Reclamation Act Promotes Western Agriculture Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1902 Reclamation Act provided for federal development of irrigated agriculture and eventually transformed the American West.

Summary of Event

Before 1902, irrigation and reclamation policies in the arid western United States were mostly aimed at promoting private and state initiatives to develop irrigated agriculture. On June 17, 1902, the Reclamation Act (sometimes called the Newlands Act) became law after more than twenty years of discussion and failed federal land policy. The act represented the first of several conservation initiatives undertaken by Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and set a precedent for active federal investment and direction of natural resources management. Reclamation Act (1902) Agriculture;irrigation Newlands Act (1902) [kw]Reclamation Act Promotes Western Agriculture (June 17, 1902) [kw]Act Promotes Western Agriculture, Reclamation (June 17, 1902) [kw]Agriculture, Reclamation Act Promotes Western (June 17, 1902) Reclamation Act (1902) Agriculture;irrigation Newlands Act (1902) [g]United States;June 17, 1902: Reclamation Act Promotes Western Agriculture[00530] [c]Environmental issues;June 17, 1902: Reclamation Act Promotes Western Agriculture[00530] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 17, 1902: Reclamation Act Promotes Western Agriculture[00530] [c]Natural resources;June 17, 1902: Reclamation Act Promotes Western Agriculture[00530] Powell, John Wesley Newlands, Francis Griffith Newell, Frederick Haynes Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;conservation

In 1878, John Wesley Powell’s “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States” laid the groundwork for land classification according to the land’s capability to produce different kinds of goods and services. Early federal land policy initiatives such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Desert Land Act of 1877 failed to grasp both the scope of the problem of aridity and the cooperative approaches that would be required to overcome the problem. Powell proposed that federal lands be classified according to their best use and disposed of based on that classification. He suggested organizing lands and local governments on a watershed basis, providing homesteads of 2,560 acres that included a mix of irrigable land and rangeland, and creating cooperative irrigation districts.

Powell’s ideas proved unpopular with Congress because they were at odds with the traditional image of the hardy, independent settler. However, the Reclamation Act of 1902, which was passed a few months before Powell’s death, incorporated many of his ideas. Public-land scholars have come to recognize his report as one of the most significant documents in American conservation history.

In 1888, Congress authorized the first water-resources inventory of the arid West. Frederick Haynes Newell, an assistant hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey (and later that agency’s chief hydrographer), took charge of the project and set out to measure water supplies, survey potential dam and canal sites, and calculate the area of potentially irrigable land. Congress had authorized Powell, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, to reserve all such sites from entry under the public-land laws. Powell’s reservation of 127 reservoir sites and thirty million acres of potentially irrigable public land angered western congressmen. In 1890, Congress restored the right of entry to all the withdrawn land except that required for dam and reservoir sites.

Private funding of irrigation efforts had largely come to a halt by the mid-1890’s. The most profitable sites had already been developed, and many private projects failed in the financial panic of 1893. State efforts to develop irrigation districts in California and Colorado met with little success. In 1894, Congress passed the Carey Act, Carey Act (1894) which granted one million acres to each western state to promote irrigation. The grants resulted in few projects, however, because limited financing was available. A coalition that supported federal financing of reclamation projects eventually emerged among scientists such as Newell and Powell and economic development interests in the West.

Francis Griffith Newlands came to Nevada in the late 1880’s to manage the estate of his wealthy father-in-law, Senator William Sharon. Nevada was rapidly losing population as a result of the end of the silver boom. Newlands recognized irrigated agriculture as one method to promote economic stability, and he became a principal in a privately financed project in the Truckee basin. The project failed, and Newlands suffered a financial loss; in the process, however, he had investigated and acquired many of the potential reservoir sites in the state, which he offered to sell to water users’ associations. Upon his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, he became one of the principal promoters of federal financing of irrigation and a prominent member of the National Irrigation Congress, National Irrigation Congress an influential interest group that promoted reclamation.

Upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States. Roosevelt had already become familiar with western land and water issues through his experience as a gentleman rancher in North Dakota. A progressive Republican, Roosevelt also recognized the political advantages that he might reap from running against large corporate interests and supporting public efforts to conserve natural resources. As governor of New York, he had advocated scientific management of natural resources and had already established relationships with Newell and with Gifford Pinchot, Pinchot, Gifford a leader of the forest-conservation movement.

