By 1870, Yuma was Arizona Territory's second largest settlement, an important trade center and crossing point on the Colorado River. The area was home to the Quechan Indians who, for centuries, had been farming along the river using simple irrigation practices. Yuma became a favored point to ford the Colorado River, and with the discovery of gold in California in 1848, it served as an important military post and supply center. Yuma continued to grow during the latter half of the nineteenth century, but irrigation farming was limited until the late 1890s because of lawsuits over a Spanish Land Grant known as the "Algodones" grant (http://www.amerisurv.com/content/view/5942/136/) that tied up land on the east side of the river. In 1898 with the settlement of the lawsuit, homesteading and farming grew rapidly as did development of private irrigation companies.
The silt-laden Colorado presented problems for farmers because silt quickly blocked canal head gates restricting water flow into the canal and ditches. This problem, along with flooding and the active meandering of the river within the floodplain, created problems for Reclamation Service engineers who began investigating the irrigation potential along the river in 1902. By early 1903, they had identified a dam site at Laguna on the Arizona side of the river, and preliminary locations for the other major features including canals, levees, and a drainage system. The Yuma Project was authorized on May 10, 1904 and was one of the earliest irrigation projects for the new Reclamation Service.
Construction of Laguna Dam began in July 1905 and was completed in March 1909. That same year, construction of the California Main Canal, the system's largest, began. It began at the western end of the dam and headed south on the California side to point opposite the town of Yuma. Here it crossed under the river in a siphon to the town of Yuma, where it split into the East and West Main Canals to provide water to farmers in the fertile Yuma Valley. Other canals were constructed off the eastern end of Laguna Dam to farm lands along the Gila River. These irrigation systems allowed Yuma to develop into a major agricultural center.
Adapted from The Historic Yuma Project, History, Resources Overview, and Assessment by Christine Pfaff, Rolla L. Queen, and David Clark. Bureau of Reclamation, Cultural Resources Program. Denver, 1992, Revised 1999.