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Bureau of Reclamation - History

Bureau of Reclamation - History

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Bureau of Reclamation - fully established in 1923, part of the Department of the Interior. The bureau builds and operates water projects aimed at reclaiming arid and semiarid lands in western states. Most projects have several purposes, including: water conservation, storage, and irrigation; hydroelectric power generation; flood control; municipal and industrial water supply; navigation; and outdoor recreation.


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Teton Dam

The Teton Dam was an earthen dam on the Teton River in Idaho, United States. It was built by the Bureau of Reclamation, one of eight federal agencies authorized to construct dams. [3] Located in the eastern part of the state, between Fremont and Madison counties, it suffered a catastrophic failure on June 5, 1976, as it was filling for the first time.

The collapse of the dam resulted in the deaths of eleven people [4] and 13,000 cattle. The dam cost about $100 million to build and the federal government paid over $300 million in claims related to its failure. Total damage estimates have ranged up to $2 billion. [5] The dam has not been rebuilt.

Records of the Bureau of Reclamation (Record Group 115)

Established: In the Department of the Interior by Secretarial Order 3064, May 18, 1981, redesignating the Water and Power Resources Service.

Predecessor Agencies:

In the Department of the Interior:

  • Reclamation Service, Geological Survey (1902-7)
  • Reclamation Service (1907-23)
  • Bureau of Reclamation (1923-79)
  • Water and Power Resources Service (1979-81)

Functions: Plans, constructs, and operates irrigation works in 17 contiguous western states and Hawaii. Builds and operates hydroelectric powerplants. Distributes electric power and energy generated at certain powerplants, reservoirs, projects, and dams.

Finding Aids: Edward E. Hill, comp., Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Bureau of Reclamation, PI 109 (1958) supplement in National Archives microfiche edition of preliminary inventories.

Related Records: Record copies of publications of the Bureau of Reclamation in RG 287, Publications of the U.S. Government.


History: Reclamation Service established in the Department of the Interior, under the jurisdiction of the Geological Survey's Division of Hydrography, July 8, 1902, to administer the reclamation fund established by the Reclamation Act, also known as the Newlands Act (32 Stat. 388), June 17, 1902, which set aside revenues from the sale of public lands to finance irrigation projects in arid and semiarid regions of the western United States. Separated from the Geological Survey, March 9, 1907. Given bureau status as the Bureau of Reclamation, June 20, 1923. Redesignated Water and Power Resources Service by Secretarial Order 3042, November 6, 1979. Name reverted to Bureau of Reclamation, 1981. SEE 115.1.

Textual Records (in Denver): General administrative and project correspondence, 1902-45 (1,917 ft.), with indexes and a microfilm copy of a file classification guide. Project and feature histories, reports of engineering boards, reports to the Board of Army Engineers, project operation and maintenance reports, and other special reports, 1902-60. Summary cost reports and narrative statements concerning construction at reclamation project sites, 1916-49. Public land withdrawal and restoration files, 1891-1945. Personnel correspondence file, 1902-40. Records relating to bureau oversight and administration of Civilian Conservation Corps activities, 1934-43. Legislative history files, 1945-68. Copies of proposed legislation for the 98th and 99th Congress related to water, energy, or conservation issues, 1983-86.

Maps (1,932 items): Western region of the United States, showing Bureau of Reclamation regional boundaries, precipitation, and locations of federal irrigation and hydroelectric projects, 1934- 87 (26 items). River basins, including the Colorado, Columbia, Gila, Missouri, and Yakima, showing land classification, irrigable areas, and proposed irrigation and dam development plans, 1908-50 (40 items). Specific reclamation projects (arranged alphabetically), including detailed plans of the Columbia River Basin Project, 1904-85 (546 items). Farm unit plats of townships in federal irrigation project areas, 1907-55 (1,320 items). SEE ALSO 115.7.

Aerial Photographs (23,165 items): Survey of the Colorado, Deschutes, and Weiser Rivers, and other river systems in AZ, ID, OR, UT, and WY, 1938-42. SEE ALSO 115.7.

Photographs (49,033 images): Construction progress at bureau project sites, and bureau projects and other activities, 1902-36 (JA-JAJ 34,020 images). National parks, 1918-31 (PA-PI 439 images). Bureau, department, and government personnel, 1902-35 (P, 534 images). Bureau exhibits and displays, 1922-32 (EX, 157 images). Maps and diagrams of bureau projects, 1912-33 (MAP, 104 images). Irrigation projects in foreign countries, 1920-27 (FB- FM 151 images). Unsuccessful, incomplete, and small irrigation projects, 1904-31 (NA-NU 971 images). Irrigation projects in the western and southern United States, 1914-34 (SA-SR 1,976 images). Irrigation projects, showing construction and economic results, including an album of Coolidge Dam, AZ, prints, 1927-28 (DE, 79 images). Civilian Conservation Corps activities at bureau project sites, 1934-42 (C, CP 10,500 images). Miscellaneous subjects, 1905-33 (MS, 102 images). SEE ALSO 115.10.

Microfilm Publications: M96, M1145.

Finding Aids: Emma B. Haas, Anne Harris Henry, and Thomas W. Ray, comps., List of Photographs of Irrigation Projects of the Bureau of Reclamation, SL 15 (1959).

Color Slides (900 images): Bureau activities, 1946-55 (KS). SEE ALSO 115.10.

Lantern Slides (385 images): Indian tribes of the western United States, 1899-1915 (L, 220 images). Bureau projects, 1930 (LS, 165 images). SEE ALSO 115.10.


History: Construction Division, headed by a Chief of Construction, established in Reclamation Service, December 15, 1914, to serve as bureau headquarters for project engineering research, planning, design, construction, and related administration. Division headquarters transferred from Washington, DC, to Denver, CO, June 1, 1915, where it constituted the Denver Office. Chief of Construction designated Chief Engineer, April 1, 1920, and division became Office of the Chief Engineer. Denver Office reorganized, September 9, 1943, and Chief Engineer named head of Design and Construction Branch, with supervisory responsibility for research, design, and construction. Chief Engineer designated successively Assistant Commissioner and Chief Engineer, December 1, 1953 Director of Design and Construction, September 1, 1970 and Assistant Commissioner for Engineering and Research, May 1, 1978. Denver Office designated successively Engineering Center, July 20, 1950 Engineering Research Center, May 11, 1967 Engineering and Research Center, September 1, 1970 and Denver Office, March 4, 1988.

Textual Records (in Denver): General correspondence ("Straights"), 1906-42. General correspondence (engineering), 1902-42. General correspondence (field records), 1902-42. Correspondence relating to office organization and personnel, 1914-42. Project construction and related reports, 1902-60. Project histories relating to operation and maintenance, 1910-14. Reports and histories relating to administration and conservation planning, 1960-71. Minutes of meetings of reclamation planning boards, committees, and special commissions, 1946-71. Records of reclamation congresses and conventions, 1943-71. Annual reports of the Upper Colorado River Commission, 1950-69. Technical publications, 1922-70. Technical records of design and construction, 1957-70. Hydraulic laboratory, geological, and hydrological reports and data, 1937-70. Project survey notebooks, 1889-1937. Completed land and right-of-way cases, 1945-54. Notices and applications related to irrigation projects, districts, and water rights, 1905-49. General correspondence relating to the Bard and San Luis townsites, 1911-81.

Engineering Plans (20,500 items, in Denver): Plans and blueprints of project sites and original and modified project features, 1902-60, with a few interfiled maps. SEE ALSO 115.7.

