GWID Story Page

From Vision to Reality in 50 Years
(The GWID Story)   

Through the many years of planning, organizing, and construction of the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation Project, many men gave of themselves and their time beyond all expectations.  The GWID Board would like to express their appreciation to these men and to give special thanks to:

                        The Honorable Walt Horan.  U.S. House of Representatives, 1942 to 1964, whose support in
                         introducing and passing the authorizing bills made the project possible.

                        The Honorable Thomas S. Foley.   U.S. House of Representatives, 1964 to 1994, whose
                         encouragement and persistent support have continued the ongoing work.

                        Mr. Harold T. Nelson.  Regional Directory of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, who believed
                         that "Water is Life" and demonstrated his commitment to this belief by his continued support
                         of the GWID project.

The Vision

    Water diverted from the Wenatchee River, stored in Lake Wenatchee, and delivered to 29,000 acres of sagebrush and rocks via a complex of canals and siphons, with one crossing the Columbia River...  That was the plan when the GWID Board had its first meeting on April 10, 1923.  In the fifty years since then the plan changed but the purpose remains the same, to bring together water, land and sunshine to produce farms, jobs, homes and food.  But calling it a plan is no longer accurate, for the dream of the original visionaries is now a ten million dollar reality.

    Records show that as early as 1909 men were searching for means to turn more of the semi-arid land of the Wenatchee Valley and the shelf-land bordering the Columbia River into crop-producing, people-supporting assets.  In that year, the Quincy Valley Irrigation Project, a forerunner of the Columbia Basin Project, was mapped by a U.S. geological survey team.  The study, by Joseph Jacobs, proposed the diversion of the Wenatchee River for the purpose of watering the Quincy Valley, using a siphon to cross the Columbia River near the mouth of the Wenatchee River.

    Twelve years later a cost study was done by Ivan E. Goodneur, a State hydraulic engineer, and in 1922 area voters formed an irrigation district to carry out the work his study outlined: to irrigate 29,000 acres situated in five widely separated blocks in the Wenatchee Valley as far south as Malaga.  How to accomplish this was the question that faced three men: E. D. Gensinger, E. J. Widby and W. S. Batterton, who comprised the board of the Douglas-Wenatchee Irrigation District when they came together for their first meeting in the Gensinger house in East Wenatchee.  Their first action was to change the name of the organization under which the first activities had been conducted to the "Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District".  So it has remained for fifty years.

    Moving on to more concrete activities, in 1923 the Board authorized the classification of lands in the project and adopted a budget of $33,477.28.  No small act of determination since the District had no income and was, in fact, already in debt $11,885.00, a debt which was growing since it consisted of warrants issued at 6 percent interest.  The State Legislature had provided an answer to the financial crisis, making it legal for voters to organize an irrigation district which could levy assessments on the land owners to be collected by the county.  While this made the assessment legal, it did anything but guarantee its popularity.  The Board spent many hours in hearing petitions for exclusion.  While the minutes were rather terse on the conduct of these meetings, the following conveys something of the flavor th these earlier days:

    O. G. Fish ... objected to his tax assessments, claiming that he is not only assessed with land which he
    does not own but that land classified as irrigable cannot be irrigated and that a large portion of his
    land lies above the canal ... I appeared in questioning, that a portion of the land had been sold under
    contract, and it was explained that as the title still rested with him, that he was liable for assessment on
    same; that the tax was not on the individual but on the land.  It was further explained that the 1933
    assessment was levied to cover the cost of organization and carrying on the business of the District and
    would be corrected with succeeding levies when it was found that mistakes in classification or bankruptcy
    had been made, but that the Board could not legally make any change to the present assessment.

Apparently this statement terminated the appeal rather abruptly.  The minutes close the hearing with this two word sentence:

    Exit Fish.

    But the crisis had not passed.  Shortly thereafter the Board received a petition signed by five hundred individuals requesting that the District be "disorganized".  The Board then had to determine how many signers were actually legal voters in the District since one-third of the District's voters were required by the by-laws to validate the petition.  On the surface it appeared the petition might reach the required number.  It seems that records were somewhat less complete in 1923.  Extensive research revealed it was very difficult to determine just who was eligible to vote.  By one method of counting, the petition had 24 percent, by another 16 percent.  Since neither count reached the required 31 percent, the Board declared the petition insufficient.  The investigation did reveal, however, that there were strong rumors alleging that land classified as irrigable was not and that the District planned to annex land of its neighbors.  The Board put these fears to rest.

