Columbia National Wildlife Refuge

and the Columbia Basin Project

Taylor S. Fielding

July 25, 2007


What is the background of the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge near Othello, Washington? How was its creation linked to the Columbia Basin Project?


The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is located near Othello, Washington, and was created from lands purchased by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service during the 1950s. The land was significantly altered by the Columbia Basin Project, which introduced water into a previously arid area via man-made canals and tunnels. The excess or “waste” water, as well as spillage and seepage from these canals and tunnels raised the water table, creating new ponds and wetlands. Grant County has benefited from the recreational opportunities created by these changes, with several state parks in the area. Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Grand County – Thumbnail History 5-6 (History Link 2007). The refuge is now a “30,000-acre haven for more than 200 species of birds and waterfowl, including many that previously bypassed the region entirely.” Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Columbia National Wildlife Refuge 1 (History Link 2007). Audubon Washington considers the refuge to be an “important bird area,” according to the Web site In addition, that Web site notes the area contains 145 acres of ponds, 841 acres of lakes and 17.8 miles of streams. While exact numbers are difficult to pin down due to conflicting sources, the refuge is at least 20,000 acres, and several sources give its size as more than 30,000 acres.


The area of lower Crab Creek was examined as a “wasteway” or route to return excess water from lands irrigated by the Columbia Basin Project to the Columbia River as early as 1920. Much of this investigation was because there is natural drainage into the lower Crab Creek area. Columbia Basin Survey Comm’n, Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, Appendix D: Drainage and Wasteways 153 (1920). This study noted the area could easily handle large quantities of water flow with only minor channel improvement. Id. at 119. This study also concluded “there is little land of value” along lower Crab Creek between Moses Lake and Beverly. Id. Later studies report “the most important area of discharge is in and north of the lower Crab Creek Valley” for surface-water drainage of the surrounding area. State of Washington, Groundwater Report #3: Progress Report on Groundwater in the Columbia Basin Project, 53 (1952).

Also, as early as 1920, the Columbia Basin Survey Commission considered the possibility of water storage along lower Crab Creek. At the time, the amount of storage was extremely small. The Commission noted, “[b]y acquiring the low area of 400 acres west of Adrian and using it as a retaining basin to retard the crest of the discharge, the 800 acre-feet wasted from [the] canal could be stored for use in irrigating the bottom lands down the creek.” Columbia Basin Survey Comm’n, supra at 119.

In 1948, the area of lower Crab Creek was again considered as a site for a dam and water storage project. However, this proposal was for a much larger impoundment of water. The proposed site was nine miles upstream from the mouth of Crab Creek and approximately four miles west of the town of Smyrna. Army Corps of Eng’rs N. Pac. Div., Review Report on the Columbia River and Tributaries, Appendix F: Tributaries from the Canadian Border to the Mouth of the Yakima River 119-20 (1948). The proposed project would have consisted of an earthen dam, 300 feet high and 7,000 feet long. Id. The project would have provided approximately five million acre-feet of usable capacity to increase the power generating capability of Priest Rapids dam. Id. The project was scrapped because “the capital cost per kilowatt hour of system prime power would be higher for this plan….” Id. The plan would have also required the relocation of an existing railroad line. Id.

The use of the lower Crab Creek drainage as a wildlife refuge area was already being considered in 1948. One report notes that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service had already purchased lands to create a wildlife refuge in the area. Army Corps of Eng’rs N. Pac. Div., supra at 78-79. The report also states further land purchases and development of the area, including check dams and use of “adjacent tillable land for the raising of crops to attract migratory waterfowl from surrounding agricultural lands.” Id. This report recommends this course of action, noting “[t]he fulfillment of these plans would create a well-balanced waterfowl area. Id. It appears the report may have anticipated the development of the wildlife refuge to be in conjunction with the flooding of part of the lower Crab Creek Valley due to the construction of the Priest Rapids dam. Id. at 79 and 134. However, the report recommendations begin with a general statement that areas in which “refuges or critically needed winter ranges, are to be destroyed, and alternative habitat which will provide equivalent wildlife use be acquired….” Id. at 134. The report then lists several specific instances, beginning with Crab Creek. Id.

Other documents detail the fact that the acreage for wildlife, especially in refuges was already lacking as the Columbia Basin Project dams began to inundate wetlands:

Land for a fifth refuge, which will include more than 20,000 acres in the Crab Creek drainage is now being acquired. With irrigation development in the Columbia Basin Project, it is anticipated that the present system of Federal wildlife refuges will be inadequate and further study of the problem is planned by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dep’t of Interior Bureau of Reclamation, Columbia River, H.R. Doc. No. 81-473, at 219 (2nd Sess. 1950) (emphasis added).

Despite claims some land had been acquired as early as 1948, and that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service was attempting to acquire lands in 1950, it would be 1955 before the agency paid $96,000 for 32,000 acres of land near Othello for the refuge. Paul C Pitzer, Visions, Plans, and Realities: A History of the Columbia Basin Project 128 (June 1990) (unpublished Ph.D dissertation, University of Oregon) (on file with Holland Terrell Library, Washington State University).

Although enhanced recreational opportunities were not an intended consequence of the Columbia Basin Project, the Bureau of Reclamation would later promote those opportunities. In official Bureau publication, a two-page spread with several photos claims the Columbia Basin area of Washington is “fast becoming one of the Nation’s most popular recreational developments. For your pleasure, the following are offered: swimming, fishing, boating, hunting, camping, picnicking and lodging.” Bureau of Reclamation, The Reclamation Era, May 1957, at 66-67. In 1970, the Bureau would also acknowledge transferring Federally-owned lands below O’Sullivan Dam to the Washington State Fish and Game Department for administration. The Bureau notes the “[r]ecreational use of these lands has become significant and therefore is reported in 1970. Bureau of Reclamation, Federal Reclamation Projects, Water and Land Resource Accomplishments 1970, at 22-23.


It appears from the start of the Columbia Basin Project that water would be flowing through the originally arid area of lower Crab Creek. The area was considered for a small amount of storage in those early reports, for irrigation. Later reports would see proposals to inundate the area, either with its own dam or as an arm of a reservoir behind a dam downstream on the Columbia River. In reality, the Federal agencies involved decided to take advantage of the newly transformed area to provide adequate habitat for wildlife.

Taylor S. Fielding served as legal intern at CELP in 2007.  He graduated from Weber State University with a BS in Anthropology and Criminal Justice.  He completed a masters degree in Anthropology at Idaho State University.  He is a JD candidate at Gonzaga University in 2008.  For more on CELP’s program for legal interns, click here.