Photographs (90,349 images, in Denver): Construction progress at bureau project sites bureau projects and activities project towns, labor camps, and areas affected by projects and bureau, department, and government personnel, 1902-70 (89,900 images). Research and testing procedures, laboratory equipment, and structural models at the Office of the Chief Engineer, Denver, CO, 1920-59 (449 images). SEE ALSO 115.10.


115.4.1 Records of regional offices

History: Established by order of Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, September 9, 1943, to administer jurisdictions drawn up along river basin lines. Responsible for project planning, operations, and maintenance public relations negotiation of power contracts and coordination of construction projects. The Upper and Lower Missouri Regions were merged into the Missouri Basin Region (Billings, MT), October 1985. The Southwest Region was joined to the Missouri Basin Region and its name was changed to the Great Plains Region (Billings, MT), October 1988.

Textual Records (in Denver, except as noted): Records of Region 1, Pacific Northwest (Boise, ID), consisting of scrapbooks of press clippings relating to bureau activites in Idaho and Oregon, 1903- 27. Records of Region 2, Mid-Pacific (Sacramento, CA), consisting of correspondence minutes of meetings of planning boards, committees, and special commissions planning, geological, and geographical reports final construction reports for dam foundations, canals, and pumping operations press releases field books and other computations relating to surveys for the Cachuma Project in California, 1935-76 reports and correspondence relating to proposed reclamation projects, 1928-80 studies and reports relating to irrigation projects in California, 1935-72 design and construction reports for dams and other irrigation projects in California, 1947-79 administrative instructions and supplements to agency manuals, 1941-74. Records of Region 3, Lower Colorado (Boulder City, NV), consisting of press releases, 1933-79 and project histories for Boulder Canyon and related projects, 1934-87. Records of Region 4, Upper Colorado (Salt Lake City, UT), consisting of field notes and other records pertaining to the Carlsbad, Hondo, Pecos River, Provo River, and Rio Grande projects, 1890-1960 correspondence relating to water user organizations and irrigation works, Rio Grande Project, 1891-1914 records relating to adjudication of water rights, Carlsbad Project, NM, 1901-39. Records of Region 6, Upper Missouri (Billings, MT), consisting of records relating to organization, 1944-85 dedications and celebrations, 1945-84 climate and survey data relating to the Shoshone and North Platte Projects in Wyoming, 1887-1962 reports and data relating to water rights, distribution, and supply on the North Platte Project, 1905-37 orders and notices relating to withdrawn lands, 1904-44 demonstration projects on the Milk River irrigation project, 1930-35 general reports and publications, 1937-89 construction progress reports, 1964-89 and subject files relating to recreation areas, facilities, and services, 1952-87. Records of Region 7, Lower Missouri (Denver, CO), consisting of correspondence minutes of meetings of planning boards, committees, and special commissions, 1917-76 minutes and reports of planning boards, committees, and special commissions, 1917-76 publications, reports, and technical publications, 1900-40 numbered and unnumbered technical publications, 1943-86 planning, geological, and geographical reports final construction reports for dam foundations, canals, and pumping operations and press releases, 1917-76. Records of the Great Plains Region Office consisting of minutes of meetings, reports, and other records relating to planning boards, committees, and special commissions, 1944-85 and correspondence relating to substations of the Fort Peck and Shoshone projects, 1946-5.

Engineering Plans (3,185 items, in Denver): With interfiled maps, showing project sites and structural features in Region 5, Southwest (Amarillo, TX), 1959-63 and Region 7, Lower Missouri (Denver, CO), 1937-54 (2,660 drawings). Drawings prepared by Region 1, Pacific Northwest (Boise, ID) relating to the construction, materials, and project locations for dams and other irrigation projects, primarily in Oregon and Idaho, 1911-62 (525 drawings).

Aerial Photographs (5,510 items, in Denver): Project sites and surrounding areas in Region 2, Mid-Pacific (Sacramento, CA), 1940-60 and Region 5, Southwest (Amarillo, TX), 1938-68. (4,610 items). Classification of lands in the San Luis Valley Project in Region 4, Upper Colorado (Salt Lake City, UT), 1941-65 (900 items). SEE ALSO 115.7.

Photographs (33,101 images, in Denver): Construction progress at project sites project activities towns, labor camps, and areas affected by projects and agency and other government personnel in Region 1, Pacific Northwest (Boise, ID), 1903-65 Region 2, Mid-Pacific (Sacramento, CA), 1935-69 Region 3, Lower Colorado (Boulder City, NV), 1946-59 Region 4, Upper Colorado (Salt Lake City, UT), 1902-54, 1962-93 Region 5, Southwest (Amarillo, TX), 1944-64 Region 6, Upper Missouri (Billings, MT), 1935-74 and Region 7, Lower Missouri (Denver, CO), 1902-59. SEE ALSO 115.10.

115.4.2 Records of project offices

Textual Records (in Denver): Correspondence construction, geological, and hydrological reports records relating to government towns and project reappraisal reports for the Columbia Basin Project (Ephrata, WA), 1920-55 Palisades Project (Burely, ID), 1944-58 Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (Farmington, NM), 1964-65 Dolores Archeological Program (southwestern Colorado), 1983-88 Wapinitia Project (Madres, OR), 1948-58 and Milk River Project (Montana), 1893-1970. Records of the Klamath Basin Area consisting of repayment accounting sheets, 1917-49.

Maps (4,710 items, in Denver): Project land classification maps for irrigation project lands in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, created by the Grand Junction Projects Office, 1952-66 (1,300 items, in Denver). SEE ALSO 115.7.

Engineering Plans (1690 items, in Denver): With interfiled maps, concerning the Navaho Indian Irrigation Project reappraisal, 1964-65 (100 items). Planetable sheets created by the Columbia Basin Projects Office , 1935-47 (840 items). Drawings for the Umatilla Project, Oregon, 1904-41 (150 items). Drawings, maps, and design data for damsites and other projects in Arizona, 1942-72 (600 items). SEE ALSO 115.7.

Aerial Photographs (2 items, in Denver): Aspen, Colorado, showing sites of proposed dams, 1939 (1 item). Colorado River in the area near the Big Thompson Project, 1946 (1 item). SEE ALSO 115.7.

Video Recordings (72 items): Construction history of closed basin division, San Luis Valley Colorado Project, 1981-91. SEE ALSO 115.9.

Photographs (131,182 images, in Denver): Project sites, construction, and areas affected by projects project activities and agency and other government personnel for the Columbia Basin Project (Ephrata, WA), 1933-59 Middle Rio Grande Project (Albuquerque, NM), 1952-54 Upper Missouri Project (Great Falls, MT), 1955-59 and Missouri-Oahe Project (Huron, SD), 1955-59 (7,590 images). Irrigation projects in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, 1912-87 (8,000 images). Construction history of closed basin division, San Luis Valley Colorado Project, 1981-91 (5,300 images). Bureau projects (100,000 images). Youth ConservativeCorps projects in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, 1976-77 (700 images). Construction, renovation, and other activities at Bureau hydrological projects throughout western states, 1976-79 (9,000 images). Bureau personnel and early projects, 1906-43 (52 images). Reclamation activities, 1865-76 (540 images). SEE ALSO 115.10.

Photographs and Negatives (73,000 images, in Denver): Construction of the Dolores River irrigation project in southwest Colorado, 1982-84. SEE ALSO 115.10.

Photographs and Slides (3,000 images, in Denver): Teton Dam and related materials, 1969-78. SEE ALSO 115.10.

115.4.3 Records of the Denver Office

History: The Denver office with four branches was established in the same reorganization by order of Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, September 9, 1943.

