While irrigation schemes were built in the Southwest before the coming of the Spanish, by the Catholic missions in California, and by Mormons in Utah by 1847, moves to gain government help for reclamation schemes began with the Carey Land Act (1894). Focusing on the conservation of natural resources during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, reclamation was advocated for lands ruined by injudicious farming, grazing, and deforestation as well as for lands with little rainfall.
The Reclamation Act of 1902 provided that the federal government should plan and construct irrigation projects using the proceeds of public land sales, and that the water users (usually organized in some type of cooperative) should liquidate the cost and purchase the irrigation works over a period of 10 years. The program was vigorously pushed by Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock. Among the many projects started then were the Truckee-Carson project (see Newlands project) and the Salt River project (see Salt River valley). The 1902 act had an acreage-limitation provision, but it did not halt the process of speculation in lands to be irrigated, which made costs to the actual farmers prohibitive. In 1914 the period of time for the water users to pay for the project was lengthened to 20 years (later raised to 40 years).
Interest in reclamation quickened after terrible droughts in the late 1920s and early 30s, and in the public works program of the New Deal under Franklin D. Roosevelt the reclamation program was linked with projects for flood control and for the development of power. The Bureau of Reclamation began to work alongside the U.S. Army Engineers Corps in building dams and forwarding multipurpose projects. The Flood Control Act of 1944 broadened the powers of the federal government in these matters.
Reclamation has created much new wealth in the United States by turning areas that had formerly been arid into thriving agricultural and industrial communities. However, environmentalists have questioned and even stopped more recent projects, such as the Bureau's 1991 water project on the Colorado River, due to the damage to the environment such dam building has caused. The Columbia River complex has had to limit the amount of water diverted to safeguard spawning salmon, and the Omnibus Water Bill of 1992 limited the bureau to environmentally sound projects. Further, criticism that the bureau's programs have disproportionately aided large, rich farms led, in the 1992 bill, to the restriction of water subsidies to family farms.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.