Irrigation has been the single most crucial element in the Walla Walla Valley's agriculture since 1836, when pioneer missionary Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) dug the first irrigation ditch near his Walla Walla mission. The bottomlands of the Walla Walla and Touchet rivers proved to be uncommonly fertile when supplied with water flowing off the nearby Blue Mountains. Early settlers dug small ditches for their gardens, orchards and pastures. The first large-scale canal projects were launched in 1892 and 1893, including the Hawley Ditch and the Burlingame Gardena Ditch, which transformed thousands of acres into lush farmland and orchards near Touchet. Other ditch projects soon followed the length of the Walla Walla Valley, including some across the border into Oregon. Artesian wells gushed fountains of groundwater. Irrigation made it possible to grow the crops that the Walla Walla Valley later became famous for: Walla Walla Sweets (onions) and wine grapes from the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area. Many of the original irrigation ditches were converted to more efficient covered pipelines beginning in 2010, as part of a plan to leave more water in the Walla Walla River for fish.
Marcus Whitman's Ditch
Missionary Marcus Whitman, one of the most famous figures in Washington history, was also the state's irrigation pioneer. Whitman brought apple and vegetable seeds with him to the banks of the Walla Walla River in 1836. To water them, he dug the first documented irrigation ditch in the state. Whitman recognized what others would soon discover. Central and Eastern Washington had most of the necessary elements for abundant agriculture -- plenty of sunshine, a long growing season and fertile soil -- but it lacked one crucial element, rainfall. The Walla Walla Valley averaged only about 15 inches of rain a year, sometimes as low as six. What it had in abundance, however, was fresh water flowing out of the snowfields of the Blue Mountains.
Whitman wanted to encourage the Indians near his Walla Walla mission to "settle down into an agricultural people" (Boening, Pt. 1, p. 261). So, he dug a ditch, "made without difficulty in the loose soil" and brought in water from a nearby Mill Creek (Boening, Pt. 1, p. 261). Before long, "wonderful crops were produced" (Boening, Pt. 1, p. 261). Every year, Whitman lengthened the ditch and enlarged his garden.
If he was aiming to teach the Indians a lesson about agriculture, it didn't work out exactly as planned. Members of the United State Exploring Expedition, led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) visited the mission in 1841 and observed that the ditches were becoming a point of contention between Whitman and the surrounding Indians.
Here's what Wilkes wrote after his 1841 visit: "The Indians have learned the necessity of irrigating their crops by finding that Dr. Whitman's succeeded better than their own. They therefore desired to take some of the water from his trenches instead of making new ones of their own, which he very naturally refused. They then dug trenches for themselves and stopped up the doctor's. This had well nigh produced much difficulty; but finally they were made to understand that there was enough water for both, and they now use it with as much success as the missionaries" (Wilkes, Vol. IV, p. 396).
Wilkes also mentioned that the Walla Walla country was uncommonly "susceptible to irrigation" and that "a natural irrigation seems to take place" in the bottomlands, "owing to the numerous bends of the small streams, which almost convert a portion of the land into islands" (Wilkes, Vol. IV, p. 396).
However, Whitman's irrigation experiment died along with Whitman in the 1847 attack on the mission that became known as the Whitman Massacre. In fact, irrigation in the Walla Walla Valley went on hiatus for a time, mostly because the surrounding countryside proved capable of growing excellent wheat crops without irrigation. Yet it wasn't long before other settlers began exploring the potential of other, irrigated crops in the bottomlands of the Walla Walla and Touchet rivers. Some early settlers in the 1850s and 1860s had good success planting apple orchards fed by hand-dug ditches or in some cases nourished by the copious ground water underneath the Walla Walla Valley.
Farmers in the Mill Creek drainage, on the east side of the present-day city of Walla Walla, were diverting water from Mill Creek and Yellow Hawk Creek as early as 1864. In that year, the Washington Territorial Legislature passed several laws dividing up the water rights on those streams, and authorizing the removal of "all obstructions, either artificial or otherwise," which interfered with the flow of those streams (Boening, Pt. 1, p. 274).
This kind of homemade irrigation thrived throughout the Walla Walla Valley, "wherever water can be brought out by small ditches, water wheels or force pumps" (Boening, Pt. 1, p. 268). The first fruit orchards in the Walla Walla Valley were irrigated from the numerous small streams, which snaked through the bottomlands. By 1890, Walla Walla County had 2,809 acres under irrigation. This was well behind Kittitas County with over 25,000 acres and Yakima County with over 15,000 acres, both of which had launched huge irrigation projects opening up vast amounts of formerly dry land. Yet Walla Walla County had the third most irrigated land in the state. Within the next decade, thousands more acres in the Walla Walla Valley would be watered.