Textual Records (in Denver): Reports and project histories for reclamation job corps facilities, 1965-84. Records of the Denver Service Center consisting of general reports on reclamation program administration and activities, 1926-92 design and construction reports for Madden Dam, Panama, 1930-38 construction specifications, 1902-94 International Affairs reports, 1914-87 cultural resource reports, 1942-94 engineering reports, 1912-62 draft environmental impact statement for the Central Valley Project, 1993 administrative directives, 1986-92 and technical research memorandums, 1931-77. Records of the Denver Technical Center consisting of general annual reports, 1952-92 (with gaps).

Photographs (55 images, in Denver): Groundbreaking and construction of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's headquarters building in Denver, CO, 1964- 67. SEE ALSO 115.10.

115.4.4 Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineer, Engineering and Research Center (Denver, CO)

Textual Records (in Denver): General reports, 1938-92. Numbered technical publications, 1950-92. Project reports, 1910-95. General technical reports, 1915-79. Land classification and plan reports, 1947-59. Studies and analyses relating to dam structures and operations, 1935-65. Technical record of design and construction, 1955-83. Staff information newsletters, 1945-95. Upper Missouri definite planning reports of the Garrison Diversion Unit (Bismarck, ND), 1953-60. Geology and geography reports for Narrows Dam (Fort Morgan, CO), 1948-61. Correspondence relating to withdrawals and restorations for reclamation projects, 1956-59. Policy and procedure memorandums for the assistant commissioner of Engineering and Research, 1989-94. Reclamation manuals and instructions, 1909-82.

Photographs (1,840 images, in Denver): Photographic collection of the Engineering and Research Center consisting of photographs, glass slides and negatives relating to the reclamation projects, locations, and personnel, 1906-65. SEE ALSO 115.10.

115.4.5 Other field office records

Textual Records (in Denver): Correspondence and reports of the U.S. Study Commission, Texas, relating to natural resource conservation, 1938-68. Records of the International Joint Committee and of the Columbia River Engineering Board, 1944-61. Records of the Reclamation Service Center consisting of technical reports of dam design, construction, operation, and maintenance, 1961-92 bureau publications, 1905-83 and construction specifications for Boulder City, NV, 1931-56. Records of the Publications and Records Management Branch consisting of microfilm copies of drawings and other records related to bureau projects, 1906-62 (1,600 microfilm rolls).

Maps (2,732 items, in Denver): Drawings and plans of Civilian Conservation Corps portable camp buildings, 1936 (32 items). Engineering drawings and maps of locations and structures for various units in the Umatilla Project in Oregon and Bitteroot Project in Montana, 1904-62 (400 items). Land classification maps for the Owyhee Project in Idado and Oregon, 1946-93 (900 items). Project land classification maps of the Grand Junction Projects Office, 1952-66 (1,300 items). Plates, maps, graphs, and other data relating to groundwater analysis in the Tucson Basin and Central Arizona and Solano County, California, 1957-68 (100 items). SEE ALSO 115.7.

Engineering Plans (1,200 items, in Denver): With interfiled maps and plats, relating to project design and construction produced by the Upper Columbia Development Office, 1909-62, and Lower Columbia Development Office, 1941-58. SEE ALSO 115.7.

Photographs (3,791 images, in Denver): Construction of Almena, Bostwick, Franklin, Glen Elder, Kirwin, Scandia, and Superior irrigation projects in Kansas and Missouri River Basin, 1952-68. 90th anniversary celebration, 1992 (41 images). SEE ALSO 115.10.

Photographic Prints, Slides, and Negatives (12,000 images, in Denver): Reclamation projects in the western United States, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Malayasa, showing views of project sites, progress of construction, equipment and personnel, soils and materials tests, and aerial photographs of geographic features, 1920-90. SEE ALSO 115.10.


History: Appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, September 1923, to study federal methods for reclaiming land through irrigation. Submitted report, April 10, 1924.

Textual Records: Reports, correspondence, and exhibits accompanying the final report, 1923-24.

Related Records: Committee report published as S. Doc. 92, U.S. Senate, 68th Congress, 1st session (Serial Set 8238).


115.6.1 Records of the National Irrigation Association

Textual Records: Clippings about irrigation, 1899-1906 land law repeal, 1903 and agriculture, 1905-10. Press releases, 1903-6. Drafts of legislation relating to river control, 1911. Records of the Mitchell News Bureau, 1902-3.

115.6.2 Records of the National Reclamation Association

Textual Records: General correspondence, 1911-34. Correspondence with government officials, 1914-18. Miscellaneous records and correspondence, 1912-14, 1918-33. Scrapbooks of George H. Maxwell relating to association activities, 1912. Court decrees and claims for water rights in Utah and Wyoming, 1904-16. Clippings relating to flood control, 1912-14. Government reports and publications, 1907-20.

115.6.3 Records of the American Homecroft Society

Textual Records: Records relating to the use of yards and vacant lots for gardens, 1920-21. Publicity material for Talisman, the society's magazine, 1920.


SEE Maps UNDER 115.2, 115.4.2, and 115.4.5.
SEE Engineering Plans UNDER 115.3, 115.4.1, 115.4.2, and 115.4.3.
SEE Aerial Photographs UNDER 115.2, 115.4.1, and 115.4.2.


Golden Valley, a production of the Bureau of Reclamation, documenting the activities of the bureau including building dams for power and electricity, irrigation, flood control, recreation, and fish and wildlife conservation, construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado Basin Pilot Project, and the Canadian River Project, 1950 (1 reel). The Great River, a coproduction of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration, documenting the Columbia River system of irrigation, flood control, and hydroelectric power dams and the navigation, recreation, and wildlife protection benefits, 1963 (1 reel). Documentary activities of Bureau of Reclamation in the western United States including projects relating to atmospheric water resources experimentation the activities of the Fish and Wildlife Service archaeology projects construction of the Glen Canyon and other dams, dam emergencies and repairs flood control Native Americans local communities a Job Corps project and personalities like Congressman Ben "Night Horse" Campbell, Senator Frank Church, Arizona Governor Paul Fannin, Princess Maragaret, and Lady Bird Johnson, 1950-85 (161 reels).


Video Recordings (196 items): Documentary activities of the Bureau of Reclamation including building of dams for power and electricity irrigation and flood control recreational activities fish and wildlife conservation construction of the Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge, Navajo, Ridgway, Brantley, Jordanelle, Fontenelle, and other dams environmental studies arechaeology projects endangered fish studies Animas-LaPlata, Middle Rio Grand, Central Utah, Strawberry Valley, Sevier River Basin and other projects a Job Corps Project Dolorus Project and personalities like Congressman Frank Church, Arizona Governor Paul Fanin, Princess Maragaret, and Lady Bird Johnson, 1950-91.


Group photographs of employees in the Office of the Chief of Engineers and other bureau offices, 1932-33, 1958 (3 images).

SEE Photographs UNDER 115.2, 115.3, 115.4.1, 115.4.2, 115.4.3, 115.4.4, and 115.4.5.
SEE Photographs and Negatives UNDER 115.4.2.
SEE Photographs and Slides UNDER 115.4.2
SEE Photographic Prints, Slides, and Negatives UNDER 115.4.5.
SEE Color Slides UNDER 115.2.
SEE Lantern Slides UNDER 115.2.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States. Compiled by Robert B. Matchette et al. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995.
3 volumes, 2428 pages.

This Web version is updated from time to time to include records processed since 1995.

