The Burlingame Gardena irrigation ditch, a key irrigation project in the Walla Walla Valley, is completed on May 27, 1905.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 11/07/2013
  • Essay 10661

On May 27, 1905, the Burlingame Gardena irrigation ditch, a key irrigation project in the Walla Walla Valley, is completed. It is one of the biggest irrigation projects in the Walla Walla Valley and transports water in 21 miles of canals from the Walla Walla River to the Gardena area, just south of Touchet. Its guiding force and president is Edward C. Burlingame (1858-1958), who uses the water to irrigate his vast Burlingame Hilltop Ranch near the Oregon border. Other farms rapidly develop in the area. The canal system operates for many years under the name Walla Walla Irrigation Co. It becomes the Gardena Farms Irrigation District in 1928 and later Gardena Farms Irrigation District No. 13.

Saving Miles and Money

The project had its beginnings in 1892 when local farmer and engineer Burlingame was asked by Walla Walla resident J. F. "Frank" Boyer to "check a survey that had been made" for a planned irrigation system for the Gardena district, just south of Touchet (Irwin, p. 349). Burlingame took on the job and his new survey showed how he could "save 5 and a half miles of canal and $25,000" (Irwin, p. 349). As a result, Burlingame was invited to join the project. Soon, he was in charge.

Construction of the original canal, which was called the Burlingame Ditch or the Burlingame-Boyer Ditch, began in 1893. Burlingame and his crews dug about five miles of it that year. On May 24, 1894, the Walla Walla Union reported that the Walla Walla Irrigation Co. was "putting up the best ditch" in the Touchet area, and that it was "well-built and large" (Irwin, p. 146). The paper said it "will benefit the whole Walla Walla Valley, the ditch running the full length of it" (Irwin, p. 146).

Yet work was "discontinued through lack of funds during the hard times" following the nationwide Financial Panic of 1893 (Irwin, p. 37). Burlingame took up the project again in 1902. In 1903, the Walla Walla Union mentioned that Burlingame had just unloaded "40 head of work horses" and was "adding 25 teams" to work the ditch site (Irwin, p. 155). By 1905, another 15 miles of canal had been dug and the project was complete. On May 27, 1905, the Walla Walla Statesman announced that the big ditch was finally finished.

"The water is now turned into canals of the Walla Walla Irrigation Company as the pipe line across Pine Creek is finished and many prospective buyers are flocking in," said the paper. "Several choice tracts have been sold and purchasers are beginning to clear their land preparatory to putting in crops" (Irwin, p. 53).

In 1909, the Walla Walla Union reported that Burlingame, the president of the Walla Walla Irrigation Company, hosted 30 prominent Walla Walla businessmen at his Burlingame Hilltop Ranch near Gardena. The paper noted that it was one of the "most notable tracts in Walla Walla County," with "splendid young orchards" and a considerable alfalfa crop (Irwin, p. 74).

Water from the Walla Walla

Boening wrote that "it takes its water from the Walla Walla River, and carries it through a twenty-one mile canal and waters 7,000 acres, one-fourth of which is in Oregon" (Boening, Pt. 2, p. 33). Burlingame would later say that the ditch allowed him to irrigate up to 8,000 acres.

The Walla Walla Irrigation Co. evolved into the Gardena Farms Irrigation District in 1928. The 1892 priority date for Burlingame's original project gives the present-day Gardena Farms Irrigation District No. 13 "one of the most senior water rights in the Walla Walla Basin," as well as the largest ("Final Report").

The Gardena Farms Irrigation District No. 13 includes a diversion dam on the Walla Walla River, which still bears the name Burlingame Dam. For decades, it also consisted of the Upper Burlingame Canal and the Lower Gardena Canal, which "combined to form the system's main canal, which was 11.5 miles of unlined earthen canal" ("Project Overview"). The main canal then split into the Gardena North Lateral, 7.3 miles in length, and the Gardena South Lateral, 5.5 miles in length. It also included an additional 1.44 miles of pipeline, which crossed under Pine Creek.

Irrigation Efficiency, Water for Fish

In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service informed the Gardena Farms Irrigation District No. 13, along with other Walla Walla Valley irrigators, 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, steelhead could be harmed. The district entered into an interim settlement agreement, in which it took steps to enhance water flows in the river.

Spurred on by the settlement, the district embarked in 2007 on a plan to convert its old open canals to pipelines. It had become clear that the old open canal system was inefficient and difficult to maintain. It was constantly choked with weeds. Debris collected in the bottom. Water was wasted due to evaporation and seepage. Moreover, converting to pipelines meant that more water would be left in the river for the fish.

 In 2007, the district installed about two miles of pipeline. In 2010, the entire Gardena South Lateral piping project was completed: a total of 4.4 miles of pipeline and 3.4 miles of lateral lines, replacing 5.5 miles of open canal. The project was performed under the direction of the Walla Walla County Conservation District, and was funded by grants from the Bonneville Power Administration, which provided 73 percent of the funding, and the Washington Department of Ecology, which provided 27 percent ("Final Report").

Then, in 2012, the Gardena North Lateral project replaced the Gardena's "open north canal with a closed gravity-fed pipeline approximately 7 miles long" ("The Gardena North"). This new pipeline also cut down on evaporation and seepage losses. Funding for this project also came from the Washington Department of Ecology and the Bonneville Power Administration, with support from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The irrigator's contribution to the project consisted, in part, of an agreement to "put 5.1 cfs (cubic feet per second) into permanent trust, which will remain in the river for fish" ("The Gardena North"). The North Lateral and South Lateral projects also "involved modifying or building 35 pumping stations that help irrigate 2,900 acres" (Porter). The total cost of both projects was $4.4 million.

The present-day Gardena Farms Irrigation District No. 13 holds the 1892 water rights established by Burlingame and has irrigation water rights for 7,000 acres. The district has 65 direct water users. Water is diverted into the system during two time periods each year -- March to mid-July and early October to late December. The crops in the district are mostly spring wheat, alfalfa seed, and alfalfa hay.

Sources: Rose M. Boening, "The History of Irrigation in the State of Washington," in The Washington Historical Quarterly, published in two parts, Part 1 in Vol. 9, No. 4 (October 1918) and Part 2 in Vol. 10, No. 1 (January 1919); W. D. Lyman, Lyman's History of Old Walla Walla County, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing, 1918); W. D. Lyman, Illustrated History of Walla Walla County ([San Francisco?]: Interstate, 1901); "Final Report: Gardena Farms Irrigation District, Piping -- South Lateral Phase," Walla Walla County Conservation District website accessed October 27, 2013 ( ); "The Gardena North Gets Underway," August 12, 2012, Walla Walla County Conservation District website accessed October 28, 2013 (; "Gardena South Lateral," Walla Walla County Conservation District website accessed October 28, 2013 (; Andy Porter, "Projects to Aid Walla Walla River Flows Completed," Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, May 1, 2013, website accessed October 28, 2013 (; "Gardena Farms Irrigation District #13 Fact Sheet," Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership website accessed October 29, 2013 ( sheet/download); Joe Locati, The Horticultural Heritage of Walla Walla County, 1818-1977 (Walla Walla: Joe J. Locati, 1978); Zola Burnap Irwin, Touchet as Grandpa Knew It (Spokane: Burwin Publications, 1989).

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