Irrigated farming led to the profitable cultivation of acres that otherwise would not have been suitable for crop growing, the establishment of numerous subsidiary enterprises, and significant shifts in population.
Although most regions of the eastern United States receive sufficient rainfall for farming, lands west of the one-hundredth meridian, which runs from the Dakotas southward to Texas, are generally arid and need irrigation to be farmed. In areas where rainfall permits growth but is not abundant, irrigation can increase crop yields dramatically.
Early steps to encourage farming in the West met with limited success. During the 1870’s and 1880’s, a number of private irrigation companies were formed, but generally they were unable to deliver water to distant tracts and most failed within a few years. The
Far greater success came with the formation of the Bureau of
By the middle of the twentieth century, advances in technology made it possible to pump water from rivers and aquifers and deliver it to elevations beyond the reach of earlier systems. Irrigation systems featuring automated sprinkling also became widespread. Toward the end of the century, irrigated farming became increasingly common in the southeastern United States. The number of large, corporate farms increased significantly, while small, family farms and farm jobs decreased. People also began to express concern about the long-term negative consequences of irrigation: salinization of soils, damage to riverine ecology by dams, and concentration of pollutants caused by irrigation runoff. In 2003, barely a century after the creation of the Bureau of Reclamation, nearly 53 million acres of the United States were under irrigation.
Pisani, Donald J. Water and American Government: The Reclamation Bureau, National Water Policy, and the West, 1902-1935. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1993. Rowley, William D. The Bureau of Reclamation: Origins and Growth to 1945, Volume 1: Reclamation–Managing Water in the West. Denver, Colo.: Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2006.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Colorado River water
Dams and aqueducts
U.S. Department of the Interior