The Hawley Ditch
In 1901, Walla Walla's pioneer historian W. D. Lyman took his readers on a tour through Walla Walla County. He stopped at the new town of Touchet, near the confluence of the Touchet River and the Walla Walla River. He wrote that it was a "very fertile" section of land, with fine-quality soil that "needs only water to make it highly productive" (Lyman, Illustrated, p. 142). He noted that the development of this community, population about 200, was "entirely the result of the irrigation system established upon the Touchet during the past four or five years" (Lyman, Illustrated, p. 141).
Lyman was probably referring to the first major irrigation ditch project in Walla Walla County: the Hawley Ditch, named for Livingston R. Hawley and his brothers, Philip B. Hawley and W. B. Hawley. Word first spread about the project in January 1892, when the Walla Walla Union wrote that "a regular land fever has prevailed among the Touchet people" because they "believe an irrigating ditch will be put in" (Irwin, p. 20). Then, in October 1892, the paper reported that L. R. Hawley had "a large force of men at work digging a ditch which will irrigate the lands" (Irwin, p. 21). In December, it reported three miles completed on the east side of the Touchet River and another canal on the west side to be completed by spring.
In 1893, the paper reported that the east side ditch "was now completed and ready for use" (Irwin, p. 21). It mentioned that the land is "well adapted" for fruit, vegetables, and alfalfa, and that the Hawley brothers had foreseen that the land "could be made more valuable for farming than for stock use" (Irwin, p. 21). The Touchet correspondent for the Walla Walla Union could not refrain from indulging in a bit of bragging on completion of the east-side Hawley canal: "We are proud to be classed as one of the first [to use] extensively in Walla Walla County an irrigation system, and show the remarkable results to be derived therefrom" (Irwin, p. 142).
The Hawley Ditch system would consist of what Rose M. Boening, the author of a 1918 history of Washington irrigation, called the West Side Ditch and the East Side Ditch, "with their sources in the Touchet River and combined length of about nine miles" (Boening, Pt. 2, p. 24). These ditches served 1,000 acres on either side of the Touchet River near its confluence with the Walla Walla River. The Hawley Ditch system also incorporated a crude earlier ditch dug in the 1880s by pioneer farmer H. H. Hanson (1865-1953) and another man. They dug it "by hand, with water following almost at their heels," with water taken from the Touchet (Locati, p. 241). Hanson had used the water to irrigate a 30-acre fruit orchard. It soon became part of the Hawley system.
Burlingame Gardena and Old Lowden Ditches
At about the same time, another large irrigation project was taking shape on the Walla Walla River not far from Touchet: the Walla Walla Irrigation Co., also known as the Burlingame Gardena Ditch and later as the Gardena Farms irrigation project. Local farmer and engineer Edward C. Burlingame (1858-1958) first started the ditch in 1893 and built five miles of it. After a hiatus following the nationwide financial panic of 1893, he resumed the project and finished another 15 miles by 1905. The canal watered his 7,000-acre Burlingame Hilltop Ranch in the Gardena district south of Touchet. The system later evolved into today's Gardena Farms Irrigation District No. 13.
The Old Lowden Ditch, a few miles upstream from Touchet on the Walla Walla River, was also getting underway. Pioneer cattle and dairy rancher Frank M. Lowden, Sr. (1832-1918) had received his first water rights in 1870 -- among the earliest in the valley. Yet he did not start digging the ditch that bears his name until 1893, when he decided to grow hay for winter feed on his ranch. The ditch ran along the north side of the Walla Walla River, and watered Lowden's extensive hay fields, gardens, and orchards. At first, the ditch was for his own use but other farmers later asked for, and received, permission to use water. The Old Lowden Ditch evolved into the Old Lowden Ditch Corporation in 1939 and was recently became part of the consolidated Bergevin-Williams/Old Lowden system.
Early Irrigation Technology
In the early days, irrigation was more limited by terrain more than it is today. Touchet area historian Larry Dodd said that the fields had to be "flood-irrigated," which could be effectively accomplished only on fairly level fields. Old-time farmers lacked any effective way to pump and distribute the water. Fortunately, much of the Walla Walla Valley bottomlands were fairly flat. In the Touchet region, flood-irrigation also had the advantage of leaching out the salts in the alkaline and saline soils.
The Walla Walla River originates in Oregon before turning north into Washington, so a number of irrigation ditches were also dug on the portion of the Walla Walla River valley south of the Oregon state line, near Milton-Freewater, Oregon. Those included the Eastside Ditch Company, the Milton Ditch Company, the Little Walla Walla River Irrigation Union, the Powell Ditch Company and the Pleasantview Ditch Company.
The Hudson Bay District Improvement Company, another irrigation company just south of the Oregon line, formed in 1903 and completed most of its ditch construction by 1912. It became a water improvement district in 1952.
