On April 15, 1893, work commences on the Old Lowden Ditch, one of the early irrigation projects in the Walla Walla Valley. This project takes water out of the Walla Walla River several miles upstream of Touchet, and irrigates the large farm of Frank M. Lowden Sr. (1832-1918). Other farmers will later use the ditch to irrigate their farms on the north side of the Walla Walla River. In 1939, the Old Lowden Ditch Company will be officially formed. Another ditch, the Bergevin-Williams Ditch, will be dug not far upstream. In 2013, these two ditch companies will be consolidated into the Bergevin-Williams/Old Lowden irrigation system, which will serve 1,840 acres of farmland.
Cattle and Water
Frank M. Lowden Sr., a pioneer cattle and dairy rancher, first came through the Walla Walla Valley in 1862 as a packer to Northwestern mining camps and eventually invested his savings in cattle stock and settled in the Walla Walla Valley. He received his first water rights in 1870 -- some of the earliest in the valley -- but did not use them until much later, according to Larry Dodd, a local historian and researcher. In 1880 he purchased several thousand acres on a site near the present-day community that bears his name, near the confluence of Dry Creek and the Walla Walla River.
It took a particularly severe winter to convince Lowden and other dairy and cattle farmers that they needed to "put up some kind of hay for winter feed" (Dodd). To grow hay, they needed irrigation. On April 13, 1893, the Walla Walla Union reported that "work will be commenced on the Lowden-Hawley irrigating ditch the last of the week" (Irwin, p. 146). The Hawley brothers soon dropped out of the project and it became known simply as the Lowden Ditch and eventually as the Old Lowden Ditch.
"The water is taken out of the Walla Walla River eight miles above this place [Touchet] on the north side of the river," said the paper. "Frank Lowden's interest in this ditch will cover all of his extensive ranches ..." (Irwin, p. 146).
The Walla Walla Union reported on May 24, 1894, that the construction of the Lowden ditch was "progressing rapidly" (Irwin, p. 146.) Soon, Lowden was moving water from the Walla Walla River to his ranch to grow hay for winter feed for his dairy cattle. He also began to grow fruit and vegetables on his newly watered land. In 1901, Walla Walla pioneer historian W. D. Lyman called Lowden's ranch "famous" and "one of the finest and most extensive ranches in the state" (Lyman, Illustrated, p. 142). A 1918 obituary for Lowden said that he "succeeded in bringing water by ditches to enough of the land to make it good pasture" (Irwin, p. 108).
The ditch was originally just for Lowden's own use, but over the years other farmers received permission to use water from it. Meanwhile, another ditch, the Bergevin-Williams Ditch, was dug just upstream of the Lowden holdings, also on the north side of the Walla Walla River, to serve land owned by a farmer named Williams and later by the Bergevin family, a pioneer family that been in the Frenchtown-Lowden area for many decades. The Bergevin-Williams Ditch was approximately two and a half miles long, and the Old Lowden ditch was about five miles long. Each ditch received water from its own gravel diversion dam, which had been graded in the Walla Walla River using heavy equipment. For many decades each ditch continued to irrigate farms on the north side of the Walla Walla River, between Touchet and Walla Walla.
Getting Efficient for the Fish
In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advised irrigators throughout the Walla Walla Valley that they had to leave more water in the Walla Walla River for fish. One way to do that was to make irrigation systems more efficient by replacing the old open ditches with pipelines. More water could be left in the river if irrigation water was not lost through evaporation and seepage in open canals.
Consequently, the Old Lowden Ditch Company and the Bergevin-Williams Ditch Company were both transformed in early 2013 by a $3.1 million project called the Bergevin-Williams/Old Lowden Diversion Consolidation and Piping Project. The old ditches were replaced with about 10.5 miles of pipelines, serving 1,840 acres of farmland.
In addition, both the old gravel "push-up dams/obstructions" were replaced with a single consolidated diversion system ("Diversion Consolidation"). The new system included a "self-cleaning fish screen" (Porter). The project was funded by grants from the Washington Department of Ecology and the Bonneville Power Administration, with support from the Washington Conservation Commission, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the irrigators of the Bergevin-Williams and Old Lowden ditch systems.
The consolidated system is now (2013) known as the Bergevin-Williams/Old Lowden Incorporation.
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.