Irrigated farming Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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.Agriculture;irrigation

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 Desert Land Act of 1877Desert Land Act of 1877 allowed would-be farmers to buy land at a low price, provided part of the land came under irrigation within three years, a requirement often impossible to meet. The Carey Act of 1894Carey Act of 1894 offered land to the states for irrigation projects, although few took advantage of it.

Far greater success came with the formation of the Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau ofReclamation, created by the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. Under the bureau’s guidelines, the federal government financed and oversaw the damming of rivers, the creation of reservoirs, and the digging of canals, allowing water users to repay the costs gradually. Such projects, which initially employed large numbers of laborers, resulted in the cultivation of vast tracts of land and increased settlement in the western states. The spread of irrigated farming also encouraged the manufacture and marketing of farm equipment, fertilizers, and pesticides.

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.

Further Reading
  • 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

Farm labor

U.S. Department of the Interior

Land laws

Rice industry

Water resources

Categories: History