Controlling the Crooked River: Changing Environments and Water Uses in Irrigated Central Oregon, 1913-1988

By Cohen, Scott B. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Controlling the Crooked River: Changing Environments and Water Uses in Irrigated Central Oregon, 1913-1988


Cohen, Scott B., Oregon Historical Quarterly


LIKE MUCH OF THE AMERICAN WEST, the value of water to people living in Central Oregon's Crooked River Basin cannot be overstated. All of the basin's inhabitants, from the first people who roamed Oregon's high plateau to those who attempted to settle there (if not permanently, then long enough to make improvements and sell out), recognized rivers and streams as the arteries of life. (1) Where there was no water, there were no people. The Crooked River Basin's history is defined not only by its semi-arid landscape but also by human transformations of the waterways that traverse it. Dams, storage reservoirs, canals, and pumping plants as well as acts of drainage, channelization, and biological management characterize the Crooked River and its tributaries today. It is at the intersection of those changes, where human ingenuity and nature meet, that the dynamism of the river's history is revealed. When Central Oregonians turned to dams and irrigation, the changes they expected in both human and natural communities were not always what they got, and that unexpectedness is typical in the area's environmental history.

During the early-twentieth century, a large influx of new settlers came to Central Oregon. As more people poured into the area, irrigation became indispensable for ranchers who could no longer graze cattle openly throughout the region and for homesteaders who were attempting to farm in the arid climate. But when those ranchers and farmers (and, later, the federal Reclamation Bureau) set out to impound the river and its tributaries, they proved unable to predict or control all that was different in the newly created environment. That new environment sparked changes in how people used water, and those changes prompted Oregonians to reevaluate the Crooked River and its role in Central Oregon's culture and economy, an examination that continues today.

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In 1961, the Reclamation Bureau finished work on the main phase of the federal Crooked River Project, which included a 240-foot earthen dam and irrigation works for twenty thousand acres of land. Congress had authorized the project for irrigation and flood control purposes, but the new environment it created--particularly the Prineville Reservoir, behind the dam--quickly prompted a new demand for water that proved completely unforeseen by the Reclamation Bureau, irrigators, and the area's political and economic leaders. The impounded river spawned tourism, recreation, and retirement industries, which opened the way for a variety of users, not simply irrigators, to lay claim to the river. Those unexpected consequences of damming the river caused tension among irrigators, area leaders, and instream recreational and wildlife users who all wanted access to, and control of, the basin's most valuable commodity. Much of the Crooked River Basin's development has been and will be determined by how Oregonians choose to value the area's most limited resource. While many Oregonians worked in concert to secure authorization and funding for the Crooked River Project, the new environment it created spawned drastically different visions for the basin's future. During the latter half of the twentieth century, those visions clashed in political battles over water use that took center stage in the Crooked River Basin.

The Crooked River Project is small compared to major federal dams like Grand Coulee and Bonneville, but its story is significant because it so clearly demonstrates several important aspects of water history in the American West: an early misunderstanding of water resources and river hydrology that led to water and economic scarcity; the instrumental role local water users played in determining water policy; the relationship between western water projects and federal politics; and, most significantly, the changing uses--from out-of-stream irrigation to in-stream recreational and fish and wildlife uses--for which water is valued by those living in the West.

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