a million stops in the Columbia Basin each year. Grant County, once almost pure desert, today is the state’s top freshwater-fishing destination and a magnet for waterfowl hunters.

While fishing and hunting reign, “non-consumptive” recreation such as bird watching, hiking, wildlife photography, mountain biking, and canoeing are increasingly popular.

All of that, says the Bureau of Reclamation’s Gray, exists in “a county where there was virtually no water” before the project.

“I didn’t manage just for hunters, just for fishermen, or just for birdwatchers. I managed for everyone,” says Kent.

Trouble in paradise

On the Desert Wildlife Area, southwest of Potholes Reservoir, Kent points out a weedy pond that provides ideal feeding and nesting habitat for dabbling ducks.

If it weren’t for Kent’s staff, the pond would be a mud hole, full of common carp and little else. The carp, a non-native fish in the goldfish family, have a habit of taking over small waterways and consuming every morsel of food.

“They’re so good at it that everything else loses,” Kent says. “If you have carp in the water, they’re going to win.”

But wildlife officials won by building a dike to wall off access to the pond. They then killed off the carp and restocked the pond with fish that will leave enough food for ducks.

“That has been a very important waterfowl habitat improvement strategy here in the Columbia Basin,” Kent says.

Inarguably, the Columbia Basin Project was a godsend for agriculture, a windfall for many species of native wildlife, and a perfect home for some introduced species that sportsmen love, including pheasants and walleye.

But it hasn’t come without a price.

“The water has brought in a lot of invaders,” says Kent, who over the years battled the unwanted animals and plants. From bullfrogs that eat native fish and turtles to Russian olive trees that shade out natural wetlands, invasive species are barging across the basin.

On the same dike that guards against carp, for example, a grassy invader called phragmites is pushing its feathery seed heads toward the sky. In many places, the invasive grass is overwhelming the basin’s wetlands more than the infamous purple loosestrife. Kent helped get control of the latter with help from WSU entomologist Gary Piper and some insects imported from the purple loosestrife’s native range.

Just down the road, Kent employed another non-native species-the cow-to salvage prime waterfowl habitat known as Birders Corner. Wildlife purists don’t often consider livestock to be compatible with wildlife habitat. But in this instance, shoreline plants were wiping out open mudflats that wading and dabbling birds prefer-until Kent signed a contract allowing a farmer to graze his livestock across the area while the birds are gone.

“We use the cattle for mowing machines, basically,” he says. “We don’t have people to do it, and we don’t have equipment to do it. We got cattle to do it, and [farmers] pay us.”

It’s that kind of simple, effective approach that wins Kent praise for his work.

“He has just done an incredible job protecting and managing the wildlife resources in the basin for future generations to enjoy,” Gray says.

“You have to keep your eye on the goal,” Kent says. “We want to have as many kinds of wildlife habitat as we can support out here.”

Freelance writer Eric Apalategui is a frequent contributor to Washington State Magazine.


Web exclusive

Gallery: Where water meets desert – Photographs by Bill Wagner