- Reclamation History
120 Years of Managing Water in the West
Reclamation’s history began in June of 1902, with the establishment of the United States Reclamation Service within the Division of Hydrography in the USGS. In 1907, Reclamation incurred another name change when the USRS separated from the USGS to become an independent bureau within the Department of the Interior. Congress and the Executive Branch, including USRS, were then just beginning a learning period during which the economic and technical needs of Reclamation projects became clearer. The learning period for Reclamation and the Congress resulted in substantial changes when the USRS was renamed the Bureau of Reclamation in 1923.
Although Reclamation’s laboratory testing activities started along with the bureau in 1902, it was not until 1946 when Reclamation located its primary laboratory in the Denver Federal Center. These research laboratories study modeling and designs for hydraulic structures, concrete technology, electrical problems, construction design innovations, groundwater, weed control in canals and reservoirs, various environmental issues, water quality, ecology, drainage, control of evaporation and other water losses, and other technical subjects.
Reclamation data shows activities, including hydropower, water deliveries, payroll, and recreation, annually contributes more than $72.9 billion to the economy and supports 618,000 jobs. Reclamation attributes most of this to water deliveries for irrigation ($53.4 billion) and for municipal and industrial uses ($11.3 billion). Reclamation generates hydropower through 78 hydropower plants, 53 of which Reclamation operates and maintains. The latter 53 power plants account for 15% of the hydroelectric generating capacity in the United States and generate roughly 40 billion kilowatt hours of electricity valued at $2.95 billion in fiscal year 2020. This is enough electricity to power more than 3.8 million U.S. households. Reclamation annually produces about 10 trillion gallons of water that serves 31 million people with municipal, residential, and industrial water.
Tour Visitor Centers and Museums
Promoting our past
Among the goals of Preserve America are to promote partnerships for the use and rehabilitation of historic properties, and to assist in developing heritage tourism opportunities. As a steward of cultural resources that belong to the American public, the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) encourages and invites you to learn more about them.
Photography and Engineering Drawings Collections
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has an extensive collection images dating from 1902. They include photos, movie, and video footage. Reclamation's official photographs relate to construction and maintenance of irrigation projects as well as the economic and social life of the area in which they are located.
Basic history background about projects location, construction history, features & economic effects
Reclamation began a project to research a basic history of each Reclamation project in 1993. Using student historians during the summers, we expect to develop a brief history narrative about each of the Reclamation projects in the American West. Samples of these essays are included here.
Interviews with both current employees and retirees
The intent of the oral history activity is to preserve information about Reclamation that would not normally appear in Reclamation's official records. All major topics important to Reclamation are included, e.g., construction, water conveyance, hydraulic laboratories, electric generation and transmission, etc. In addition, we have special research designed to focus on the Newlands Project.
Most of Reclamations facilities are now more than 50 years old and some dams are more than 100 years old. The longevity of Reclamation’s infrastructure is achieved through preventive maintenance programs, capital improvement planning, and substantial investment in major rehabilitation and replacement activities. Visit our infrastructure page full of interactive maps highlighting work in the past, present and the future.
Reclamation hosted 12 monthly webinars discussing different aspects of Reclamation's history. These were the first events as Reclamation begins to celebrate our 120th Anniversary on June 17, 2022.
Historic reference documents
- Bureau of Reclamation - Logos
- The Bureau of Reclamation: Origins and Growth to 1945 - Volume 1
- The Bureau of Reclamation: From Developing to Managing Water, 1945-2000
- Commissioners and their Biographies
- Genealogy Research--Bureau of Reclamation
- The History of Large Federal Dams: Planning, Design, and Construction
- Bureau of Reclamation: History Essays from the Centennial Symposium
- Readings in the History of the Bureau of Reclamation