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Rio Grande Project History (83 KB) (pdf)
General Description| Plan| Development| Benefits
General Description

The Rio Grande Project furnishes a full irrigation water supply for about 178,000 acres of land and electric power for communities and industries in the area. Drainage water from project lands provides a supplemental supply for about 18,000 acres in Hudspeth County, Texas. Project lands occupy the river bottom land of the Rio Grande Valley in south-central New Mexico and west Texas. About 60 percent of the lands receiving water are in New Mexico; 40 percent are in Texas. Water is also provided for diversion to Mexico by the International Boundary and Water Commission-United States Section to irrigate about 25,000 acres in the Juarez Valley.

Physical features of the project include Elephant Butte and Caballo Dams, 6 diversion dams, 139 miles of canals, 457 miles of laterals, 465 miles of drains, and a hydroelectric powerplant. The project is operated as two divisions: The Water and Land Division, and the Power and Storage Division.

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Storage for the project is provided in the Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs. Water used for winter power generation at Elephant Butte is held in Caballo Reservoir for irrigation use during the summer. Diversions for project irrigation are made at four points on the Rio Grande below the storage reservoirs.

Facility Descriptions
Elephant Butte Dam Powerplant

Elephant Butte Dam and Reservoir (originally called Engle Dam) is on the Rio Grande, 125 miles north of El Paso, Texas, can store 2,210,298 acre-feet of water to provide irrigation and year-round power generation. This is a concrete gravity dam 301 feet high and 1,674 feet long including the spillway. It contains 618,785 cubic yards of concrete. The dam was completed in 1916, but storage operation began in 1915.

The power system consists of a 24,300-kilowatt hydroelectric powerplant at Elephant Butte Dam. A system consisting of 490 miles of 115-kilovolt transmission line and 11 substations totaling 81,750 kilovolt-amperes, which was developed and operated by the Rio Grande Project until 1977, has been sold to a private electric company.

Caballo Dam

The Caballo Dam and Reservoir are on the Rio Grande 25 miles downstream from Elephant Butte Dam. The dam is an earthfill structure 96 feet high and 4,590 feet long, and has a capacity of 343,990 acre-feet of water. Water discharged from the Elephant Butte Powerplant during winter power generation is impounded at Caballo Dam for irrigation use during the summer.

Percha Diversion Dam

Percha Diversion Dam is on the Rio Grande, 2 miles downstream from Caballo Dam. It diverts water into the Rincon Valley Main Canal. The dam is a concrete ogee weir with embankment wings.

The Rincon Valley Main Canal, which carries water for the irrigation of 16,260 acres in the Rincon Valley, is 28.1 miles long, and has an initial capacity of 350 cubic feet per second. The canal crosses over the Rio Grande in the Garfield Flume and under the river in the Hatch and Rincon Siphons. Percha Arroyo Diversion Dam provides protection of the Rincon Valley Canal by diverting arroyo flows into Caballo Reservoir.

Leasburg Diversion Dam

Leasburg Diversion Dam, on the Rio Grande 62 miles north of El Paso at the head of Mesilla Valley, is a concrete ogee weir with embankment wings. This structure diverts water into the Leasburg Canal for the upper 31,600 acres of the Mesilla Valley irrigation system.

Leasburg Canal, which conveys irrigation water to Mesilla Valley, is 13.7 miles long and has an initial capacity of 625 cubic feet per second. Picacho North and Picacho South Dams provide flood protection to part of the Leasburg Canal system by blocking two arroyos northwest of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Mesilla Diversion Dam

Mesilla Diversion Dam, on the Rio Grande 40 miles north of El Paso, is a low concrete weir, radial gate structure, 22 feet high, flanked by levees. This structure diverts water into the East Side and West Side Canals for the lower 53,650 acres of the Mesilla Valley irrigation system.

The East Side Canal is 13.5 miles long and has an initial capacity of 300 cubic feet per second. The West Side Canal is 23.5 miles long and has an initial capacity of 650 cubic feet per second. Near its terminus, the West Side Canal system crosses under the Rio Grande in the Montoya Siphon.

American Diversion Dam

American Diversion Dam, on the Rio Grande 2 miles northwest of El Paso and immediately above the point where the river becomes the international boundary line, diverts irrigation water to El Paso Valley. The 18-foot high dam is a radial-gate structure between earthfill dikes. It is operated by the American Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission to regulate delivery of water to Mexico in accordance with treaty provisions.

American Canal, also constructed and operated by the American Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission in connection with the American Diversion Dam, carries water 2.1 miles from the dam to the head of Franklin Canal. The canal capacity is 1,200 cubic feet per second.

Franklin Canal, which conveys water to El Paso Valley, is 28.4 miles long, has an initial capacity of 325 cubic feet per second, and serves 17,000 acres in the upper portion of the valley. It was privately constructed about 1889, and was acquired by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1912 to become one of the project`s main canals.

Riverside Diversion Dam

Riverside Diversion Dam, the southernmost project diversion point, is on the Rio Grande 15 miles southeast of El Paso, and diverts water into the Riverside Canal. This 17.5-foot-high, radial-gate concrete structure has a flood bypass weir and is flanked by river levees.

