History of the Bureau of Reclamation

Less than one percent of water on Earth is suitable for people to use, and that small percentage must be shared with nature. The other 99+ percent is either too salty or brackish, or it is unavailable in icecaps, glaciers, the atmosphere and groundwater. Since the American West is generally arid, water has always been a major concern of Native Americans and settlers, who relied upon the relatively meager supply for agriculture, settlement and industry.

As settlers moved into the West, they had to watch the gush of spring and early summer runoff flow away from their towns and crops. They knew they had lost water and that it would not be available in the dry days of late summer when water shortages are common in the West. Settlers responded by developing relatively simple and inexpensive water projects and creating complicated water law systems. Varied in details, western water law systems generally permanently allocated the right to use water based on the concept of prior appropriation (first in time, first in right) for beneficial use.

At first, water development projects were simple. Settlers diverted water from a stream or river and used it nearby; but, in many areas, the demand for water outstripped the supply. As demands for water increased, settlers wanted to store runoff, which they considered "wasted," for later use. Storage projects helped maximize water use and made more water available for use when needed. Unfortunately, private and state-sponsored irrigation ventures often failed because of lack of money and/or lack of engineering skill. This resulted in mounting pressure for the federal government to develop water resources.

In the jargon of the day, advocates called irrigation projects "reclamation projects." The concept was that irrigation would "reclaim" or "subjugate" western arid lands for human use. Many pressures contributed to the discussions that influenced American public opinion, Congress, and the executive branch to support of "reclamation."

Reclamation Becomes a Federal Program

President Theodore Roosevelt supported the "reclamation" movement because of his personal experience in the West, and because of his "conservation" ethic. At that time, "conservation" meant a movement for sustained exploitation of natural resources through careful management for the good of the many. Roosevelt also believed "reclamation" would permit "homemaking" and support the agrarian Jeffersonian Ideal. Reclamation supporters believed the program would make homes for Americans on family farms. Passed in both Houses of Congress by wide margins, President Roosevelt signed the Reclamation Act on June 17, 1902.

The Reclamation Act required that:

Nothing in this act shall be construed as affecting or intended to affect or in any way interfere with the laws of any State or Territory relating to the control, appropriation, use, or distribution of water...or any vested right acquired thereunder, and the Secretary of the Interior...shall proceed in conformity with such laws...

Therefore, to implement the act, Reclamation was required to comply with numerous and often widely varying state and territorial legal codes. Development and ratification over the years of numerous interstate compacts governing the sharing of stream flows between states, as well as several international treaties governing the sharing of streams by the United States with Mexico or Canada, made Reclamation's efforts to comply with U.S., state and territorial water law even more complex.

Principles of the Reclamation Program

Reclamation, at the direction of the various administrations and the Congress, developed several basic principles for the reclamation program during its early years. The details have changed over the years, but the general principles remain:

  • Federal monies on reclamation water development projects would be repaid by the water users who benefitted;
  • Projects remain federal property even when the water users repay their share of federal construction costs;
  • Reclamation generally contracts with the private sector for construction work;
  • Recamation employees administer contracts and inspect construction to assure that contractors' work meets government specifications;
  • In the absence of acceptable bids on a contract, Reclamation, especially in its early years, would complete a project by "force account" (that is, would use Reclamation employees to do the construction work); and,
  • Hydroelectric power revenues could be used to repay project construction charges.

Reclamation Today

Today, Reclamation is the largest wholesale water supplier in the United States, and the nation's second largest producer of hydroelectric power. It currently has more than 180 projects in the 17 western states which are managed out of more than 20 area offices. The area offices are within five regions which are organized around western watersheds. Many projects are actually operated and maintained by the water users. Reclamation's projects provide agricultural, municipal, and industrial water to about one-third of the population of the West. Farmers on Reclamation projects produce a significant percentage of the value of all crops in the United States, including about 60 percent of the vegetables and 25 percent of the fruit and nut crops.

To learn more about Reclamation's history, please visit the history of Reclamation.

Last Updated: 10/3/17