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Setting the Stage

Congress passed the Reclamation Act in 1902, during the Progressive Era administration of President Theodore Roosevelt. One of the definitions of the word "reclamation" is "the recovery of a wasteland or of flooded land so it can be cultivated." ¹ The new legislation created a federal program to bring water to the desert lands of the West by constructing dams and reservoirs to store water for irrigation, as well as canals to deliver that water to farms. The goal was to encourage the growth of small family farms. The U.S. Reclamation Service, renamed the Bureau of Reclamation in 1923, was created to design and build these systems.² In 1924, Reclamation reported that 143,000 people lived on the agency's 24 irrigation projects and that farm earnings for that year totaled $70 million.

By this time, however, Reclamation's objective was changing and expanding. Where agency efforts had focused on building dams and irrigation systems to supply water to small farms, Reclamation was now envisioning vast projects that would cover whole river basins and use the water to do more than irrigate agricultural fields. These new projects would also control floods, supply water to growing cities, and generate electricity to fuel industrial growth in a new West.

The first of these great multipurpose projects would be a huge dam on the lower Colorado River.

¹ Wictionary website, accessed 1/30/2011.
² The name “Reclamation” will be used throughout this lesson to refer to both the U.S. Reclamation Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

 

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