Riverside Canal is 17.2 miles long, has an initial capacity of 900 cubic feet per second, serves 39,000 acres in the lower portion of the valley, and carries any available surplus through to the Hudspeth District. Tornillo Canal, a continuation of Riverside Canal, is 12 miles long and has an initial capacity of 325 cubic feet per second.

Lucero Dike

Operating Agencies

Operation and maintenance in the New Mexico portion of the project area is directed by the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. The Bureau`s Rio Grande Project Office directs operation and maintenance of Elephant Butte Dam and Powerplant, Caballo Dam, Percha Arroyo Dike, Picacho North and South Dams, and reserved works consisting of Percha, Leasburg, Mesilla, and Riverside Diversion Dams. El Paso County Water Improvement District No. I operates and maintains the Texas portion of the project area.

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There is evidence that the mild climate, rich soil, and easily accessible irrigation water of the Rio Grande Valley have attracted human habitation for many hundreds of years. When the Spanish explorers arrived in the valley in the first half of the 16th century, the Pueblo Indians were irrigating crops, using primitive methods which continued until the early part of the 20th century.

Between 1840 and 1850, various areas of the valley were irrigated by constructing canals and simple diversion structures at strategic points along the Rio Grande. These structures could not withstand the river in flood, and were a source of continual annoyance until they were supplanted by more modern diversion structures.


About 1890, extensive settlement and irrigation development in southern Colorado, in addition to that which had already taken place in central New Mexico, depleted the normal summer flow of the Rio Grande, causing the river to be dry at El Paso for more frequent and longer periods. Several small and local storage developments were proposed, but conflicting interests, including Mexico`s claims for loss of water based on ancient prior right, prevented the culmination of any of them. These conflicting interests were resolved in 1904 when it was reported that a reservoir could be created by construction of a dam at Elephant Butte which would provide sufficient water to meet all requirements.

The Rio Grande Project was among the first to receive attention after the passage of the Reclamation Act in 1902. Investigation surveys were begun on the project in 1903 and a feasibility report was made in 1904.


Construction of the Rio Grande Project was authorized by the Secretary of the Interior on December 2, 1905, under the provisions of the Reclamation Act, and funds were allocated to initiate construction of the first diversion unit. The Reclamation Act was extended to the entire State of Texas on June 12, 1906, following a partial extension for Engle (Elephant Butte) Dam in 1905.

Congress authorized the construction of Elephant Butte Dam on February 25, 1905, and on May 4, 1907, $1 million of nonreimbursable funds were appropriated as the State Department`s share for allocation by treaty of 60,000 acre-feet of water annually to Mexico. Additional project works authorized under congressional action include Caballo Dam, a combined flood-control and power reglating structure, and the Elephant Butte power development


Construction was begun in 1906 on Leasburg Diversion Dam and Canal. The dam and 6 miles of canal were completed in 1908.

Construction of Elephant Butte Dam was begun in 1908 but progress was delayed when difficulty in obtaining reservoir land developed. Construction of the dam began again in 1912 and was completed in 1916; storage operation began in January 1915.

The Franklin Canal was constructed in 1889-1890 by El Paso Irrigation Company, was purchased by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1912, and was enlarged in 1914-1915. Additional project works, consisting of Mesilla Diversion Dam and the East Side and West Side Canals, Percha Diversion Dam and Rincon Valley Canal, and an extension of Leasburg Canal were constructed during 1914-1919.

In 1917-1918, contracts were entered into for the construction of distribution laterals and a drainage system in addition to storage and diversion works. A critical seepage condition had developed because of the rising ground water table, and construction of the drainage system, which was began in 1916, was expedited. During 1918-1929, reconstruction and extension of old community ditches, and construction of new laterals to form a complete irrigation distribution and drainage system were in progress. Improvements have been added from time to time since 1930.

Caballo Dam was included as a flood control unit in the Rio Grande Rectification Project and part of its cost was allocated to that purpose. It made year-round power generation at Elephant Butte Dam possible and part of the cost was allocated to that purpose, but it also provided replacement for storage lost at Elephant Butte due to silt deposition. This dam was built in 1936-1938, followed by construction of the Elephant Butte Powerplant in 1938-1940. Construction of the power transmission system, begun in 1940, was completed in 1952.

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The project is divided into some large family-owned and many small farming units. Principal crops are cotton, alfalfa, vegetables, pecans, and grain.


Elephant Butte Reservoir has a surface area of 36,897 acres at the conservation pool water surface elevation of 4,407.0 ft. Located midway between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas., in scenic semidesert mountainous terrain, it is popular throughout the entire Southwest for boating, fishing, and swimming. Cabin sites, boat rental, and fishing tackle are available.

Caballo Reservoir has a surface area of about 11,500 acres. In rough desert terrain 17 miles south of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, it provides an all-year recreation program of picnicking, boating, and fishing.

Flood Control

The Rio Grande Project has provided an accumulated $29,973,000 in flood control benefits from 1950 to 1999.

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Last updated: May 16, 2011