Columbia Basin vs. Columbia Plateau

Controversy continues to swirl among geo-nerds as to whether to call the vast inland region located east of the Cascade Mountains the Columbia Basin or the Columbia Plateau. The terms are almost pure opposites: Basins are low. Plateaus are high. Controversy!

Elitist science types prefer the term "Plateau". Normal people and the agriculture industry prefer "Basin". Controversy!

Actually there is no controversy. A few dorks (like me) occasionally revive the topic and trundle out opposing arguments over beers around a campfire. Discussion ends with the first mention of Game of Thrones. Nevertheless, the following article presents evidence supporting the use of each term, but leaves the reader to decide which is more appropriate. Hint: Basin wins. Sorry, not sorry.

The Columbia Basin/Plateau Region roughly corresponds to the brownish area in this map.

But first, some background. A few years ago, I was asked to contribute a short article on clastic dikes to a book on the natural history of the Walla Walla Valley. The editor accepted my submitted draft, but preferred that I use "Columbia Plateau" instead of "Columbia Basin" in order to maintain consistency across all articles in the book. I objected on grounds that "Basin" was just as legitimate a term as "Plateau". The region is topographically low and "Basin" was better suited to my article's discussion of features that occur exclusively in valley sediments. The editor allowed me to keep my preferred term, presumably to avoid a donnybrook in the hallway outside his office, which he surely would have lost.

J Harlan Bretz's "Channeled Scabland and the Associated Features on the Columbia Plateau in Washington", published by American Geographical Society in Geographical Review v. 18, 1928.

The Columbia Basin appears on Washington's physiographic divisions map (WADNR, 2001) and on a previous version by Weissenborn (1978).

In Support of "Columbia Plateau"

The Columbia River Plateau is formed by the Columbia River Basalt Group which erupted during the late Miocene and early Pliocene. (favored by Geology elitists)

Columbia Plateau Aquifer System, a multi-layered aquifer within the Columbia River Basalt that covers some 44,000 square miles. (favored by Hydrology elitists)

Columbia Plateau Ecoregion is an arid sagebrush steppe and grasslands region encompassing some 32,000 square miles. The region is flanked by moister, predominantly forested, mountainous ecoregions on all sides. (favored by Ecology elitists).

Plateau Tribes refers to indigenous peoples of a vast inland region that approximately corresponds to the Columbia River and Fraser River watersheds. (favored by Anthropology elitists)

Columbia Plateau Trail State Park is a 130 mile-long recreational path that runs along an abandoned railway. (favored by Park Ranger elitists)

According to Wikipedia: "Columbia Plateau is the geographic region in the Pacific Northwest commonly referred to as the Columbia Basin". (favored by Silicon Valley elitists)

Columbia Plateau Pocket Mouse (Perognathus parvus) is a non-migratory, non-social rodent that occupies portions of the Great Basin. During winter it enters torpor and is not active. (favored by Biology elitists)

Few businesses and organizations use Plateau in their names. One exception is Columbia Plateau, Inc., a roofing company (favored by Roofing elitists).

Promotional map of the Columbia Basin Project by the Columbia River Development League, 1925.

In Support of "Columbia Basin"

In tectonic parlance, the region is known as a back-arc basin and a structural depression (Campbell, 1989; Saltus, 1993).

The region is ringed by mountains: Cascades, Horse Heaven Hills, Blue Mountains, and Okanogan Highlands. Even more mountains can be found to the east, in Idaho. But who cares about Idaho.

Major rivers flow into the region, not around it. These include the Columbia, Snake, Yakima, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Tucannon, Methow, Spokane, Okanogan, and others. Ancestral versions of these rivers also flowed into the area over the past 30 million years. The region has remained a low spot since the Miocene.

The Columbia River Basalt accumulated here. Flood basalts fill low spots.

Sediments shed from surrounding uplands have accumulated here for millions of years. Up to 5km of Oligocene-Eocene age sedimentary rocks lie beneath the Columbia River Basalt and a few hundred meters of Neogene-Holocene age sediments lie on top (i.e., Ellensburg Fm).

The Missoula floods flowed into the region, excavating the Channeled Scabland and depositing their sediment loads here.

Two versions of Washington's Physiographic Divisions Map name the region Columbia Basin (Weissenborn, 1978; WADNR, 2001) as does the "regions" map in Roadside Geology of Washington 2nd Edition (Miller and Cowan, 2017).

The Columbia Basin Irrigation Project is a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation project consisting of open canals and headworks that originate at Grand Coulee Dam. The project irrigates hundreds of farms in the region via gravity flow.

Washington Water Power Company's 1923 map of its Spokane Service Area calls it the Columbia Basin.

Columbia Basin College has an enrollment of >11,000 students and is located in trend-setting Pasco, WA.

The Columbia Basin Herald is a newspaper in Moses Lake, WA.

Basin City is a bustling, influential town in Eastern Washington. Plateau City is not found on any map, Bob.

Columbia Basin Hospital is located in Ephrata, WA.

My Grandpa, a decorated Navy pilot and life-long farmer out of Connell called it "The Basin".

So did Bretz.

The Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) is a woefully maladapted rodent that serves no function other than as a scooby snack for nearly every predator in the region larger than your shoe. This pitiful stub-twig on the tree of rodent evolution will surely go extinct. Evolution has chosen Wegmann's Dust Bunny (broomless roommatensis) to fill its ecological niche.

Basin Disposal is a trash hauling company out of Pasco, WA.

According to WPA writers, "the Columbia Basin is both a land of promise and a graveyard of hope."

Smith et al. (1989) admit that "no single geomorphic term aptly describes the variety of structural and topographic features that are encompassed by the Columbia River Basalt Group. The long-used term "Columbia Plateau" is applied herein, with acknowledgment of it inadequacy."

A number of businesses and organizations use Basin in their name, including Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center (OSU Extension Lab), Columbia Basin Hotsy (pressure washing), Columbia Basin Knot Company (rigging), Columbia Basin Badger Club (a crepuscular mustelid appreciation society?), Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program (water-related NGO), Columbia Basin BMX (bike racing dudes), Columbia Basin Netwerks (web and IT), Columbia Basin Electric Co-Op (power company), Columbia Basin Development League (pro-irrigation NGO), and Columbia Basin Foundation (charitable giving).

A 1925 map by the Columbia Basin Irrigation League and Dyer Printing. For a time, the region was known as the "Empire within an Empire". The Grant County Economic Development League longs for the return of the good 'ole days. Ephrata is actively seeking to update its current motto, "Like No Place in Idaho".

The top 4 vote-getters are:

"Moses Lake But with Class"

"The Empire of High School Baseball"

"Pride of the Basin"

"Graveyard of the Inland Pacific Northwest"

The author of this 1882 map (T.W. Symons) was unwilling to commit one way or the other. He punts, calling the region "The Great Plain of the Columbia River". Wimp.

Topography bats clean up. Any questions?

Last 50 Posts
All Posts by Month