Beginning in 1907, Walla Walla Valley farmers started making abundant use of a different kind of irrigation source: artesian wells.
"One of the most interesting and important features of Walla Walla is the fine system of spouting artesian wells," wrote W. D. Lyman in a second history of the Walla Walla region, published in 1918. "There are now over thirty of these wells in the Walla Walla Valley, the largest having a flow of twenty-five hundred gallons per minute, sufficient to irrigate a half-section of land. Owing to the immense snowfall in the Blue Mountains, ranging from ten to fifty or sixty feet during the season, a large part of the slopes and valleys below seems to be sub-irrigated and also to be underlaid by a great sheet of water" (Lyman, Old Walla Walla, p. 6).
In the winter months, steam could be seen rising from warm water bubbling up from the bases of the wells, with green watercress around them. "Some vegetable growers with artesian wells used the warm water to force early growth of spring rhubarb," according to Walla Walla farmer, agricultural inspector, teacher, and historian Joe Locati (Locati, p. 60).
A 1916 survey showed that wheat and barley -- which often required no irrigation -- were clearly the most abundant crops in the vast uplands surrounding the valleys. However, alfalfa, apples, cherries, asparagus, prunes, and onions (later to become famous as Walla Walla sweet onions) – were being produced in large quantities on the irrigated lands.
"It is no wonder that the farmers of our four counties (Walla Walla, Asotin, Columbia and Garfield) have automobiles and household luxuries galore, and when harvest time is over, take trips to California, Honolulu or 'back East," wrote Lyman (Lyman, Old Walla Walla, p. 192).
Lyman noted that gardens and orchards were prolific in the area immediately around the city of Walla Walla, as well as in the lower Walla Walla Valley from Touchet and Gardena to the Columbia. He also noted that the river's irrigated valley south of Walla Walla, stretching across the Oregon line, was exceptionally productive. He wrote that "the most productive and compact single body of country is that portion of the Walla Walla Valley south of the state line extending to Milton, Ore."(Lyman, Old Walla Walla p. 190).
From Apples to Walla Walla Sweet Onions
The Blalock Farms orchards, two miles east of Walla Walla, was one of the biggest early fruit orchards, established in 1885. The farm contracted to receive sewage water from the city of Walla Walla to help irrigate the orchard. This arrangement later grew into the Blalock Irrigation District, which was still operating as late as 1978, using filtered sewage water. The Baker-Langdon orchard was another large orchard, along the banks of Cottonwood Creek. According to Locati, who picked apples on that farm, water was pumped out of Cottonwood Creek and out of two wells. The fruit orchard industry in the Walla Walla Valley peaked in the 1920s. It was hit hard by the Great Depression, and was almost entirely "wiped out" by a deep freeze in 1955 (Locati, p. 82). Most of the land was converted to other crops, including asparagus and, especially, the onions for which the valley was becoming famous.
Around 1900, a retired French soldier named Pete Pieri settled in the Walla Walla Valley and planted some onion seed in his irrigated patch of land. He had found the seed in Corsica, and had admired its exceptionally mild, sweet flavor. He soon discovered that it grew to robust sizes when irrigated in Walla Walla's soil. He and his Italian-immigrant neighbors also noticed that it could be planted in the fall to produce a fine early summer crop. By 1910, his neighbors had adopted it, too, and it became the prime summer onion in the valley. They called it the "French" onion. It did not acquire the name Walla Walla Sweets until 1960, when these onions were marketed nationally. Today, only growers in the Walla Walla Valley can market their onions under the name Walla Walla Sweets. This entire famous harvest is produced by only about "30 farmers on fewer than a thousand acres within a 15-mile radius of the original Pieri farm" (Steury). The words "Walla Walla" and "Sweets" have become so thoroughly linked that Walla Walla's amateur collegiate summer league baseball team is named the Walla Walla Sweets.
And Then Came Grapes
In 1918, Lyman – and some of the region's farmers and orchardists – had already foreseen the vast potential for another soon-to-be-famous crop in the Walla Walla Valley: grapes. "By reason of great heat and aridity and long growing season, that region is particularly adapted to grape culture ...," he wrote. "The expense of reclaiming the land and maintaining irrigating systems is high, but when fairly established it may be expected to be one of the most attractive and productive sections" (Lyman, Old Walla Walla p. 190).
Grapes were grown from the earliest years in the Walla Walla Valley, sometimes by the large population of Italian immigrant farmers. Yet, ironically, the average Italian farmer used local grapes to make wine "only in an emergency -- if he was strapped for money or could not otherwise obtain some from California" (Locati, p. 91). That's because the grapes were usually Concord or other varieties not suited to fine wine.