Hoover Dam

In the early 20th century, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation devised plans for a massive dam on the Arizona-Nevada border to tame the Colorado River and provide water and hydroelectric power for the developing Southwest. Construction within the strict timeframe proved an immense challenge, as the crew bored into carbon monoxide-choked tunnels and dangled from heights of 800 feet to clear canyon walls. The largest dam in the world at the time of its completion in 1935, this National Historic Landmark stores enough water in Lake Mead to irrigate 2 million acres and serves as a popular tourist destination.

At the turn of the 20th century, farmers sought to divert the Colorado River to budding Southwestern communities via a series of canals. When the Colorado broke through the canals in 1905, creating the inland Salton Sea, the job of controlling the raging river fell to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Bureau director Arthur Powell Davis in 1922 outlined a plan before Congress for a multipurpose dam in Black Canyon, located on the Arizona-Nevada border. Named the Boulder Canyon project, after the original proposed site, the dam would not only control flooding and irrigation, it would generate and sell hydroelectric power to recoup its costs. Still, the proposed $165 million price tag concerned some lawmakers, while representatives of six of the seven states in the river drainage area𠅌olorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada —worried that the water would primarily go to California.

Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover brokered the 1922 Colorado River Compact to divide the water proportionally among the seven states, but the legal wrangling continued until outgoing President Calvin Coolidge authorized the Boulder Canyon Project in December 1928. In honor of the new president’s contributions, Secretary of the Interior Ray L. Wilbur announced the structure would be called Hoover Dam at a 1930 dedication ceremony, though the name didn’t become official until 1947.

As the Great Depression unfolded, hopeful laborers descended on Las Vegas and set up camp in the surrounding desert for the chance to work on the project. Those who were hired eventually moved to Boulder City, a community specifically built six miles from the work site to house its employees. Meanwhile, the U.S. government set about finding a contractor to build the proposed 60-story arch dam. The contract was awarded in March 1931 to Six Companies, a group of construction firms that had pooled its resources to meet the steep $5 million performance bond.

The first difficult step of construction involved blasting the canyon walls to create four diversion tunnels for the water. Facing strict time deadlines, workers toiled in 140-degree tunnels choked with carbon monoxide and dust, conditions that prompted a six-day strike in August 1931. When two of the tunnels were complete, the excavated rock was used to form a temporary coffer dam that successfully rechanneled the river’s path in November 1932.

The second step of involved the clearing of the walls that would contain the dam. Suspended from heights of up to 800 feet above the canyon floor, high scalers wielded 44-pound jackhammers and metal poles to knock loose material, a treacherous task that resulted in casualties from falling workers, equipment and rocks.

Meanwhile, the dried riverbed allowed for construction to begin on the powerplant, four intake towers and the dam itself. Cement was mixed onsite and hoisted across the canyon on one of five 20-ton cableways, a fresh bucket capable of reaching the crews below every 78 seconds. Offsetting the heat generated by cooling concrete, nearly 600 miles of pipe loops were embedded to circulate water through the poured blocks, with workers continually spraying the concrete to keep it moist.

As the dam rose, block by block, from the canyon floor, the visual renderings of architect Gordon Kaufmann took form. Electing to emphasize the imposing mass of the structure, Kaufmann kept the smooth, curved face free of adornment. The powerplant was given a futuristic touch with horizontal aluminum fins for windows, while its interior was designed to pay homage to Native American cultures.

With the body of water that would become Lake Mead already beginning to swell behind the dam, the final block of concrete was poured and topped off at 726 feet above the canyon floor in 1935. On September 30, a crowd of 20,000 people watched President Franklin Roosevelt commemorate the magnificent structure’s completion. Approximately 5 million barrels of cement and 45 million pounds of reinforcement steel had gone into what was then the tallest dam in the world, its 6.6 million tons of concrete enough to pave a road from San Francisco to New York City. Altogether, some 21,000 workers contributed to its construction.

Hoover Dam fulfilled the goal of disseminating the one-wild Colorado River through the parched Southwest landscape, fueling the development of such major cities as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Capable of irrigating 2 million acres, its 17 turbines generate enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes. The dam was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders in 1994. It receives some 7 million visitors annually, while Lake Mead, the world’s largest reservoir, hosts another 10 million as a popular recreation area.

Flaming Gorge Dam and Reservoir

In 1869, explorer John Wesley Powell named the red-walled canyon on the Green River in Wyoming Territory “Flaming Gorge.” The Flaming Gorge Dam, completed in 1964, helps regulate water flows and its power plant generates electricity. The dam is located in Utah, but the reservoir stretches north into Wyoming near the town of Green River. In 1968, the U.S. Congress created the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, which is located in the states of Utah and Wyoming and draws visitors from around the world.

The End of the Big Dam Era

Large-scale dams suggested engineering mastery over the vagaries of nature and structural social and economic conditions. They enthralled Americans who read into them possibilities for a new, emergent modernity that mixed rural electrification, public power, and industrial growth. But economic growth came at great social and environmental cost. Western dam building in the 1940s and ’50s was particularly tragic for rural indigenous communities. Grand Coulee and the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River, for instance, inundated the river’s last dip-net fishing sites. Garrison Dam on the Missouri River displaced 90% of three affiliated tribes. Environmental costs were equally devastating. Concrete walls trapped sediment, drowned wetlands, and dramatically transformed river ecologies. Salmon symbolized this ecological tragedy, particularly on the Columbia basin where salmon catches plummeted two-thirds by 1960 by the 1990s, several Pacific salmon species were officially “endangered.”

Environmental damage provoked a backlash that overturned the political consensus favoring big dam projects. The Reclamation Bureau precipitated a major battle by including a large hydropower and storage dam in Echo Park, part of Dinosaur National Monument, in the proposed Colorado River Storage Project. Environmental opposition to save the park in the 1950s, spearheaded by the Sierra Club, ultimately forced the Reclamation Bureau to eliminate the dam, giving anti-dam advocates their first major victory. Perhaps more consequential was the organized opposition in the late 1950s and 1960s to a pair of hydropower dams proposed for construction just outside of Grand Canyon National Park. The dams would have turned the Grand Canyon’s southern and northern ends into lakes, drowning rugged portions of the Colorado River. Environmentalists eventually won this fight as well, removing the dams from the project approved in 1968. In lieu of the dams, the Reclamation Bureau built the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station to help meet regional electric power demands.

Multiple factors combined to bring the big dam era to a close. Federal legislation, particularly the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, provided environmental lobbies with powerful legal tools to oppose new dam projects. Political leaders of both parties also disfavored financing expensive new dam projects that lacked both financial justification and ideal building sites. While federal agencies continued to build dams into the 1970s, the heyday of large-scale damming projects was over. Hydroelectricity receded in relative importance as nuclear power proliferated and fossil fuel use continued to skyrocket. Waterpower, which accounted for over a third of the country’s electrical generation in 1940, comprised only 12% in 1980.

The decline of dam building coincided with a movement to dismantle hydropower dams and “restore” rivers. Anti-dam literature and demonstrations in the 1970s focused on Glen Canyon Dam, which inundated a scenic canyon upstream from the Grand Canyon. Edward Abbey, through his Monkey Wrench Gang of eco-saboteurs, and Earth First! activists dreamed of blowing up Glen Canyon. Actual dam removal proved more procedural and politically fraught. New federal legislation in the 1970s and ’80s required dam owners to provide fish passages and meet water quality standards to renew their leases under the 1920 Federal Power Act. Beginning in the 1990s, combinations of local Native American activists, environmental groups, and federal wildlife agencies successfully lobbied to “decommission” dozens of hydropower dams by making the modification requirements for new leases uneconomical. The decommission strategy has been particularly successful in the Pacific Northwest where activists have forced power companies to remove dams from several branches of the Columbia River and, most famously, two sizable dams (each over 100 feet tall) from the Elwha River, just outside of Olympic National Park. The regional-scale federal dams like Glen Canyon, however, seem here to stay.

