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Notes on the Geography of The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin

The phrase "bonanza farming" usually refers to the huge wheat farms that developed a century ago in the Palouse Hills of southeastern Washington State. Those hills are still in production, but to their west lie the even more productive irrigated lands of the Columbia Basin Project, only half-finished, never even remotely likely to be finished, but still irrigating a half-million acres.

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The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 1

The soil here is mostly fine-grained silt, laid on massive flood basalts. When a tractor passes on a breezy day, a plume of dust can be seen from miles away. The toes on the left side were getting pretty hot when this picture was taken one summer day.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 2

This land could be irrigated; in the 1950s there were plans to irrigate it.  Spoil-sport economists put an end to those plans, however, and the land remains dryfarmed.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 3

Where to put the wheat that grows here? Elevators are expensive, and railcars are scarce. Pile 'er up.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 4

Wand a higher heap? Get a taller auger.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 5

Part of the Basin, however was reclaimed in the 1950s by the Bureau of Reclamation, whose Columbia Basin Project lifts water from the Columbia River at Grand Coulee and runs it through a huge system of canals. Here the main canal divides ("bifurcates" in the jargon) into eastern and western branches.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 6

The east branch enters a siphon, shown here, with the far end visible in the background. The fine rental car helps date the picture.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 7

Periodic drops keep the branch canals almost level.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 8

The Mercedes-Benz of field channels: massive concrete.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 9

Plastic checks pond the water, which is drawn off in siphon pipes like those piled in the left foreground. This is furrow irrigation, and it works well if the land if flat and not too sandy.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 10

Too much sand? Uneven land surface? Then sprinklers may be the answer. Here's an obsolescent side-roll system, which draws water from a ditch at the other hand.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 11

State of the art: a center-pivot sprinkler with an articulated tailpiece to reach the corners of the field that otherwise would stay dry.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 12

A big-gun sprinkler covers a lot of ground at the far end of the sprinkler line, which of course moves much more quickly than the pivot end.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 13

Telltale center-pivot tracks in a wheat field. None of the planners of this irrigation system dreamed of using their precious water on grain.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 14

Yields are extremely heavy, so much so that the post-harvest straw is too abundant to plow under.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 15

Alfalfa's another common crop, though rain looks about to spoil the drying windrows.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 16

A closer look at a partly cut field. In the background, some rough ground, a reminder of the flood basalts that cover the Columbia Plains.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 17

Though full of waterfowl, Moses Lake is an artificial pond formed by seepage water from the irrigation project. The flood basalts underlying the basin like stacked pancakes are nicely revealed on the right.

The Western United States: Bonanza Farming in the Columbia Basin picture 18

The pioneers never saw such water threading through the coulees.


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