Kennewick Greenway Trail System

You’ve heard of “rail to trail” before. What if we did the same thing with an irrigation canal?

In the years before WWII and the Manhattan Project, the three cities that make up the Tri-Cities – Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland – were small towns with heavy agricultural roots. In Kennewick, there were many orchards strewn all across the area, (some of which can still be found in scattered pockets through the city today), largely thanks to the higher quality soil that was deposited as a result of the historic Lake Missoula floods. However, that soil was useless to growers unless they could water their plants. Though the Columbia River was literally right there, there was no mechanism to get that water away from the river and up to the orchards and crop fields. That’s where the canals came in. With the first one built in 1893 by the predecessors of the Columbia Irrigation District (the Kennewick Irrigation District started building their network in 1917), water was brought to the growers and profits flourished.

After WWII was ended (partly thanks to the efforts undertaken at Hanford, which produced the plutonium for the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki), the population of Kennewick and the rest of the Tri-Cities started to grow rapidly. Land once used as orchards and crop land were dug up and bulldozed over to make room for multiple subdivisions. All the while, the canals remained, and even today continue to remain in use. However, the demographics of the irrigation canal customers have changed in the modern age, as nearly the entirety of the land in both districts is residential in nature. They still remain in business, as most residences in the districts use the irrigation water to keep their yards as green as possible, while city water is used for everything else.

Though certainly not as extreme as interstate highways cutting through the hearts of major cities, the irrigation canals have become a major impetus in the modern development of Kennewick. As the city continues to be built out, new residences and businesses have to be designed to get around the canals. In recent years, stories about leaks in the canal system have been getting more frequent, suggesting that the system is ready for a major overhaul and modernization. (Much of the system is simply a “ditch” design, with limited portions being lined with rubber or concrete liners.) There are also many road bridges and utility crossings over the canals, and many of them are overdue for replacement, particularly those in east Kennewick. Sadly, the land that the canals occupy can not be developed in any manner, as both irrigation canal districts hold the right-of-way (ROW) for them. However, I think that this presents the City of Kennewick with a unique opportunity: Rebuild the canals into a trail system.

The Kennewick Greenway Trail System

Creating a system of 13 new trails and adding 7 new parks through the city, this project would be a large undertaking but well worth it for everyone in Kennewick. If the entire system shown in the map was built, it would add over 42 miles of trails and more than 25.5 acres of park land to the city. Done right, the project would immensely increase the “livability” of Kennewick, and could be further expanded in the future to include the rest of the Tri-Cities and other parts of Benton and Franklin Counties as well.

Of course, none of this would come without cost. At various points in this proposed system, land acquisitions would need to be made. Then there’s the whole matter of putting the irrigation canals into underground pipes. While simple sounding, the pipework would still need to be tied into the access points for all irrigation customers, and would need to left in a manner that would be serviceable by the irrigation districts, limiting the potential for infrastructure that could be built on the ground of the ROW’s. There’s also the question of where funding for this project would come from. Grants at the local, state, and federal level could make a dent, but for the most part, the cost would likely fall upon the local tax base, the City of Kennewick, and the Columbia Irrigation District and Kennewick Irrigation District. (Whether the irrigation districts would contribute the money themselves or make the Local Improvement Districts pay would probably become a point of debate.) Most likely, a conservative plan of action would be adopted, funding small portions of the system at a time as funds became available.

While this is just a proposal, I do believe that this is a project that could be considered by the City of Kennewick, and even tied into trail system proposals that have or are being considered by Richland and Pasco. As I touched on earlier, this would be much cheaper than the replacement of outdated bridges crossing the irrigation canals and the continued upkeep of the system, and being optimistic I think that the city, along with CID and KID, could give this some serious consideration.


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