Hydroelectricity remains a major power source, particularly in the West and Appalachian Southeast but also, at a smaller scale, around the country. Hundreds of dams, most of them small, have been dismantled over the past three decades. The thousands of hydropower dams that remain continue to raise a difficult question: How do we weigh the social and environmental tradeoffs entangled with the nation’s first and oldest renewable energy infrastructure?

Klamath Basin Project (1906)

When trapper Peter Skene Ogden first saw the Upper Klamath River Basin in 1826, he observed that “the Country as far as the eye can reach [was] one continued Swamp and Lakes.” Following the end of the Modoc War in 1873, settlers began arriving in the region, eager to raise crops and livestock. However, the expanse of lakes, marshes, and wetlands (covering an area that stretches across what is today the Oregon-California state line), kept them from developing much of the land.

The National Reclamation Act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, made extensive agriculture in the Upper Klamath Basin possible by authorizing the reclamation of swamps and lakes to increase irrigable acreage. In 1906, the newly established Reclamation Service initiated the Klamath Project to drain lakes and wetlands for cultivation. The Klamath Project included a network of dams, canals, ditches, and other facilities to drain, move, and store Upper Basin water. Tule Lake became a sump one quarter of its former size. To carry out this large-scale experiment in hydrological engineering, California and Oregon had to cede their rights and title to Tule Lake, Lower Klamath Lake, and the surrounding land.

After World War I, Klamath Project plots were given to veterans who applied for them. The early homesteaders on Klamath Project lands had no electricity, running water, or telephones. They also lacked police and fire departments. Finding the Reclamation Service unresponsive to their needs and local officials unable to help them, the homesteaders founded the Tule Lake Community Club in 1928 and eventually created two schools and a sense of community.

Lower Klamath Lake evaporated after a berm carrying the railroad line between Klamath Falls, Oregon, and California cut it off from its source of water. As the lake shrank, grasshoppers, unchecked by insect-eating birds, infested the region. President Calvin Coolidge responded to the disaster by establishing the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt's Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act required the renamed Bureau of Reclamation to consider the needs of wildlife when planning projects.

During World War II, the U.S. War Relocation Authority built 10 concentration camps for 18,000 Japanese Americans on project lands. After the war, the Bureau of Reclamation opened 86 Klamath Project farm units of 160 acres or less to homesteading. More than 2,000 veterans applied to take part in the lottery that determined who would live and work there. In addition to a record of military service, applicants had to have farming experience and to be in good health. The new homesteaders formed a potluck social club, and they received support from the surrounding community. By the end of the twentieth century, 1,400 farms were operating on the Klamath Project, cultivating up to 210,000 acres of wheat, barley, alfalfa, potatoes, onions, horseradish, sugar beets, and other crops.

After a winter of drought in 2001, a court order under the Endangered Species Act forced the Bureau of Reclamation to curtail irrigation of Klamath Project farms in order to meet the water needs of wild Coho salmon and two species of Upper Basin suckers. Protests and counter-protests soon followed. On May 7, local farmers and ranchers gathered in Klamath Falls to form a "Bucket Brigade" in protest of the water cutoff. In July, anti-federal militants joined farmers at the headgates to install and guard pumps and pipes that sent Klamath River water directly into the main irrigation canal. In August, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton delivered 75,000 acre-feet of irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake to Project fields. It was a political but not a practical victory, coming too late for most farmers to plant crops that would use the water.

In 2002, the Bureau of Reclamation restored the flow through the canals of the Klamath Project without regard to the needs of aquatic species. That fall, about 80,000 mature salmon died shortly after entering the Klamath River to spawn, and thousands of juvenile salmon, attempting to migrate to the ocean, died in the river as well. This ecological calamity led to severe curtailment of commercial salmon fishing along 700 miles of the West Coast in 2006 and 2007. Klamath Project farmers responded by supporting federal disaster relief for the commercial fishing industry.

In 2008, representatives of Upper Klamath Basin farming and ranching communities, along with government officials, tribal leaders, and environmental organizations, signed a stakeholders' agreement that called for the restoration of wild salmon habitat in the Klamath Basin.

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Bureau of Reclamation - History

While Frederick Jackson Turner might have declared that the frontier was at an end in 1893, countless lands within the American West had not yet been reclaimed or made productive. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the federal government surveyed the country in the western states and territories, examining potential diversion and storage sites while calculating irrigable acreage. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that 30 million acres could be irrigated, but by 1890, only 3.6 million acres were being farmed. Because of the vision of certain individuals who knew that for America to reclaim its arid Western lands required the involvement of the national government, the fertile acreage in the Salt River Valley in Central Arizona, the lands in western Nevada, the valley of the North Platte River in Nebraska and Wyoming, the farmers along the Milk River situated in northeastern Montana, and the region along the Uncompahgre River in Colorado, would have the necessary water to promote and sustain growth. This is a brief overview of the first five projects authorized by the Secretary of the Interior under the National Reclamation Act from their beginning, to their place today in the settlement of the West.

John Wesley Powell, Civil War general, explorer of the Grand Canyon, surveyor of Western lands, and head of the U.S. Geological Survey, believed that the federal government should reserve lands for the small family farmer and assist in the development of irrigation projects. Powell wanted the settlement of the West to be in the hands of the individual homesteader even though it would require support by Washington, yet not all the lands were still available land speculators claimed much of the potentially good farm acreage. But neither the early small landowning farmer, nor the land developer, or the eastern entrepreneurs, had the necessary resources to finance the construction of dams to store additional water to reclaim the western lands. In his report on arid lands, Powell wrote that he considered the character of the lands themselves, the engineering problems, and suggested, "legislative action necessary to inaugurate the enterprises by which these lands may eventually be rescued from their present worthless state."[1]

Promoters of western irrigation, including the influential National Irrigation Congress, maintained that the federal government should be involved in developing the arid lands. George Maxwell, a leading spokesman for the national irrigation movement and a believer that settlement of western lands by yeoman farmers would solve the social ills of the eastern urban centers with the movement of the population, met with Frederick Newell, chief hydrographer with the U. S. Geological Survey. Newell, a protege of John Wesley Powell, surveyed the arid lands of the West and understood the plight of the homesteader who could not get enough water to irrigation his lands and grow crops to support his family. Maxwell and Newell met frequently with Wyoming Senator Francis E. Warren and Nevada Congressman Francis G. Newlands to devise a plan so that the government could sponsor federally funded water projects.[2]

At the turn of the century many in Congress realized that without the support of the national government, settlement of additional lands in the West would not be possible various congressman supported a reclamation act which would provide federal monies to construct irrigation works and further the development of the arid lands. Yet, it was not until after the assassination of President William McKinley and the ascendency of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency did Congress enact the National Reclamation Act. The statute, by authorizing the use of federal money from the sale of public lands, would make extensive areas of the West suitable for irrigation, provide homes for America's citizens, increase the agricultural production of the nation, and "make beneficial use of two of its national assets, land and water."[3]

Although the National Reclamation Act was not signed until June 17, 1902, the engineers prior to its passage had already investigated the Western landscape for potential dam sites and irrigable farm lands. After the measure's enactment, the engineers of the U. S. Geological Survey and then the newly created U. S. Reclamation Service prepared a list of potential projects for the Secretary of the Interior to authorize. The Reclamation Service considered certain criteria, such as water supply, storage facilities, alignment of canals, and selection of feasible lands. While the engineers usually required several years of study to make these necessary determinations, the western settlers were eager to begin the work of reclaiming the land and wanted projects announced as soon as possible.

