- A million acre tract of land within the "Big Bend" of the
Columbia River in south-central Washington became the locale for an
important public area planning experiment and geotechnic enterprise
in the late 1930's and early 1940's. The Columbia Basin Project
(CBP) of the Bureau of Reclamation was conceived to irrigate and
populate the area.
In 1939, Harlan H. Barrows, a geographer and consultant to
the Bureau, devised an integrated regional pre-development study
program, the Columbia Basin Joint Investigations (CBJI), which
attempted to assess the physical, economic, and social impacts of the
CBP on the Columbia Basin. Study teams were named and a major
investigational effort (300 persons representing 40 agencies, Federal,
state, local, and private) was carried out from 1939 to 1942. World
War II, however, slowed the CBJI, delayed the Project's settlement
for about a decade, and unleashed forces that brought sweeping changes in American agriculture. Irrigation began via the main
canal system in 1952. This notable planning effort, given the normal
difficulties with the involvement of so many agencies and people and
the advent of World War II, produced many beneficial results. The
very poor follow-up program, however, has nullified many of those
benefits and has lead to several negative, even deplorable, aspects of
actual Project development.
The standards of geotechnics ("making the earth more
habita.ble") were utilized to appraise the physical, economic, and
social habitabilities of the Project area.
The physical habitability of the Project area is under duress.
Massive drainage problems developed early and are important because
remedial costs greatly exceed estimates and because the three
irrigation districts in agreeing to a higher construction obligation
were able to gain the right to unrestricted leasing and renting of
Project lands. This has led to serious subsidy problems.
The number of settlement opportunities, a measure of economic
habitability, provided at mid-point in acreage development (500, 000
acres) is 800 or one-tenth of the number planned. Types of farming
and farm sizes are significantly different than planned for the Project.
Several facets of social habitability were significantly improved,
among them recreation, transportation, and public facilities. The
Project is a dismal failure in the Bureau's attempt to provide the base for population expansion. Rural and urban growth reached about onefourth
the number planned for the area. All Project towns, except
Othello, lost population in the decade 1960 to 1970. The attempt by
the Bureau of Reclamation to integrate the Columbia Basin Project
into the land, economy, and community of the Columbia Basin
presents a fascinating case for continuing study and evaluation.