The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was created shortly after President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Reclamation Act on June 17, 1902. The law was meant to address water scarcity and lack of settlement in far western states by improving water storage and transmission systems for irrigation projects . Originally called the “U.S. Reclamation Service”, the agency’s name was changed in 1923.
Through its first two decades, the Reclamation Service was perennially in financial straits. Meant to be largely self-financing, its projects turned out to be unprofitable. The sites chosen for irrigation in states like Nevada and Arizona were too marginal climatically to produce abundant crops and attract large numbers of farmers. The Bureau of Reclamation’s fortunes only began to turn in 1928 when it was harnessed to California by the Colorado River Storage Project, which provided water to the Imperial Valley agribusiness and electricity (and later water) to greater Los Angeles. Construction began in 1931 .
Then the Great Depression hit. With farmers struggling with falling crop prices and drought, payments for water deliveries fell sharply. For fiscal year 1932, the Bureau noted that its long-range construction fund was faltering: “…the total income to the fund from all sources was about $5,400,000, or nearly $5,000,000 less than in the previous year, and about one-half of the annual budget planned in 1927” . Fiscal year 1933 was even worse .
The New Deal completely reversed the Bureau’s financial situation, dropping the self-financing requirement and pumping in millions of dollars. In its next annual report, through June 30, 1934, the Bureau declared: “With $103,535,000 allotted by the Public Works Administration… construction activities took on a new impetus…” . There was even more good news a year later: “The Bureau now is engaged in the largest construction program in its history. The program makes up the greatest conservation campaign as yet undertaken by a single agency of the United States Government…A total of $175,000,000 is available for the Bureau’s construction work during the year. Of this, $100,000,000 was set aside by the Works Progress Administration and $75,000,000 remained from allocations made by the Public Works Administration” .
New Deal funding (and WPA labor) was used for the Bureau’s construction activities at Boulder Canyon (Hoover Dam, Arizona-Nevada), the All-American Canal (California), Grand Coulee Dam (Washington), the Ogden River Project (Utah), the Rio Grande Project (New Mexico), the Milk River Project (Montana), and many other locations around the West . By 1941, the Bureau was supplying water and hydroelectric power to 4.7 million Americans .
The Bureau worked with other New Deal agencies, as well. For example, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) fortified canal banks against erosion, built service roads along the canals, replaced deteriorating wood structures with concrete structures, constructed small reservoirs & feeder canals, and more . The Bureau provided technical assistance to the Tennessee Valley Authority .
The administrators of the Bureau during the New Deal years were Elwood Mead (1924-1936) and John C. Page (1936-1943) . In the postwar era, the Bureau dammed almost every major river in the West. It still operates today and, as of 2015, manages 337 reservoirs, supplies 140,000 western farmers with irrigation water, and drinking water to millions, and helps manage 289 recreation sites at its reservoirs. It is the second largest producer of hydropower in America , and electricity sales, not water, are the Bureau’s main source of revenue.
Sources: (1) “Brief History, Bureau of Reclamation,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, https://www.usbr.gov/history/2011NEWBRIEFHISTORY.pdf, accessed September 3, 2015. (2) Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire. New York: Pantheon, 1985. (3) “Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1932,” p. 10. (4) “Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1933,” p. 5. (5) “Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1934,” p. 24. (6) “Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1935,” p. 45. (7) Ibid, pp. 46-49. (8) “Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1941,” pp. 2-3. (9) Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt’s Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981, p. 46. (10) See note 1. (11) “Commissioners of Reclamation,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, https://www.usbr.gov/history/commiss.html, accessed September 4, 2015. (12) “About Us – Fact Sheet,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, https://www.usbr.gov/main/about/fact.html, accessed September 4, 2015. (Note: All annual reports of the Department of the Interior can be found at https://www.hathitrust.org/).« Back to Glossary Index