Growing Apples in the Desert – (Washington State)

Leaving the coast and temperate rain forest behind, we head east.  To our surprise we are confronted by semi-arid desert, heat, heat, and more heat, a petrified Gingko forest, sage brush, and no shade in sight.

Continuing a bit farther east, even more to our surprise, we suddenly enter into extensive farmland.  How could it be possible that a county that receives an average of 6-10 inches of rainfall a year is a booming agro-polis?

Our ponderings were answered when we spotted a sign marking this territory as the “Columbia Basin Project (CBP) Reclamation Area”.

Through some investigations (mainly a wikipedia search, I will admit), we discovered that the CBP is a huge government undertaking that began in 1902 with the creation of the US Bureau of Land Reclamation (Reclamation being a bit of a misnomer since from what and whom is the Government “reclaiming” land to be lush and fertile that has traditionally been desert for ages?)

We learned that, with the goal of aiding development in dry western states, the USBLR, under authority of President FDR, authorized the damming of the Columbia River in 1933. In 1942, the Grand Coulee Dam was completed and aside from a short focus on extra hydroelectric power during WWII, its main goal was land irrigation.

It is the largest ‘reclamation’ project in the United States, supplying irrigation water to over 670,000 acres of land, boosting the hydration to an equivalent of 40-50 inches of rainfall per year, making the area almost as wet as the rare temperate rain forests of the coast (68+ inches per year).

The project was meant to be rendered sustainable through the support small farmers in tough economic times and an innovative payback system through which farmers would pay for the project in the coming years of supposedly profitable harvests. Instead, due to escalating costs in a post-war economy the plan was abandoned in favor of permanent government subsidy. This, and a management  power struggle between government agencies left a confused vacuum of authority and oversight, allowing massive mono-cropping agro-business to buy up land and reap the benefits of ‘free’ water.

The usual slew of environmental damages associated with unsustainable land-use and ecologically-insensitive development followed, most notably reducing native fish stocks both from creating a 550 foot-tall dam, and from run-off and sedimentary changes associated with the irrigation and flow in the river area. It is thought that these issues will soon lead to extinction of a number of salmon species in the area and have negatively effected Native American fish harvests and thus their cultural heritage.

Eastern Washington is currently the most productive tree fruit producing area on the planet, and grows a majority of the United State’s Apples. None of this would be possible without this project.

Next time you pick up some fruit in the produce section, consider the systematic effects associated with our Nation’s food production system.

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