    Progress continued to be slow.  The Malaga area withdrew from the project in 1925, precipitating the resignation from the Board of Batterton, whose land was in that block.  D. R. Bond was appointed to fill the position until the annual elections.  In December, 1926, when the Board reorganized the members were E. D. Gensinger, S. W. Hensel, and E. J. Widby.  The minutes of August, 1928, reveal that implementation was no closer: 

    The meeting was called to order by the president.  Some time was spent in consideration of the ways and 
    means to get definite action toward development of the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation Project.  
    Emphasis added!

    No such definite action was taken.

    That fall, F. W. Hoffman was elected to the Board.  While no concrete progress materialized in the Twenties, beyond the formation of the District, in 1929 the planners thinking took a different turn.  They began to consider pumping water from the Columbia River.

    As the Great Depression swept over the country in the Thirties, the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District Board went into a holding action.  The meetings were short, the main action being to maintain the legal status of the District.  Apparently the Board was waiting for "happy days" to be here again.  But those days were long in coming.  World War II followed the Depression and the Nation's interest and energy turned to winning the war.  E. J. Widby was re-elected to the Board in December 9th, 1941, with a total of four votes.  He resigned in 1944, since he no longer had land in the project.  That same year Fred Hoffman, who had served since 1928, died.  Jesse H. Widby and Kirby Billingsley were appointed.

    In 1944 the Board again started actively looking for means to implement the project, seeking and gaining U.S. Congressman Walt Horan's help.  The Bureau of Reclamation was approached.  Under the rules of the Wheeler-Case Act, a study of feasibility, both from the engineering and economic point of view, was needed.  Bureau of Reclamation engineer Fred M. Berry in 1945 undertook the study which involved looking at the gravity diversion plan using Wenatchee River water and also the feasibility of pumping from the Columbia River.  He reported the pumping could be done!  Using twenty one pumping stations on the Columbia River, hopefully to be run with Bonneville Power Administration energy, the twenty thousand acres now in the District could be irrigated.  Included were 6,706 acres in East Wenatchee, 1,315 in the Wenatchee Valley, 3,171 in Malaga, 1,084 in South Malaga, and 6,319 in Moses Coulee.  While the total was 8,000 short of that envisioned by the planners in the Twenties, the project was possible from an engineering standpoint.  The question of economic feasibility remained. 

    After a preliminary survey in March, 1946, A. R. Chase of the Bureau of Reclamation reported, "It appears to me that if any area of the country is able to handle additional farm production, it is here".  Although this did not establish as fact that the cost of the project could be paid back out of revenue generated, it was encouraging.

    Irrigation District directors had become aware by this time that Federal aid would be needed to achieve their goal.  The United States government had indicated interest in building more dams.  The directors believed that irrigation and dam building should be tied together.  The Wenatchee Daily World carried this headline:


But congressman Horan's colleagues were not all convinced that the needs of the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District coincided necessarily with the Nation's.  There was considerable debate on whether or not the Nation needed Foster Creek dam.  Walt Horan reported that when the dam was under study in the Senate Public Works Committee, Senator Ellender of Louisiana, in urging that the project be dropped, exclaimed, "I'm not spending millions of dollars to build a dam on a CREEK!".  The creek that he was referring to was the Columbia River, and the dam, which was approved, is now called the Chief Joseph Dam.

     But, much to the disappointment of Board members Kirby Billingsley, the dam was approved as a power dam only.  This appeared to be a setback for the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District.  Other local men who had testified in the Congressional hearings -- Rufus Woods, Tom Welborn, Art Garton, and Chester Kimm -- felt that it would work out all right, according to Horan, since the building of the dam could begin, at least.

    Meanwhile the Bureau of Reclamation moved ahead with its study of the project.  Boyd Austin, in 1946, became the area engineer with offices in Walla Walla.  His investigation of the engineering problems of the East Unit of the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District resulted in the recommendation that 4,900 acres in the East Wenatchee area be irrigated with a closed pipe pressure system, using a pumping plant located at the old Columbia River bridge.

    While it was now clear that the engineering problems could be solved, the same was not true of the economic aspects.  A report completed in 1950 showed insufficient repayment ability on the part of the farmers.  The income would not be enough to repay the four million dollar construction costs in the forty years allowed and at the same time cover operating expenses.

