Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Reclaiming for Recreation: For 100 Years, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation Has Brought Water-And Recreation-To the American West

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Reclaiming for Recreation: For 100 Years, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation Has Brought Water-And Recreation-To the American West

Article excerpt

The U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation is more than the creator and keeper of the Hoover Dam. It operates about 180 projects in the 17 Western states. Because of its key role in managing water resources in the American West, it's also host to millions of recreation seekers every year on the hundreds of sites it tends. The bureau celebrated its centennial in June, but is focused on its future--meeting the disparate, sometimes-competing needs of the West's lands, residents and visitors.

How the Bureau Came to Be

Inadequate precipitation in the American West required settlers to use irrigation for agriculture. At first, settlers simply diverted water from streams, but in many areas, demand outstripped supply. As demand for water increased, settlers wanted to store "wasted" runoff from rains and snow for later use, thus maximizing use by making more water available in drier seasons. At that time, private and state-sponsored storage and irrigation ventures were pursued but often failed because of lack of money, lack of engineering skill or both.

Pressure mounted for the federal government to undertake storage and irrigation projects. Congress had already invested in America's infrastructure through subsidies to roads, river navigation, harbors, canals and railroads. Westerners wanted the federal government also to invest in irrigation projects in the West. The irrigation movement demonstrated its strength when pro-irrigation planks found their way into both Democratic and Republican platforms in 1900. Eastern and Midwestern opposition in the Congress quieted when Westerners filibustered and killed a bill containing rivers and harbors projects favored by opponents of Western irrigation. Congress passed the Reclamation Act on June 17, 1902. The act required that water users repay construction costs from which they received benefits.

In the jargon of the day, irrigation projects were known as "reclamation" projects. The concept was that irrigation would "reclaim" arid lands for human use. In addition, "homemaking" was a key argument for supporters of reclamation. Irrigation's supporters believed reclamation programs would encourage Western settlement, making homes for Americans on family farms. President Theodore Roosevelt supported the reclamation movement because of his personal experience in the West, and because he believed in homemaking.

In July 1902, in accordance with the Reclamation Act, Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock established the U.S. Reclamation Service within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The new Reclamation Service studied potential water development projects in each Western state with federal lands; revenue from sale of federal lands was the initial source of the program's funding. Because Texas had no federal lands, it didn't become a Reclamation state until 1906, when Congress passed a special act including it in the provisions of the Reclamation Act.

From 1902 to 1907, Reclamation began about 30 projects in Western states. Then, in 1907, the Secretary of the Interior separated the Reclamation Service from the USGS and created an independent bureau within the Department of the Interior. In the early years, many projects encountered problems: lands and soils included in projects were unsuitable for irrigation; land speculation sometimes resulted in poor settlement patterns; proposed repayment schedules couldn't be met by irrigators who had high land preparation and facilities construction costs; settlers were inexperienced in irrigation farming; water logging of irrigable lands required expensive drainage projects; and projects were built in areas that could grow only low-value crops. In 1923, the agency was renamed the Bureau of Reclamation. Then, in 1924, the "Fact Finder's Report" spotlighted the issues of increasing settler unrest and financial problems for the reclamation program. The Fact Finders Act in late 1924 sought to resolve some of the financial and other problems. …

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