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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Early Years of Reclamation

The Reclamation Act passed by wide margins in both houses of Congress. President Roosevelt signed it on June 17, 1902.  The new legislation called for the federal government to build and maintain storage dams, diversion dams, reservoirs, and canals in 16 western states and territories. These were Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.  Texas was not part of the original group because it had no federal lands, but was added in 1906.  Money from the sale of federally owned public lands in these states and territories would pay to build the irrigation projects.   

The Reclamation Act built on the foundation of the 1862 Homestead Act.  Current U.S. citizens (or those planning to become citizens) who were either heads of families or individuals at least 21 years old could claim up to 160 acres of public land.1  If they built a house, lived on their claim, and farmed it for the next five years they could get final ownership.  The cash payment to the government was only $18 in filing fees.

A number of general principles governed the Reclamation program. These were defined in the Reclamation Act, as well as subsequent law and policy. People who benefitted from the irrigation projects (“water users”) would repay the federal government for its costs to build the dams and canals. Nevertheless, the federal government would continue to own the facilities.  Originally, water users had to repay what the government estimated it had spent for construction within 10 years after a project’s completion.  After they had repaid most of these costs, the operation and maintenance (O&M) of the works would transfer to a water user’s organization. Then that organization would pay the cost for O&M.  People receiving water originally could own no more than 160 acres. They also had to live on or near their land and to use at least half of the land for agriculture.

Responsibility for building and operating the irrigation projects lay with the Secretary of the Interior.  He created the U.S. Reclamation Service as a branch of the U.S. Geological Survey to implement those responsibilities.2 

President Roosevelt had recommended that Reclamation not “begin by doing too much . . . since much would be learned from early efforts.” However, intense pressure from western irrigation interests pushed him to promise one project in each of the 16 western states.  By 1906, the Secretary of the Interior had approved 25 projects.  By the early 1910s, many projects were in financial trouble.  Construction costs were often much higher than expected, while profits from the sale of crops on some projects were much lower than expected.  In addition, on many projects, poor natural drainage caused rising underground water levels. That often brought so much natural salts to the surface that nothing would grow.  The only way to correct these drainage problems was to build expensive drainage systems.  As a result, some settlers earned less money than anticipated from their crops, while paying higher than expected construction repayment and farm start-up costs.  By the early 1920s, many original settlers had abandoned their claims, many projects were not meeting their repayment obligations, and the reclamation fund was running on empty.

Settlers on Reclamation projects complained. They were particularly unhappy about the 160-acre acreage restriction and the 10-year repayment schedule. Settlers thought that both of these were entirely unrealistic.  In response, in1923 Congress appointed a group of experts (the “Fact Finders Committee”) to study these problems.  Published in 1924, Reclamation’s Twenty-Third Annual Report summarized much of what the Committee learned.

When the [Reclamation] Act was framed . . .it was the common belief that all that was needed to obtain irrigated farms and prosperous homes was to provide water by building canals and reservoirs.  The sponsors of Federal reclamation believed it would be a simple matter to change arid, unimproved land into farms because they thought the settlers would have virtually free land, and that water would be cheap because the irrigation works would be constructed by the Government without profit, and with interest-free money. The obstacles settlers would encounter in subduing the land, equipping farms, and meeting payments on water rights were not regarded as serious.  Time has shown that this was a mistake.  Land had not been free; a majority of the settlers had to buy their farms from private owners, in some cases at extortionate prices. . . . The cost of changing 40 or 80 acres of raw land into a farm . . . often equals or exceeds the cost of canals and reservoirs.  It is beginning to be realized that [irrigation] development requires a study of agricultural and economic problems, and the working out of settlement and development plans if the land is to be brought under cultivation without disastrous delays and waste of money and effort.3

Congress responded to these conclusions by passing the Fact Finder's Act in 1924.  The new law reshaped Reclamation’s processes.  Thereafter, Congress, not the Secretary of the Interior, approved new projects, and only after Reclamation had collected detailed information on soil and water conditions and indentified what kinds of crops would grow there.  Settlers also might have to prove they had farming experience and enough money to establish their new farms.  Congress responded to settler complaints by extending the repayment period and by relaxing the 160-acre limit for some new projects. 

At about the same time, Reclamation’s focus began to shift.  The agency increasingly turned to ambitious new projects.  These new projects would encompass entire river basins.  They would use the water to do more than just irrigate crops.  Massive dams would control floods and supply water to growing cities for non-agricultural use.  The dams’ power plants would generate electricity to help cities and industries grow.  The Boulder Canyon Project, approved in 1928 with Hoover Dam as its centerpiece, was the model for these multipurpose projects.  For the first time, money from the U.S. Treasury helped cover construction costs.  Much of the hydroelectric power generated at Hoover Dam was to be used for non-irrigation purposes.  The Boulder Canyon Project was the first of a number of huge new projects.4 

Today Reclamation is the nation’s largest supplier of water and the second largest producer of electricity in the western United States.  It operates more than 600 dams and 58 power plants, and still delivers water to approximately 10 million acres of farmland, serving 140,000 farmers on 188 irrigation projects.


Questions for Reading 2

1. What were the key provisions of the Reclamation Act?  What populations were primarily served, and for what purpose?  What were some of the principles that came to guide Reclamation’s projects?

2. Do you think it was fair to make the water users repay the cost of construction?  Do you think your opinion would be different if you were a farmer living on a Reclamation project versus if you were not a project farmer?  Reclamation originally provided water to any one land owner to use to irrigate no more than 160 acres.  The repayment requirement and the 160-acre limit were eventually relaxed.  Why do you think those changes were made?

3. How many Reclamation projects had been approved by 1906?  Can you think of problems that might arise from having so many projects underway at the same time?  Can you think of why it might be very expensive to construct a new dam in a remote location, in the mountains far from towns?

4. What were some of the problems that affected the success of the early Reclamation projects?  What factors contributed to their failure, according to the 1924 Annual Report?  Does that analysis make sense to you?  What changes were made in response to the Fact Finders’ investigation?

5. How did Reclamation’s mission change beginning in the late 1920s?  What factors influenced this change?  Were different populations served, and for different purposes, because of the change in mission?

Reading 2 is based on the “Brief History of the Bureau of Reclamation,” found on the Bureau of Reclamation History Program’s website, (accessed March 13, 2012); and on William D. Rowley’s, The Bureau of Reclamation: Origins and Growth to 1945 (Denver, CO: Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2006).

1  Men who had “borne arms against the U.S. government” could not file claims.

2  The Reclamation Service became an independent agency within the Department of the Interior in 1907, and was renamed the Bureau of Reclamation in 1923.  The term “Reclamation” is used throughout this lesson to refer to both the Reclamation Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

3  Twenty-third Annual Report of the Bureau of Reclamation (Washington, DC:  General Printing Office, 1924), pp. 1-2.

4  For more information on the later history of Reclamation, see “Brief History of the Bureau of Reclamation.” For more information on Hoover Dam and the Boulder Canyon project, see “The Greatest Dam in the World”:  Building Hoover Dam lesson plan


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