    The local planners again turned to Congress.  U.S. Representative Horan introduced two bills, one to make Chief Joseph a multi-purpose dam and the other to authorize a study to find means of providing financial or other assistance for irrigating arid lands in the general vicinity of Chief Joseph Dam.  With considerable local effort these were passed.  The study resulted in the Foster Creek Division Report, 1954, House Document 374, which was adapted by the 83rd Congress.  The report did not authorize work to begin but it identified lands that could be irrigated in the "general vicinity" of Chief Joseph Dam.  An area which, according to the report, reached from Grand Coulee to the mouth of Moses Coulee.  Seven areas were mentioned specifically: East Unit, 4,490 acres; North Pateros, 537 acres; South Pateros, 1,100 acres; Antoine Creek, 554 acres; Howard Flat, 866 acres; Brays Landing, 1,255 acres; and Moses Coulee, 2,050 acres.  Most of the lands were found suitable for orchards.

    In 1955 the major problem remaining was solved.  Studies by Washington State University and the Bureau of Reclamation on cost benefit ratios demonstrated that North Central Washington fruit lands were more productive and had higher crop returns than the typical farm areas used in making analysis for comparison.  This resulted in a higher estimate of the repayment capability of the Greater Wenatchee Project, and when coupled with improved orchard operations, extended the normal forty year repayment period to fifty years, lowering the cost design, providing lower power rates and getting financial support from power revenues in repaying project costs demonstrated the project to be economically feasible.

    With Congressional action to authorize money for construction expected, areas which did not have irrigation districts began to establish them.  North and South Pateros and Antoine Creek and Moses Coulee withdrew because of lack of interest.  Howard Flat had a district, formed in 1930 to use Lake Chelan water, a plan never implemented.  A new district was formed at Brays Landing.  The Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District reorganized to include only the East Unit in East Wenatchee.

    Congress did act in 1958, and through Public Law 85-193 authorized the Secretary of the Interior to construct, operate and maintain four reclamation units at a maximum cost of slightly over ten million dollars.  This long-hoped-for action culminated much effort by local supporters of irrigation, including, in addition to those mentioned earlier, Ross A. Heminger. who was called to Washington D.C. to testify before the House Subcommittee on Interior for Public Works.  Heminger became a member of the Board of the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District in 1953, succeeding Kirby Billingsley.  The influence of U.S. Representatives Walt Horan and Don Magnuson and Senator Warren Magnuson was vital in overcoming Congressional procedural errors, which made it necessary for part of the legislation to be passed three times and in overcoming a Presidential veto of the authorizing bill.

    In 1959, the three districts, East Unit, Brays Landing, and Howard Flat, voted to consolidate.  They elected a joint board of five members.  Ross A. Heminger, Robert Gibbs, and Peter Van Well represented the East Unit, with Darrell McNeill serving Brays Landing and Noble Bailey, Howard Flat.  This Board, in negotiations with the Secretary of the Interior, arrived at a contract covering construction of the irrigation project and repayment of construction costs.  In that same year, the contract was signed by the Assistant Secretary of the Interior Fred Amdahl and it was approved on September, 22, 1959, by the voters of the District with overwhelming support of 442 favorable votes to 54 negative votes.  One year later the President approved a Congressional allocation of two million dollars to begin work on the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District Project.

The Reality

    On December 6, 1960, construction work began.  Jensen-Rasmussen and Company and B-E-C-K Corporation of Sunnyside, Washington, having won the bidding for the construction of a two million gallon reservoir, river and booster pumping plants, and discharge lines.  The Bureau of Reclamation, with a staff of twenty-six under the direction of Percy M. Pharr planned and supervised the project construction.  Boyd H. Walter was designated assistant engineer in preparation for his assumption of project direction when Pharr retired at the end of the year.

    The year of 1961 saw the major construction materialize for the East Unit.  Four motor-driven, vertical shaft turbine pumps were received in August for the river plant.  The centrifugal pumping units for the booster stations came from Genoa, Italy aboard the S.S. President Arthur, arriving in September.  A contract was let to Kehne-Crabtree Electric for ten miles of 13.8 kilovolt supply lines to the pumping stations.  Frank Coluccio Construction began building the East Unit laterals, one through ten, and a number of supply contracts were awarded.

    The year 1961 also brought the beginning of work at Howard Flat and Brays Landing.  Planners changed the design of these units from river pumping to deep well.  Three wells yielding 16.5 cubic feet of water per second for Howard Flat and five producting 32.1 cubic feet per second at Brays Landing were needed.  The wells were located near the banks of the Columbia River.  Pilot holes were drilled to depths of 310 and 325 feet.  Results indicated an adequate supply of water.  The wells eliminated the necessity for fish screens or trash racks and insured the orchardists clean water.