The Reclamation Service, aware of the current circumstances, recommended certain projects that could be clearly defined with the costs and results estimated. As early as 1889, John Wesley Powell had explored the arid lands of the West, noting potential storage dam sites and the fertility of the land. Fellow geological engineer and later official in the Reclamation Service, Arthur P. Davis surveyed the land in the West by the turn of the century. With this background in place, it would not take long for the first projects to be selected by the Secretary of the Interior.

On March 7, 1903, Charles D. Walcott, Director of the U. S. Geological Survey recommended the first five projects to the Secretary of the Interior: Sweetwater (North Platte) situated in Wyoming and Nebraska, Milk River in Montana, Truckee (Newlands) in Nevada, Gunnison (Uncompahgre) located in Colorado, and the Salt River Project in Central Arizona. On March 14, 1903, Secretary Ethan A. Hitchcock concurred with the suggestions, stating that the Reclamation Service should concentrate its efforts upon these five projects, secure the lands needed for the dams, reservoirs and appurtenant irrigation works, negotiate with current owners of irrigable lands, and prepare contracts for the construction of the reclamation works.[4]

Each project presented both unique conditions while being similar in other respects. All five projects contained both private and public lands. A few projects had some irrigation works, while others needed the construction of storage dams to provide the additional water supply as well as canals and ditches to bring the water to the land. Towns and communities were created within the reclamation projects while the opportunity for others to grow and become major cities became a reality. By examining individually the first five projects, we can appreciate the impact of the National Reclamation Act on Western America.

In 1902, the authors of the National Reclamation Act provided a way for the settlers to support their families and develop the West through farming. The first five reclamation projects encountered varying degrees of success, but all managed to transform the land, some as originally intended, others with certain limitations, and at least one changed a fertile agricultural valley into a major metropolitan center that sparked the development of the whole state.

While the men of the Newlands Project envisioned irrigating 200,000 acres at its inception, by 1970, 62,000 acres received project water. Today claims by others to the waters of the Truckee and Carson rivers and Lake Tahoe, including land and water set aside for a wetlands project in Lahontan Valley and settlement of water rights with the Pyramid Lake Indian Tribe, limited the amount available for farming. Despite the water woes, the population has increased from under 1,000 people when the Newlands Project was authorized to over 18,000 people living within the Project lands. The "businessman/farmer" has become a part-time entrepreneur with more than 4,000 part-time farms averaging 13 acres, contributing approximately 35% of the current economy in Churchill County with a total crop value of a little over $13 million in 1992. The waters of the Newlands Project also support the growing recreational activities of camping, boating, and fishing.[5]

Currently farmers irrigate approximately 70,000 acres on the Uncompahgre Project, more than double the amount prior to its selection as a reclamation project, but less than the 130,000 acres planners imagined could be cultivated. Following the transfer of the operation and maintenance of the project to the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users' Association in 1932, additional irrigation works were constructed, including the Taylor Park Dam to regulate the water for the Gunnison Tunnel. Crops grown today are principally the same as when the project started except for sugar beets. In the 1960s, the farmers started growing malt barley for the manufacture of beer by the Adolph Coors company. Today the population is closer to 20,000, whereas a century ago, the region contained less than 5,000 residents.[6]

Farmers on the Milk River Project cultivate about 100,000 acres, certainly more than three times the amount irrigated 100 years ago. Project lands, stretching 165 miles, are divided into the Dodson Pumping Unit, and the Chinook, Malta, and Glasgow Divisions with individual irrigation districts operating the transmission and distribution facilities and the Bureau of Reclamation retaining control over the storage works. Like the Newlands Project, many of the current farm sizes provide income for only a part-time living, while owners have jobs in the nearby cities. The irrigated acreage has remained relatively stable in recent years, with ranching and farming the main industries on project lands.[7]

Urbanization has not been a factor on the Milk River Project, but other elements have influenced this reclamation project. Over the years, changes in crops grown have impacted the neighboring communities. Sugar beets, once a major crop that required a large labor force as well as producing feed for sheep, is no longer grown on the project lands. The elimination of this crop had a trickle down effect - without the sugar beets, the large number of migrant workers have not been needed and the sheep industry left the Milk River area. Extreme weather conditions, ranging from 100 degrees in the summer to minus 40 degrees in the winter, have also aided in the reduction of population on the Milk River Project. Farmers also have to contend with endangered or threatened species issues in the future to keep their irrigation water. Recreation is a major growth industry in the West and the creation of the Fresno and Nelson reservoirs and Lake Sherbume, have provided a favorite venue for boaters and fishermen who can also enjoy the waters of this reclamation project.[8]

Since a handful of mountain men began trapping the beaver, to the early immigrants looking for a better life, to the rancher seeking grazing lands, to the farmer searching for the fertile acre and enough water, the North Platte Project transformed the prairies to a part of America's farmland. At the turn of the century, the population of Scotts Bluff County was less than 3,000 people, while today, in the city of Scottsbluff alone, there are over 14,500 residents. With the North Platte Project, the irrigated acreage increased from 3,000 acres to over 300,000 acres and encouraged the development of the sugar beet industry worth over $47 million in 1991. Besides being a cash crop, sugar beets also provide feed for the traditional western occupation of ranching nearly a half a million head of cattle, sheep and hogs are raised on the North Platte Project. Almost from its start, the waters of the North Platte have been a safe haven for wildlife after President William Howard Taft created the Pathfinder National Wildlife Refuge. Project lakes continue to provide a resting place for migratory fowl as well as a setting for recreational activities, including boating and fishing.[9]

From its foundation of bringing water and power to its shareholders in the Salt River Valley, SRP has become the largest raw water supplier in the Phoenix metropolitan area and the nation's third-largest public power utility, delivering power to over 745,000 customers. Maricopa County is the major population center of Arizona, increasing from 20,450 people in1900 to over 3 million in 2000. Phoenix, in the heart of the Salt River Valley, is the county seat, the state capitol of Arizona, and now the 6th largest city in the United States.

For almost one hundred years, the Association has continued to provide water to over 300,000 acre member and neighboring lands and has evolved into a multi-dimensional water service provider. Although only 44,000 acres are still being farmed within the Project, SRP delivers water to urban irrigators and several municipalities who treat the water and distribute it to SRP's urban shareholders. To this end, ten water treatment plants operated by eight cities dot the SRP water system.

SRP's stewardship of central Arizona's water supply has made it a leader in the management of water resources, encompassing a wide range of activities. In partnership with several Valley cities, SRP jointly owns and operates the Granite Reef Underground Storage Project (GRUSP), one of the largest recharge projects in the United States. GRUSP stores Central Arizona Project water on behalf of the Arizona Water Banking authority and others for use in the future when dry conditions will prevail. To assist various Valley entities, SRP cooperated with the Bureau of Reclamation in the delivery of Central Arizona Project water with the construction of the CAP/SRP Interconnect Facility near Granite Reef Dam. Operated by SRP, the interconnect links the CAP canal with SRP's irrigation system, further allowing for the purchase of surplus Colorado River water to meet the demands of our shareholders during times of water shortage as well as assist in water exchanges.