At the prompting of Newell and Pinchot, Roosevelt made reclamation and forest conservation a major theme in his first address to Congress. Given new support from the president, Newlands’s proposals gained momentum. His bill authorized federal funding of irrigation projects through a reclamation fund composed of proceeds from the sale of public lands in the West. The bill gave the secretary of the interior discretion in selecting and constructing projects and withdrew the reclaimed areas from all but homestead entries. To promote development of family farms, Newlands included a provision that limited each individual to water rights for eighty acres. His intent was to deny speculation in the federal projects and to reinforce the ideal of the yeoman farmer.

Newlands’s bill was opposed by western congressional representatives who wanted a larger water-rights acreage limitation and also wanted the lands to be open to other than merely homestead entries. Newlands compromised and raised the limitation to 160 acres, but the bill was defeated in the House. A rival measure with few of Newlands’s provisions passed the Senate in early 1902, and Newlands introduced a new version of his bill. Roosevelt convinced the Senate to incorporate much of Newlands’s language into an amended Senate version, and the Reclamation Act became law on June 17, 1902.


Perhaps no single law has had a greater effect on the western United States than the Reclamation Act of 1902. The projects that eventually evolved under the Bureau of Reclamation Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. transformed the face and economy of half a continent. El Paso, Denver, Tucson, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City could not have grown into great metropolises without the massive water development projects and associated hydroelectricity made possible by the act. The agricultural and manufacturing economies of the western states would also be wholly different without the act and the work it engendered. The Bureau of Reclamation has constructed dams, power plants, and canals in seventeen western states. Its most widely known projects include the Hoover Dam (Boulder Dam) on the Colorado River and the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington State.





This transformation has come at a substantial environmental price, however. The increased salinity of irrigated lands, the degradation of the Colorado River delta, the demise of salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest, and the loss of biological diversity caused by the conversion of unregulated rivers to reservoirs are some of the broader costs of irrigated agriculture and hydroelectric power production. These costs must be balanced against the benefits that the western states and the nation as a whole have derived from economic development. In 2005, the Bureau of Reclamation delivered water to ten million acres of land inhabited by thirty-one million people. One out of five farmers in the West received water from its projects. Its fifty-eight power plants generated more than forty billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, serving an estimated six million homes.

In addition to such obvious environmental impacts, the Reclamation Act of 1902 had a number of subtler but nevertheless important implications. Political scientists have observed that the concentration of political power among a “water aristocracy” in the western United States was one result of the failure to implement the original policy of providing for a system of family farms. The act also set a precedent for a growing, activist federal presence in the West that directly controls or influences most forest, rangeland, and water resources in the region.

During the late 1940’s, federal subsidies to reclamation programs became increasingly contentious. In the early and mid-1950’s, the subsidy issue combined with an awakening environmental movement to block the construction of the Echo Park Dam, which had been proposed for Dinosaur National Monument in western Colorado.

Like other conservation programs designed during the Progressive Era, the Reclamation Act of 1902 envisioned an independent, self-financing funding mechanism to pay for efficient projects. The act established a reclamation fund through the sale of western federal lands. Homesteaders would repay the fund for project construction costs (without interest) within ten years of the time that water became available to them, and the repayments would then allow new projects. By 1914, all projects that could be developed within the ten-year framework had been exhausted. In subsequent acts, Congress extended the period for repayment to twenty years in 1914, to forty years in 1926, and to fifty years in 1934.

The last revision allowed for nonreimbursable allocation of project costs to flood control and navigation. This revision was subsequently interpreted to allow use of electricity-generation revenues to pay irrigation costs that were beyond the financial abilities of irrigators. Even with these provisions, however, the development and approval of projects by the secretary of the interior were limited by poor economic returns. When conservation groups, economists, and Southern California water interests combined to block construction of the Echo Park Dam and the larger Upper Colorado River Basin Project in the 1950’s, their action marked the end of an era and the once-potent dream of “making the desert bloom.”

By the 1970’s, growing environmental awareness and poor economic feasibility left the Bureau of Reclamation vulnerable to political change. The Teton Dam, one of the bureau’s projects, failed on June 5, 1976, claiming eleven lives and causing damages estimated as high as two billion dollars. In November, 1976, President Jimmy Carter was elected on a platform that stressed environmental protection and governmental reform. In April, 1977, the Carter administration successfully proposed eliminating five of the largest reclamation projects and reducing several others. In addition, the administration proposed reduced budgets and several other reforms that substantially decreased the bureau’s powers. Despite a political ideology that favored western development, Carter’s successor, President Ronald Reagan, implemented budget reforms that further constrained the growth of federal reclamation projects.

