Hydropower Program

History of Reclamation Power

The Reclamation Act of 1902 authorized the Secretary of the Interior to undertake certain water resource development activities in the Western United States. Under the 1902 Act, the Congress authorized construction of Federally financed water projects to reclaim arid lands west of the 100th meridian by providing water for irrigation. In turn, the Secretary established the Reclamation Service within the U.S. Geological Survey to carry out these activities. The Reclamation Service was renamed the Bureau of Reclamation in 1923.

Reclamation has statutory responsibilities for comprehensive planning, development, and management of multipurpose water projects in the 17 Western States. Historically, the primary purposes of Reclamation projects have been irrigation; flood control; and water for domestic, industrial, and municipal use. Hydroelectric power generally has been a secondary purpose. Although not a primary objective, power is considered for inclusion in multipurpose Federal Reclamation projects when it is in the national interest, economically justified, feasible by engineering and environmental standards, and capable of repaying its share of the Federal investment in accordance with the Reclamation law.

The Bureau of Reclamation became involved in hydropower production because of its commitment to water resource management in the arid West. The waterfalls of the Reclamation dams make them significant producers of electricity. Hydroelectric power generation has long been an integral part of Reclamation's operations while it is actually a byproduct of water development. In the early days, newly created projects lacked many of the modern conveniences, one of these being electrical power. This made it desirable to take advantage of the potential power source in water.

Powerplants were installed at the dam sites to carry on construction camp activities. Hydropower was put to work lifting, moving, and processing materials to build the dams and dig canals. Powerplants ran sawmills, concrete plants, cableways, giant shovels, and draglines. Night operations were possible because of the lights fed by hydroelectric power. When construction was complete, hydropower drove pumps that provided drainage of conveyed water to lands at higher elevations than could be served by gravity-flow canals.

Surplus power was sold to existing power distribution systems in the area. Local industries, towns and farm consumers benefitted from the low-cost electricity. Much of the construction and operating costs of dams and related facilities were paid for by this sale of surplus power, rather than by the water users alone. This proved to be a great savings to irrigators struggling to survive in the West.

Reclamation's first hydroelectric powerplant was built to aid construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River about 75 miles northeast of Phoenix, Arizona. Small hydroelectric generators, installed prior to construction, provided energy for construction and for equipment to lift stone blocks into place. Surplus power was sold to the community, and citizens were quick to support expansion of the dam's hydroelectric capacity. A 4,500 kilowatt powerplant was constructed and, in 1909, five generators were in operation, supplying power for pumping irrigation water and furnishing electricity to the Phoenix area.

Power development, a byproduct of water development, had a tremendous impact on the area's economy and living conditions. Power was sold to farms, cities, and industries. Wells pumped by electricity meant more irrigated land for agriculture, and pumping also lower water tables in those areas with water logging and alkaline soil problems. By 1916, nine pumping plants were in operation irrigating more than 10,000 acres. In addition Reclamation supplied all of the residential and commercial power needs of Phoenix. Cheap hydropower, in abundant supply, attracted industrial development as well. A private company was able to build a large smelter and mill nearby to process low-grade copper ore, using hydroelectric power.

The Theodore Roosevelt Powerplant was one of the first large power facilities constructed by the Federal Government. Its capacity has since been increased form 4,500 kW to over 36,000 kW.

Power, first developed for building Theodore Roosevelt Dam and for pumping irrigation water, also helped pay for construction, enhanced the lives of farmers and city dwellers, and attracted new industry to the Phoenix area.

During World War I, Reclamation projects continued to provide water and hydroelectric power to Western farms and ranches. This helped to feed and clothe the Nation, and the power revenues were a welcome source of income to the Federal Government.

The Depression of the 1930's, coupled with widespread floods and drought in the West, spurred the building of great multipurpose Reclamation projects such as Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, Hoover Dam on the lower Colorado River, and the Central Valley Project in California. This was the "big dam" period, and the low-cost hydropower produced by those dams had a profound effect on urban and industrial growth.

With the advent of World War II the Nation's need for hydroelectric power soared. At the outbreak of the war, the Axis Nations had three times more available power than the United States. The demand for power was identified in this 1942 statement on "The War Program of the Department of the Interior:"

"The war budget of $56 billion will require 154 billion kWh of electric energy annually for the manufacture of airplanes, tanks, guns, warships, and fighting material, and to equip and serve the men of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps."

Each dollar spent for wartime industry required about 2-3/4 kWh of electric power. The demand exceeded the total production capacity of all existing electric utilities in the United States. To produce enough aluminum to meet the President's goal of 60,000 new planes in 1942 alone required 8.5 billion kWh of electric power.

Hydropower provided one of the best ways for rapidly expanding the country's energy output. Addition of more powerplant units at dams throughout the West made it possible to expand energy production, and construction pushed ahead to speed up the availability of power. In 1941, Reclamation produced more than 5 billion kWh, resulting in a 25 percent increase in aluminum production. By 1944 Reclamation quadrupled its hydroelectric power output.

From 1940 through 1945, Reclamation powerplants produced 47 billion kWh of electricity, enough to make:

69,000 airplanes
79,000 machine guns
5,000 ships
7,000,000 aircraft bombs, and
5,000 tanks
31,000,000 shells

During the war, Reclamation was the major producer of power in the West where needed resources were located. The supply of low-cost electricity attracted large defense industries to the area. Shipyards, steel mills, chemical companies, oil refineries, and automotive and aircraft factories all needed vast amounts of electrical power. Atomic energy installations were located at Hanford, Washington, to make use of hydropower from Grand Coulee.

While power output of Reclamation projects energized the war industry, it was also used to process food, light military posts, and meet needs of the civilian population in many areas.

With the end of the war, powerplants were put to use in rapidly developing peacetime industries. Hydropower has been vital for the West's industries which use mineral resources or farm products as raw materials. Many industries have depended wholly on Federal hydropower. In fact, periodic low flows on the Columbia River have disrupted manufacturing in that region.

Farming was tremendously important to America during the war and continues to be today. Reclamation delivers 10 trillion gallons of water delivered to more than 31 million people each year and provides 1 out of 5 Western farmers (140,000) with irrigation water for 10 million farmland acres that produce 60% of the nation's vegetables and 25% of the its fruits and nuts

Hydropower directly benefits rural areas in three ways:

It produces revenue which contributes toward repayment of irrigation facilities, easing the water user's financial burden.

It makes irrigation of lands at higher elevations possible through pumping facilities.

It makes power available for use on the farm for domestic purposes.

Reclamation is second only to the Corps of Engineers in the operation of hydroelectric powerplants in the United States. Reclamation uses some of the power it produces to run its facilities, such as pumping plants. Excess hydropower is sold first to preferred customers, such as rural electric power co-ops, public utility districts, municipalities, and state and Federal agencies. Any remaining power may be sold to private electric utilities. Reclamation generates enough hydropower to meet the needs of millions of people, and power revenues exceed $900 million a year. Power revenues are returned to the Federal Treasury to repay the cost of constructing, operating, and maintaining projects.

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See also: Reclamation's Searchable Phone Book and Office Addresses List

Last Updated: 2/4/16