On December 2, 1905, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock (1835-1909) approves the first U.S. Reclamation Service project in Washington, the Okanogan Irrigation Project. The purpose of the project is to store water from Salmon Creek in a reservoir near Conconully and to supply water to Pogue Flat and other agricultural sites near Omak and Okanogan. Work begins on the Conconully Dam in 1907 and the first water begins to flow in 1909. The project does not live up to its promise and is later reduced to about half its original acreage.
To Irrigate Okanogan Orchards
The U.S. Reclamation Service was born in 1902 with passage of the Newlands Act, also known as the Federal Reclamation Act. Landowners near Okanogan immediately petitioned the new bureau to create an Okanogan irrigation district near Pogue Flat that could eventually irrigate "50,000 to 75,000" acres (Wilson, p. 221). Federal authorities soon concluded that the claims were exaggerated and the project would be too expensive. The proposal was rejected.
Local settlers kept trying and even traveled to Washington D.C., to make their case. Another study was undertaken in 1904 and this time the project was declared feasible. Hitchcock finally signed off on the project in 1905 and appropriated up to $500,000 to build a 10,099-acre project.
It was the first project in the state, but not by much -- Hitchcock had approved a Yakima project 10 days later.
Construction on the Okanogan project proceeded fitfully because of engineering setbacks and a labor strike. The Salmon Creek Diversion Dam was finished in 1906. Work on the Conconully Dam began in 1907 and water began flowing to part of the project in 1909. The dam was finally completed in 1910.
Heartaches, Worries, and Griefs
However, the project did not live up to its promise. In 1911, irrigation water ran out by August 1, even though only about two-thirds of the project was under cultivation. Too much water seeped out of the canals. A devastating series of drought years beginning in 1915 vastly cut the runoff from the surrounding mountains. Many orchardists simply could not get enough water for their trees and had to abandon their homesteads.
"The setting down of these few facts is a very simple matter but they do not tell of the heartaches, worries, and grief through which many of the water users passed during the period from 1910 to 1929," wrote the first Okanogan mayor, Harry J. Kerr in his History of the Town of Okanogan in 1931 (Kerr, p. 108).
By the 1940s, "through Reclamation's buy-outs and grower's abandonment, the original 10,099 acre project stood at 5,038" (Autobee).
Yet a number of refinements and new pumping plants over the next decades improved the project. Those orchardists who endured the tough years were often rewarded. In 1954, "the U.S. Department of Commerce ranked the project fifth in the nation with 626,677 apple trees" (Autobee).
By the 1990s, about half the irrigated acreage was in orchard, and half in pasture and alfalfa hay.