The history of the area that today comprises the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge must be discussed in parallel with the story of water in the Columbia Basin. Located in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, the Columbia Basin receives minimal precipitation. This scarcity of water has always influenced human activity, from restricting early settlements to prompting numerous irrigation projects. Even the establishment of the refuge itself is intrinsically linked with the hydrology and water resources of the area.
Crab Creek has always been a central hydrologic feature, running through the length of the refuge area. When the Native Americans first used this area, Crab Creek only ran intermittently. The scarcity of water and game in this arid environment discouraged Native Americans from establishing permanent residents. They did travel in the area, following Crab Creek as a corridor through the Channeled Scablands. Others later followed these trails, including trappers, traders, the military and settlers.
Early ranchers and farmers tried settling in the area with minimal success. During the 1860’s cattle were brought into the area, but the land and climate proved unsustainable for grazing. In the late 1880’s the railway increased the inflow of homesteaders. In the semi-desert land most settlers attempted dryland farming but often left after a few unsuccessful years. Those that did stay started planning for, and seeking aid through, irrigation.
In the first part of the Twentieth Century, after numerous early irrigation efforts failed, serious planning began for a large-scale irrigation project in the Columbia Basin. After years of study and debate, President Roosevelt approved funding for the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, and construction of Grand Coulee Dam began in 1934. The first irrigation water began flowing to the Basin's farmlands in 1951, and the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project began to dramatically alter the hydrology of the area.
The federal government began acquiring land in and around the future refuge in the early 1930’s. The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge was established in conjunction with the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project in 1944. The land, water and wildlife of the refuge have been actively managed since 1955.
Completion of the O’Sullivan Dam and operation of the greater Columbia Basin Irrigation Project dramatically influenced the hydrology of the refuge. For example, Crab Creek is no longer intermittent, now flowing year round. Prior to this project, there were only a few lakes and wetlands on the refuge. Now, the elevated water table from the irrigation project and the damming of seeping water from under the earthen O’Sullivan Dam has created over 3,800 new acres of lakes and wetlands throughout the refuge.