It wasn't until the late 1970s that growers discovered that fine wine grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, Riesling, and merlot thrived when irrigated on some of the rolling slopes of the Walla Walla Valley. The valley's latitude at 46 degrees north is midway between the latitudes of France's most famous winegrowing areas, Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Wineries in Walla Walla Valley
The valley's first commercial winery, Leonetti Cellars, was established in 1977 and it remains one of the best known. It was joined by Woodward Canyon in 1981 and L'Ecole in 1983. In 1984, the Walla Walla AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation was established. The Walla Walla wine industry exploded in the 1990s and 2000s. By 2013 Walla Walla had more than 100 wineries and 1,800 acres of grapes, including such well-known vineyards as Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills.
Nearly every vineyard relies on drip irrigation, which "is an essential part of growing grapes here in southeastern Washington/northeastern Oregon because of the low annual rainfall totals here," according to Jeffrey Popick, an instructor in viticulture at Walla Walla Community College's Enology and Viticulture program (Popick). Popick said that the "vast majority if vineyard irrigation water is derived from wells" (Popick).
Some of these may be the same artesian wells that Lyman observed throughout the valley in 1918 -- although most of the wells no longer "spout" as Lyman described. The valley's artesian wells had for years "continued flowing under their own pressure," but the pressure "gradually diminished throughout the valley" (Locati, p. 60). By 1978, Locati reported that only two artesian wells "gush water under their own pressure" -- the rest rely on pumps (Locati, p. 60).
Sprinkling Systems and Drip Irrigation
Yet irrigation grew ever more widespread in the Walla Walla Valley. In The Horticultural Heritage of Walla Walla County, Joe Locati reported that in 1966 Walla Walla County had a total of 35,000 acres under some type of irrigation. By 1978, the county had about 80,000 irrigated acres, with the western part of the county accounting for most of the additional acreage. Irrigation methods had evolved far past the original flood irrigation of the early days.
"Nearly all irrigation is now done with sprinkling systems from set-line to wheel-line types," wrote Locati in 1978 (Locati, p. 146). For spinach, for instance, "sprinkler irrigation from start to harvest is the only irrigation method used today" (Locati, p. 166). Asparagus was also entirely irrigated by sprinkler. Later, drip irrigation became widespread and is today used in almost all of Walla Walla's famous vineyards. Without drip irrigation, said Popick, "the Walla Walla AVA would not exist today as we know it" (Popick).
Consolidations and Improvements
In 1995, a number of the old ditch companies in the Walla Walla Valley, just south of the Oregon line -- Eastside Ditch Company, the Milton Ditch Company, the Little Walla Walla River Irrigation Union, the Powell Ditch Company, and the Pleasantview Ditch Company -- consolidated into the Walla Walla River Irrigation District, which currently holds "some of the oldest water rights in the state of Oregon, some dating back to the late 1860s" ("About WWRID").
The Walla Walla River Irrigation District currently irrigates 3,500 acres of "some of the most productive, valuable crop land in the state of Oregon" ("About WWRID"). It uses the Little Walla Walla River to convey the majority of its water. The primary crops include apples, cherries, prunes, and the famous Walla Walla Valley wine grapes.
The nearby Hudson Bay District Improvement Company shares a diversion dam with the Walla Walla River Irrigation Co. The water is split between the two systems. The Hudson Bay system has about 27 miles of canals, more than seven miles of pipelines, and it irrigates about 8,000 acres, most of which are on the Oregon side of the state line. Hay and grain make up two-thirds of the crops in the Hudson Bay district, with fruit and onions composing the remainder.
Water for Fish
In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent letters to three of the main Walla Walla Valley irrigators -- the Walla Walla River Irrigation District, the Hudson Bay District Improvement Company and Gardena Farms Irrigation District #13 -- warning that they may have been in violation of the Endangered Species Act by drawing down Walla Walla River levels to the point at which bull trout and steelhead could be harmed. That was "an event that really got the irrigator's attention," according to one local observer (Jones). All three districts entered into an interim settlement agreement in which they altered their practices to protect the fish and leave more water in the river during times crucial to the fish. The districts, spurred on by the settlement, also began planning to revamp their systems. Within a decade, many of the old open canals were converted to pipelines, making water delivery more efficient. This allowed the irrigators to leave more water in the Walla Walla River for fish.
Irrigation in the Walla Walla Valley is just as crucial today as it was when Marcus Whitman dug that first trench in 1836. The valley's green pastures, sweet onion fields and vineyards would not exist without it. Meanwhile, thousands of wine-tasting tourists can still hear echoes of those original ditch names in a few of valley's more elegant settings -- the Gardena Creek Winery, the Bergevin Lane Vineyards, and the Lowden Hills Winery.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.