The landscape that lies under lake Roosevelt today is part of a series of “benchlands,” flat regions separated by steep drops. The volcanic soil is fertile, and the nearby Columbia river provided drainage, but without a way to bring more water uphill to farms, the land’s crop yields were limited. The solution was an irrigation system.
Construction began in 1908 after the Fruitland Irrigation Company settled a lawsuit with the local water and power company. Fruitland company president L. MacLean called it “one of the largest irrigation schemes that has ever been attempted” in the northwest. The irrigation channel ran from the confluence of the Colville and Columbia rivers, near Kettle Falls, to the town of Daisy, 15 miles South on the Columbia. This created a long triangle of irrigated land on the edge of the river, ideal for the orchards that still grow there today.
As settlers came to the Northwest in the end of the nineteenth century, they brought agriculture with them. In order to claim homesteads, these farmers had to build some form of “improvements” to their land, and small irrigation projects were common. But a countywide project like the Fruitland system meant that an area’s farms had a lasting stake in the economy.
Carrying water across central Washington took ingenuity. The finished “irrigation ditch” was actually a combination of ditches, crossings, and wooden flumes that carried water above ground. Most of the irrigation system was removed in the 1930s or abandoned to the rising waters, but pieces of it can still be seen today--reminding us that even on the edge of the Columbia, water is a critical resource.