Make Way for Rising Waters

The 1310 Line and the Flooding of Lake Roosevelt

How do you get two tribes, six counties, and nine federal agencies to agree on something? As work began on the Grand Coulee Dam, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was busy acquiring the land that would lie within the reservoir’s 500 miles of coastline.

In 1940, Congress mandated that the Bureau of Reclamation would be granted all the land that would be flooded by Lake Roosevelt, from the banks of the Columbia up to 1310 feet of elevation. But passing the bill was only the beginning.

The wording of the original law was so vague that both the Colville and Spokane nations, which owned land next to the river, refused to accept it. Promising “approximately one-quarter” of the lake for the tribes’ “paramount use,” the law would have left the tribes with little to show for the loss of thousands of acres of farmland and fishing grounds. Representatives from the tribes traveled to Washington, D.C. to protest the law in person. The dispute was not resolved until a 1990 agreement that set environmental protections, gave the tribes control over 40,000 acres of land, and secured tribal authority over boating and fishing on the Columbia and Spokane rivers.

On the east side of the proposed lake, the city of Kettle Falls found itself split in two by the 1310-foot elevation line. (The city we call Kettle Falls today was then called Meyers Falls.) Ironically, the city was above the level of the lake, about 1290 feet elevation. But the law was inflexible, so Kettle Falls had to be abandoned. The foundations along the town’s main street are still visible today.

Making room for the new lake was an administrative puzzle, and the “1310 line” was one piece of the solution. It set a blueprint for Lake Roosevelt and the surrounding cities. But it also had far-reaching consequences for the rights of the local tribes.