At the end of World War II, the Salt River Valley experienced a major explosion of growth which impacted SRP's traditional farming community. The returning veterans wanted homes and agricultural lands were sold for thousands of houses in the newly developed subdivisions. With increased urbanization, the Association had to find new ways to operate and maintain its canal system. Under the Bureau of Reclamation's Rehabilitation and Betterment Program, SRP started construction and implementation of the Supervisory Control system in the late 1960s. The advances in electronic equipment allowed for the design of a water distribution system covering 138 miles to be handled by a single operator. By the mid-1970s, computer equipment monitored telemetered data which displayed water levels and gate positions. The dispatcher could regulate 331 radial gates and almost one quarter of the deep-well pumps belonging to SRP. With this system, the water levels of the canals and laterals could be maintained at a constant level. Gone are the days when bells rang at the home of the gate operators to warn about pending trouble.

Keeping pace with new technology allowed SRP to utilize the new water Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) developed between 1989 and 1991. SCADA is a complex computer-based system which allows remote control and monitoring of the entire water canal system, a major portion of the deep-well system, and numerous sites of interest to water accounting concerns. The system remotely scans and operates over 120 sites on the canals and controls over twenty off-project flow and special-delivery sites and an ever-expanding number of water quality monitoring stations throughout the system.

With thousands of homes adjacent to the canals, SRP continues to maintain the physical appearance of its irrigation facilities. No longer are sheep seen eating the grass along the canal banks or the Yaqui laborers leading the horses in the ditches to eliminate the aquatic moss and weeds. In 1989, SRP instituted a program of stocking its canals with white Amur, a sterile weed eating fish that originally came from China and is considered an economically and environmentally safe alternative to chemical and mechanical weed control. SRP crews trim the trees and remove brush and other vegetation along the canal banks, not only for its own maintenance vehicles, but for the thousands of bicyclists, joggers, and horseback riders who use the paths for recreation. As part of a program completed in 1989, SRP installed safety steps and ladders providing a quick exist for stray animals and people who accidentally enter the canal system.

From its inception at providing electricity for the construction of Roosevelt Dam, power generation has been an integral part of the Salt River Project. The Association constructed its first hydropower plants on the Valley canals between 1911 and 1913, expanding its production with the construction of three additional dams, Mormon Flat, Horse Mesa, and Stewart Mountain, on the Salt River between 1923 and 1930. SRP had 49 power customers in the 1920s, by 1947, it delivered electricity to over 12,000 customers and by 2003, its power should be transmitted to close to 800,000.

To meet this continually growing demand for electricity, SRP upgraded its transmission and distribution systems over the years, converting from 25 cycle power to 60 cycle after World War II and building non-hydropower plants. Within the Salt River Valley, SRP built several oil or natural gas generating stations and participated in several coal-fired power plants in the southwest region, including Mohave Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant. As part of the Central Arizona Project, SRP was chosen as the construction manager and plant operator of the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona, participating with other utilities and the federal government. During the 1970s, SRP decided to construct the coal-fired Coronado Generating Station alone, while being a partner in the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station southwest of the Salt River Valley. In order to provide its customers with a reliable source of power in the future, SRP is expanding its Valley generating stations and finding new and environmentally compatible methods for the production of power, including landfill gasses and solar energy. From its inception to the present day, Salt River Project has supplied both water and energy that helped fuel the growth of its shareholders and central Arizona.

The passage of the National Reclamation Act heralded a new era in the development of the arid West. While some might argue that the rhetoric of its passage is mythic, nonetheless, the act President Theodore Roosevelt signed on June 17, 1902, transformed the West. Prior to their selection by Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock as the first five reclamation projects, the lands in Nevada, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming-Nebraska, and Arizona, were being farmed, but without a stable water supply, sustained growth could not be achieved. The federal government, in the name of the Reclamation Service and later the Bureau of Reclamation, provided the funding and the engineering expertise to construct the necessary storage works, to allow for that development, whether in actual increased irrigated acreage, population, or economic value. The success of the National Reclamation Act can be measured by the accomplishments of the Newlands, Uncompahgre, Milk River, North Platte, and Salt River reclamation projects.

John Wesley Powell surveyed the American West more than one hundred years ago and saw thirty million acres that could be irrigated. Because of the vision of a few men and the Bureau of Reclamation, nine to ten million acres are productive, whether growing crops, homes, communities or fueling industries. Reclamation is the cornerstone of growth in the West: providing a stable water supply for crops, transforming the desert to farmlands, and now farmlands to cities, businesses, and communities producing electricity to operate the irrigation pumps, light the homes, and now power our industries. Reclamation's objective hasn't ceased, but instead becomes more fully developed: the foundation of growth in the American West.

Notes [1] John Wesley Powell, Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States: With a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah. Edited by Wallace Stegner. ( Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1962), 8. L. Smith, the Magnificent Experiment: Building the Salt River Reclamation Project , 1890-1917. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986) 17-18. Karen L. Smith, "The Campaign for Water in Central Arizona, 1890-1903," Arizona and the West 23:2 (Summer 1981): 136-137. Bureau of Reclamation - History At the beginning of the 20th century the American government assisted in creating new infrastructure in the American West. One obstacle to further development was the large expanses of arid land with limited access to water. The federal Reclamation Act of 1902 created the United States Reclamation Service to provide federal funding for water storage and irrigation projects in 13 western states and three territories (Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona prior to statehood). At the time, the term "reclamation" referred to irrigation and its ability to reclaim lands previously considered to be inhospitable. The Reclamation Service was established within the US Geological Survey (USGS) and was initially funded by sales of federal land. Texas, at this time not having any federal land, was added by provision in 1906 although no projects were built in the state until the 1940s. In 1907 the Reclamation Service was separated from the USGS and was organized under an independent bureau within the US Department of the Interior. In 1923, the Reclamation Service was renamed the Bureau of Reclamation, with the goal to irrigate and make productive the arid lands of the American West by building dams, reservoirs, and canals. While beginning with goals to foster development in agriculture, project scope expanded to provide water for cities, industries, and recreation to create infrastructure to reduce flood damage and to produce power. On September 9, 1943, six regions and regional offices along river basin lines were established to more effectively manage projects, including the Region 5 headquarters in Amarillo. Region 5, also called the Southwest Region, included the Austin Development Office (or Austin Planning Office as it is referred to interchangeably). Over time the bureau approved more than 180 projects, with one of the last and largest projects being in the Colorado River Basin. In the 1970s the bureau started to shift its activities from active construction to project maintenance. This shift led to consolidation (the Southwest Region merged with the Upper and Lower Missouri Regions to form the Great Plains Region) and elimination of some area offices such as the regional office in Amarillo in 1988. As of 2020, the Bureau of Reclamation's areas of operation encompass regions 5-10 within the Department of Interior's 12 region assignments. The bureau's mission is to "manage, develop, and protect water and related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public." Scope and Contents of the Records

The United States Bureau of Reclamation is the federal agency responsible for managing water resources in the western United States. Originally, management projects focused on reclamation of lands considered inhospitable due to lack of water through irrigation, but over time they have come to include maintenance of existing projects and development of environmental protection strategies for water resources. These records document water reclamation studies undertaken in Texas between 1940 and 1967 from the Austin Development Office. The bulk of the records date 1946-1966. The records are related to the bureau's proposed and completed projects within Texas borders and include memorandums, reports, and plans regarding various infrastructure projects for water resource diversion, distribution, use, and development. Project reports focus on watersheds, basins, rivers, and canals. Reports also include various appendices addressing anticipated agricultural, financial, and social impacts. Reference copies of academic and technical reports about ground water, irrigation, and water quality are also present.

To prepare this inventory, the described materials were cursorily reviewed to delineate series, to confirm the accuracy of contents lists, to provide an estimate of dates covered, and to determine record types.