    By the end of 1962, work on the East Unit was virtually complete.  After forty years of promotional work with water delivery nearly at hand, landowners started farm tract development putting in sprinkler systems, and planting fruit trees.  Scattered buildings appeared.  Local citizens formed improvement districts and petitioned the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District to install pipelines to deliver water to residential lots, and 1962 saw the first of these cooperative efforts begun.  The Board heard several petitions for change of land status during the year, and although the United States Justice Department attempted to resolve some land problems by negotiation, they did not always succeed.  A few cases required condemnation proceedings, which were not concluded in 1962.

    In 1963, Boyd Water, now project construction engineer, reported the East Unit complete and operating, designating 1963 the test year.  Howard Flat construction ended in July, 1963, and Brays Landing moved ahead on schedule.  Transfer of the East Unit and Howard Flat from construction crews to operation and maintenance personnel went smoothly, with the exception of a leak which developed in the two million gallon reservoir.  But even repairing and filling the resulting washout only briefly interrupted the operation.  The systems delivered 5,767 acre feet of water during the test year.  Although water was not available in Howard Flat on a continuing basis until July, 1963, the first crop census of the District revealed that 1,753 acres came into fruit production that year in the East Unit and Howard Flat.  With the completion of the Brays Landing construction in 1965, the combination of water, and sunshine visualized in the 1900's was indeed a reality.

The Results

     In 1964, from 1,750 irrigated acres, a crop with a gross worth of $1,252,177 was harvested.  By 1969, with 5,479 acres of the total 7,111 available within the District producing, the gross crop worth was $4,095,451.  The year 1970 being the fiftieth year of existence of the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation Project and the tenth year since the first water was available.  It is estimated that the gross worth of crops produced on lands irrigated by the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District will exceed $5,000,000.

    Noteworthy too, is the continued growth in gross crop worth in spite of a disastrous winter when on December 30, 1968, the temperature dropped to thirty degrees below zero.  A staff member of the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District described the catastrophe in these words:

        The icy breath of winter blew down across North Central Washington during the winter of 1967-1968
        wreaking ... untold damage to fruit trees in the entire area.  The months of April and May with their
        usual display of buds and bloom gave only a token indication of the disaster that had struck  Many of
        the older apple trees had heavy bloom ... However, the prospect for a good crop diminished, as later in
        the summer, the foliage turned yellow and the apples stopped growing.  The dissonance of the chain
        saw may become a familiar sound.

In the part of the East Unit most severely hit, a study in July made by Robert Leonard, agronomist with the Columbia Basin Project, and Chet James, irrigation manager of the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District, predicted a fifty percent loss of producting orchards.

    While it was of no consolation to orchardists hard hit by the winter freeze, the total crop worth continued to grow and the contribution of the land in the irrigation project to the local economy in produce alone increased over a million dollars from 1968 to 1969, going from $2,841,315 to $4,095,451.

    But the worth of the crop is only a fraction of the total value of the increased productivity brought about by the District.  A study done by Washington State University in 1962 comparing non-irrigated lands in the Columbia Basin to irrigated lands shows that the basic agriculture production is only equal to seven tenths of the dollar value of trades an services generated by that production.  In other words, for every million dollars worth of crops grown, $1,425,000 worth of support is required in trades and services.  Processing generates another #750,000 for every million dollars worth of crops.  The Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District is expected, then, to have a fifteen million dollar impact on the local economy in the year 1973, just ten years after the first water reached the land.

    In volume VII of the project history, 1966-1967, one finds this statement:

        Plucking a large, highly colored apple from the tree and delighting in its juicy crispness does not
        conjure thoughts of hot, arid hillsides providing only cheat grass and sagebrush.  At such a moment,
        not realized are the dreams, extensive planning and plain hard work required to combine adequate
        water supply with sunshine and rich soil to provide the delectable apple and abundant harvest.

        Someone, in the years past, shared with others his dream of orchards covering the rolling hills, redolent 
        in their springtime mantels of pink and white which portend the subsequent harvest and bulging
        warehouses.  The research in soil composition, water quality, economic studies, the endless meetings,
        discussions, letters and reports to be written, the struggle for appropriations, negotiations for rights of
        way, surveying, contracts for repayment, construction and power are only the beginning.  The bustle
        and activity of construction, the constant inspection, administrative details, solutions to the many
        problems, engineering, mechanical and otherwise, that arise, and involvement necessary to place water
        on the rolling hillsides.

        With the completion of construction, a transition to the operation and maintenance phase is made by
        the recruitment of personnel skilled the techniques of a complex irrigation facility.

        Next come the men and women dedicated to building homes and transforming the arid land to
        productive orchards.  Through their efforts and expertise, they see the good earth yield of her
        abundance and contribute to their livelihood and to the people of the entire area.

        Thus the dream has become reality.

And indeed, it has!