In the early 1980’s, controversy arose over the original act’s limitation on the size of farms that were eligible to receive federally subsidized water. The government failed to enforce the limitation of 160 acres per farm (320 acres per couple) and associated restrictions on leasing and residency. Attempts by the Carter administration to enforce the law led to the act’s revision during the Reagan administration. The 160-acre limitation was raised to 960 acres, and growers were required to pay full cost for water used in excess of the 960-acre limit. By 1988, however, the General Accounting Office found that some farms that exceeded the limit had been divided into holdings of less than 960 acres but had continued to operate as single units. For example, the agency identified a 12,000-acre farm that had been divided into fifteen holdings so that it could continue to receive federally subsidized water at a savings of $500,000 per year.

One environmental problem facing many reclamation projects has been that of increasing salinity. As fresh water used in irrigation evaporates, it may concentrate and deposit salt in the soil; the elevated salinity levels that result can retard or eliminate crop yields. By treaty, the United States must deliver water containing less than nine hundred parts per million of salt to Mexico from the Colorado River. Because salinity levels were exceeding the legal limit, the United States built an expensive desalination plant near Yuma, Arizona, to improve water quality. Construction on the plant was completed in 1992, but as of 2005 the facility was not being used; it had operated only for a few months of testing immediately after it was built. Abnormally high water levels in the West throughout the 1990’s meant that the United States could meet its treaty obligation to Mexico without operating the plant. In the early 2000’s, restarting use of the plant, given the expense it would represent, was a controversial topic among Arizona taxpayers.

In the San Joaquin Valley of California, a related problem caused environmental concern. Increasing salinity prompted construction of a drainage system that concentrated farmland irrigation runoff water in the Kesterson Reservoir. The reservoir attracts many migratory waterfowl, and, in the early 1980’s, biologists observed that many of the birds were being sickened or killed; by the mid-1980’s, researchers confirmed that the cause was selenium poisoning. Selenium, an element occurring naturally in the region’s soils, was being carried from irrigated soils and concentrated in the reservoir. A joint state-federal effort was undertaken to investigate the drainage-related problems and develop solutions, and in the 1990’s researchers from the University of California became involved in this work. In 2003, they reported some success in using artificially constructed wetland ponds to filter selenium from agricultural runoff.

Overall, the Reclamation Act of 1902 proved successful in reaching its original goal of developing agriculture, commerce, and settlement in the American West. The environmental consequences of that development were largely unforeseen at the time of the act’s passage, but they became increasingly problematic in the latter part of the twentieth century. Reclamation Act (1902) Agriculture;irrigation Newlands Act (1902)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber, and Daniel C. McCool. Staking Out the Terrain: Power and Performance Among Natural Resource Agencies. 2d ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A well-developed assessment of the rise and fall of natural resource bureaucracies in the United States. Includes illustrations, tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dana, Samuel T., and Sally K. Fairfax. Forest and Range Policy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. A rich chronological view of the evolution of U.S. conservation and environmental policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. 1959. Reprint. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. Classic historical assessment of the Progressive conservation movement at the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Char. Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism. Washington, D.C.: Shearwater Books, 2004. Examines the life of Pinchot, a pioneering environmentalist and Progressive politician who teamed with Theodore Roosevelt to advocate multiple uses of the nation’s forested lands.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pinchot, Gifford. Breaking New Ground. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1947. Personal recollections of the Progressive governor who was also the most influential early forester in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Rev. ed. New York: Viking Penguin, 1993. A pointed and thorough journalistic analysis of the costs of water development in the western United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stegner, Wallace. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. An essential biographical source by an author whose works define the American West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stratton, Owen, and Phillip Sirotkin. The Echo Park Controversy. University: University of Alabama Press, 1959. A detailed case study of the administrative policy process used in the Echo Park Dam decision.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyant, William K. Westward in Eden: The Public Lands and the Conservation Movement. 1982. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. An accessible, balanced treatment of the history of the conservation movement.

Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources

Work Begins on the Grand Coulee Dam

Boulder Dam Is Completed

Categories: History