Arrangement of the Records


Restrictions on Access

Restrictions on Use

Most records created by federal agencies are not copyrighted. Federal records also include materials received by, not created by, federal agencies. Copyright remains with the creator. The researcher is responsible for complying with U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17 U.S.C.).

Technical Requirements

Index Terms

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

(Identify the item), United States Bureau of Reclamation Region 5 (Texas) reclamation studies. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Accession Information

These records were transferred to the Archives and Information Services Division of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission by the United States Bureau of Reclamation on June 27, 1973.

History of the Bureau of Reclamation

When Major John Wesley Powell explored the Colorado River and its surrounding landscape over 130 years ago, he envisioned a place that could be settled, but not without consequences. His purpose was to study the arid lands and the landscape of the Colorado River basin, which resulted in recommendation of how western lands, and the Colorado River basin should be developed. He stated three major conclusions from his exploration and study of the Colorado River:

  1. The lands of the West have limits.
  2. The way the West is settled will have political consequences.
  3. Waters of the West should be managed by watersheds.

Powell’s recommendations on how settlement of the arid West should be managed were essentially ignored. Many scholars believe that most of the complex water policy problems that plague the West today would likely have been averted if a more careful approach that considered Powell’s recommendations was taken to settling the West.

In the beginning , settlement in the West was relatively easy and actually encouraged by the federal government. When settlers needed water they just diverted it from streams and rivers. Water rights in the West were determined by prior appropriation, which follows the mantra “first in time, first in right”. As the population of settlers started to grow, interest in diverting and damming rivers and streams began to grow. Pressure began to mount on the federal government to develop water resources and storage projects in the West to help subsidize farming and settlement. The phrase “reclamation” was applied in the early 1900s to irrigation projects meant to “reclaim” the arid lands for human use.

In 1901, after President Theodore Rooselvelt visited the West, the United States government officially got involved in “reclamation”. In 1902, the Reclamation Act became law, and created the Reclamation Service. Funding for reclamation projects came from public land revenues and other sources. Between 1902 and 1907 the Reclamation Service began 30 projects in the western states and Fredrick Haynes Newell was appointed the first director of the new bureau.

In 1922, the Colorado River Compact was signed by the seven states within the Colorado River basin, to divide and allocate the waters of the Colorado River. This would prove to be the most difficult and complex of the interstate compacts because of the complicated issue of dividing the shares of the Colorado River’s water between the basin states.

Hoover Dam

In 1923, the name of the Reclamation Service changed to the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and in 1928 large appropriations began to flow to reclamation from the general funds of the United States. In 1928, the Boulder Canyon (Hoover Dam) Project was authorized. The first major catastrophe of the dam-building era occurred that same year, when the St. Francis Dam on the Santa Clara River (CA) failed immediately upon filling, sending a 100 ft wall of water downstream and killing 420 people.

During the Depression, Congress authorized over 40 more “New Deal” projects to provide public works jobs and to promote infrastructure development. The height of the dam-building era occurred during the time of the Depression and for thirty-five years after World War II. In 1936, Hoover Dam was completed (221 meters high), which set precedent for the BOR becoming a major hydroelectric producer. After the building of Hoover Dam, hydroelectric projects became a major feature of many reclamation projects, which had proved to be a major source of revenue for repaying Reclamation project costs: i.e. the “cash register” dams.

When the Colorado River Compact was first ratified, if was an agreement to divide the water of the “American Nile” between the seven states within its basin. The Colorado River Compact divided the river’s estimated 15 million acre-feet (MAF) of water equally between the upper and lower basins and established the cornerstone of the Law of the River. The Compact also provided that the Upper Basin states would not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry, Arizona to fall below 75 MAF for any period of ten consecutive years. In 1944, a treaty was signed to supply Mexico with a 1.5 MAF of water annually, thus obligating 16.5 MAF of Colorado River annually. Between 1928 and 1956 several new Acts and agreements governed the water development of the lower basin as California’s water needs grew with its steadily increasing population.

The Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) Act was passed in 1956 providing a comprehensive upper basin-wide water development plan with the primary purpose of ensuring the upper basin’s water rights and meeting the 1922 Compact’s delivery requirement to the lower basin. The original CRSP proposal included the Echo Park and Split Mountain Dam projects, which would have backed Green River water up into Dinosaur National Mounument. As the symbolic birth of the modern Environmental Movement, public opposition organized to demand the omission of the “Dinosaur Dams”. As part of the unfortunate compromise with proponents of the CRSP, Glen Canyon Dam was allowed to be built without opposition. Glen Canyon Dam which was completed in 1963, was built as the keystone of the CRSP. The Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968 instructed the Secretary of Interior as how to manage the Long-Range Operating Criteria (LROC) of Glen Canyon Dam.

In 1969 the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was introduced, which didn’t have any impact on existing structures like Glen Canyon Dam, however, any future “major federal actions” regarding changes in dam operation or construction of new water projects would be subject to the NEPA process. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1972 on the other hand is directly relevant to dam operation. The ESA ordered all agencies to take action so as to protect and conserve endangered species and their ecosystems from extinction. Since all dams alter riparian ecosystems, passage of ESA caused changes in Reclamation management, which ultimately shifted their theory of management from construction of new water projects to operating and maintaining existing facilities over the next three decades.

Glen Canyon Dam

At the core of the BuRec’s shift in management policy is Glen Canyon Dam and the Grand Canyon. Shortly after the dam’s completion, many concerns over the impacts of Glen Canyon Dam on the downstream ecosystem of the Grand Canyon began to surface. In an attempt to study these problems the BOR instituted Glen Canyon Environmental Studies (GCES) which revealed that dam operation were having negative impacts on the ecosystem. During the 1980s internal reforms within the BOR led to a shifting management philosophy of the BOR from a dam building agency to a dam management agency. Further reforms within the BOR led to the increased prioritization of environmental concerns in dam operations decisions.

As a major step toward greater environmental sensitivity within management decisions, the Secretary of the Interior ordered a Glen Canyon EIS in 1989 to study the problems. A few years later, the Grand Canyon Protection Act (GCPA) was passed, requiring that protection of the Grand Canyon be considered a priority in dam operation management. The following year, Dan Beard (Commissioner of the BOR) released the ‘93 Blueprint for Reform, which supported greater environmental concern through ecosystem management and increased collaborative decisionmaking involving non-traditional stakeholders. The completion of the Glen Canyon EIS in 1996 led to the Secretary of the Interior recommending a new operation plan for the dam that was designed to reduce impacts on downstream resources. Additionally, the Adaptive Management Program (AMP) was established to continue studying the impacts of the dam and make recommendations to the Secretary of the Interior as to how operations should be managed to reduce environmental impacts.

The present day Bureau of Reclamation currently operates and maintains more than 180 projects in the seventeen Western states. (Other water projects around the country are operated by the Army Corp of Engineers or privately). Reclamation projects provide water for about one-third of the population of the west for agricultural, municipal, and industrial uses. Furthermore, the BOR plays a role in hydroelectric power generation and marketing, recreation, natural and cultural resources, and flood control.

The future of the BOR shows that its budget and staffing levels are expected to decrease further into the 21st century. While a significant policy shift has occurred within the BOR, there are still major social hurdles on the path toward managing our nation’s rivers. With the ongoing drought in the West triggering great interest in a sustainable water supply, it is inevitable that the BOR will continue to evolve toward a more efficient and effective, sustainable Western water delivery system.

Watch the video: Bureau of Reclamation (June 2022).