The refuge lies within the channeled scablands of the Columbia Basin, an area of starkly beautiful buttes and canyons (or “channels”) carved by catastrophic floods during the Ice Age. A snapshot of the region’s geologic history can be seen at the Drumheller Channels, on the eastern edge of the refuge, designated a National Natural Landmark in 1986. Ice, water, and ancient lava flows came together to produce a spectacularly eroded landscape here, with some of the finest examples of columnar basalt in the world.
Native Americans passed through this area en route to hunting and fishing grounds, but found little reason to linger. The primary source of water was an intermittent stream called Crab Creek. Overgrazing by cattle, sheep, and wild horses depleted most of the native grasses in the 1860s. To government surveyors in the 1880s, the region was a “wasteland.”
The transformation began in 1934, when the Bureau of Reclamation broke ground for Grand Coulee Dam, on the Columbia River about 100 miles north of the refuge. Celebrated by folksinger Woody Guthrie as “the biggest thing yet built by human hands,” Grand Coulee was only one small part of the Columbia Basin Project, which included five other dams, four major storage reservoirs, hundreds of pumping plants, 2,300 miles of canals and laterals, and 3,200 miles of drains and wasteways.
The first irrigation water began flowing through the system in 1951. Almost immediately, water began leaking out of canals, pipes, and fields. It soaked into the ground, raising the water table. Lakes, ponds, and marshes appeared in low-lying areas. By 1980, when the last stage of the project was completed, the acreage of wetlands in the Columbia Basin was at least 20 times larger than it had been earlier.
Migrating waterfowl were drawn to the region both by the water and by greatly increased food supplies. The vast fields of irrigated crops provided a smorgasbord for birds, who enjoyed not only the leavings of the crops -- especially corn -- but also bugs, grubs, and invertebrates in the soil.
Anticipating this effect, and compensating for loss of wildlife habitat due to construction of the dams, federal authorities set aside several refuges in the Columbia Basin in the 1930s and 1940s. Among these was the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, established in portions of Adams and Grant counties in 1944, and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1955.
In the early 1950s, the Bureau of Reclamation hired Stanley Harris, a graduate student in wildlife management at Washington State University, to document the number and variety of birds in the area to be flooded by Potholes Reservoir, on the northern edge of the refuge. The reservoir is held back by O’Sullivan Dam, at 19,000 feet long and 200 feet high one of the longest earthfill dams in the United States. The land -- part of a cattle ranch established in the nineteenth century by an eccentric Scottish nobleman named Thomas Blythe -- was dominated by sand dunes and dry potholes left by retreating glaciers.
Harris found that a wide variety of birds visited the area, but in numbers far smaller than are common today. Recent surveys have identified more than 200 species within the refuge -- twice as many as Harris documented. Massive flocks of geese, mallards, and sandhill cranes arrive each year, along with great blue herons, tundra swans, tanagers, flycatchers, and dozens of species of songbirds and shorebirds. The refuge is a wintering area for an average population of 100,000 ducks. Hawks, owls, and downy woodpeckers are among the resident birds. Large colonies of cliff swallows build mud nests in the many bluffs within the refuge.
The increase in diversity and numbers did not come as a surprise to Harris. "You have to remember that this was all sagebrush country and sand dune country, so there wouldn't have been any reason for those birds to stop," he said in an interview in 2002 (Spokesman Review).
Among the most welcome visitors are sandhill cranes. Harris counted only three cranes during the spring migrations of 1950 and 1951. Biologists estimate that about 25,000 cranes now use Crab Creek and adjacent wetlands as a stopover when migrating between wintering areas in California and breeding areas in Alaska. About 85 to 90 percent of the entire Pacific Coast population makes a temporary home on the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge every spring, feeding and resting before continuing north.
Their arrival has become cause for celebration in Othello, which has hosted an annual Sandhill Crane Festival since 1998. The first cranes usually arrive in late February. Some linger into April. The festival is held in mid-March, when the number of cranes hits its peak.
A smaller number of cranes passes through the refuge again in the fall, on the return trip south. However, they typically find less to eat than they did in the spring. The majority of the population tends to rest and feed in Douglas County, north of the refuge, in the fall, where they can feast in fields of harvested grain before flying south for the winter.
The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is one of six refuges maintained by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Columbia Basin. Each one benefits, directly or indirectly, from inherent inefficiencies in the Columbia Basin Project. Much of the water distributed through the huge irrigation system never reaches crops. Instead, it leaks out of dams, reservoirs, canals, siphons, pumping stations, and pipelines. What isn’t lost to evaporation ends up in marshes, ponds, and wetlands, providing critical habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife.
All the water comes from the Columbia River, the subject of an increasingly contentious tug-of-war over who should get how much of the river for what purpose. As William Dietrich noted in his 1995 book Northwest Passage, the Columbia “once seemed the most inexhaustible of rivers: able to produce more fish than anyone could eat, more power than anyone could use, and more water than anyone could pump” (Dietrich, 23). The demands for water for hydroelectric plants, irrigation, navigation, recreation, and fisheries now exceed by many times over the amount available. Drought conditions in recent years have exacerbated the tensions over competing uses of the river.
In 2003, Interior Secretary Gale Norton called for new efforts to improve the efficiency of irrigation in the Columbia Basin, saying it was essential to resolving conflicts over water in the West. Without such improvements, she said, the federal government would be forced to shut down irrigation when needed to protect endangered salmon and other fish. She acknowledged that more efficient irrigation could dry up wetlands created by water that is currently “wasted,” including those on the Columbia and other wildlife refuges overseen by the Interior Department. To protect the refuges in the future, the department "may have to obtain water rights and purchase water the same way any farmer purchases water rights," Norton said (Spokesman Review, 2003).