Please note that this text-only version, provided for ease of printing and reading, includes more than 90 pages and may take up to 20 minutes to print. Printing this page will print the introduction, the three essays, the list of sites, and all of the descriptions for the sites featured in the itinerary. If you would like to print a specific section, click on one of the links below, and mark the section you would like to print.
Water in the West
Mission of the Bureau of Reclamation
Bureau of Reclamation Engineering Achievements
List of Sites and Descriptions
Maps (print separately)
Learn More (print separately)
Credits (print separately)
The National Park Service’s Heritage Education Services and its Intermountain Region Heritage Partnerships Program, in partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, proudly invite you to experience Bureau of Reclamation constructed historic dams and water projects in the western United States. Bureau of Reclamation projects have a sweeping impact on irrigation, hydroelectric power, navigation, flood control, and municipal and industrial water supplies. The dams and water projects embody a complex and rich history that goes well beyond the concrete and earth used to build these engineering marvels. As an arid area of the nation, the West relies heavily on these dams and water control projects that tamed the rivers to channel the life giving water essential for people to settle and thrive in the West. The Bureau of Reclamation Historic Dams and Water Control Projects Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary highlights 25 historic dams and water projects listed in the National Register of Historic Places that bring the history and importance of water and the role of the Bureau of Reclamation to life. To understand the West and capture its spirit, there is no substitute for visiting the historic structures that provide water, and hence life, to the American West.
The Bureau of Reclamation travel itinerary offers several ways to discover and experience the historic dams and water projects that shaped and illustrate the history and development of the American West:
• Descriptions of each featured historic place on the List of Sites highlight its significance, photographs and other illustrations, and information on how to visit.
• Essays provide highlights about the history of water in the West and the Bureau of Reclamation and its engineering achievements that offer context for understanding historic places featured in the itinerary.
• Maps help visitors plan what to see and do and get directions to historic places to visit.
• A Learn More section provides links to relevant websites such as individual dam and water control project information, tourism websites with information on cultural events and activities, other things to see and do, and dining and lodging possibilities. This section also includes a bibliography.
View the itinerary online or print it as a guide if you plan to visit in person. The Bureau of Reclamation itinerary, the 54th in this ongoing series, is part of the Department of the Interior, National Park Service's strategy to promote public awareness of history and encourage visits to historic places throughout the nation. The itineraries are created by a partnership of the National Park Service; the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers; and Federal, State, and local governments and private organizations in communities, regions, and heritage areas throughout the United States. The itineraries help people everywhere learn about and plan trips to visit the amazing diversity of this country’s historic places that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service and its partners hope you enjoy this itinerary and others in the series. If you have any comments or questions, please just click on “comments or questions” at the bottom of each page.
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Water in the West
The American West is distinctive in many ways--from its expansive prairies and towering mountains, to its red-rock canyons and flat-topped buttes. Yet one factor above all else sets it apart from other geographic regions of the United States: its lack of precipitation. The West seemed so parched and desolate to 19th-century explorers that maps labeled it the Great American Desert. Today, we still know parts of it as Death Valley, a place so hot and dry that visitors are advised to drink at least one gallon of water a day to replace loss from perspiration.
Lack of rainfall always has been a defining problem in the American West. Long before Europeans arrived, predecessors to the Hohokam people migrated from central Mexico to southern Arizona, bringing domesticated crops and their knowledge of irrigation with them. The Hohokam created an extensive canal system and irrigated thousands of acres along the Salt River. Their descendants, Akimel and Tohono O’od, constructed networks of diversion dikes to capture runoff rainwater to cultivate their fields. When the Spanish arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, mission priests enhanced Native American efforts by expanding and building new rock dams and small, earthen reservoirs.
In the 1840s, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, migrated to the West and settled in small villages surrounded by intensively cultivated fields. The Mormons succeeded by working as a community and putting aside individual interests for the greater good of all. Their success in Utah demonstrated that American homesteaders could flourish in the desert. Despite differences in the social response to creating a vibrant farming economy, from the beginning, American settlers in the West recognized that successful farms usually depended on irrigation. As early as 1867, bills were introduced in Congress to encourage irrigation and reclamation of unproductive land and, in 1877, the Desert Land Act linked irrigation to grants of public land.
Congress also authorized studies of the West’s geology and water supply, which culminated in comprehensive reports. Most influential was John Wesley Powell’s 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, in which he called for planned development of water and land resources in the West. Powell, famous for his explorations of the Colorado River, identified the 100th meridian, an imaginary longitudinal line running through the heart of the Dakotas and south through Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and then into Texas, as the point roughly dividing the moist East from the arid West. East of the line, annual precipitation exceeds 20 inches, making it possible to grow crops without irrigating. West of the line (with exceptions such as the Pacific Northwest), annual precipitation measures below 20 inches and can drop to under 5 inches in places such as Nevada’s Carson Desert. For Western settlement to succeed, Powell argued, the Federal Government must control the West’s rivers, irrigate its arid lands, and equitably distribute its water. In 1888, Congress appropriated $100,000 for Powell and his men at the decade-old U.S. Geological Survey to begin surveying places for possible irrigation works.
The movement calling for federal involvement in reclamation found a strong advocate in Francis G. Newlands, who moved to Nevada in 1888 and soon launched the Truckee Irrigation Project, which he envisioned would create a “new” Nevada through irrigation. Like many other private projects, however, it fell flat, doomed by squabbling financiers and Nevada legislators. In 1893, when Newlands became Nevada’s representative in Congress, he still believed in his dream for Nevada, but now he was in a position to secure federal help to make it come true.
It wasn’t, however, until the ascension to the presidency of the progressive Theodore Roosevelt (upon the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901) that Newlands and federal reclamation received the boost they needed to overcome opposition. On June 17, 1902, the very day the bill landed on his desk, Roosevelt signed the Reclamation Act, also known as the Newlands Act after the congressman who had championed it. Advocates envisioned reclamation as a way to transform arid land into productive farms that would support families and bring economic stability to the West. That, in turn, would create new markets and extend prosperity to the nation. Many people, including Roosevelt, regarded the West’s rivers as an untapped resource that was literally running to waste. Why not harness this “wild” water to meet humanity’s needs?
The Reclamation Act of 1902 created the U.S. Reclamation Service (later changed to Bureau of Reclamation) and committed the Federal Government to construct and maintain “irrigation works for the storage, diversion and development of waters”--meaning dams, reservoirs, and canals--to irrigate arid and semiarid lands in 16 Western states and territories: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. (Some of these states were still territories in 1902. Texas was added as a reclamation state in 1906.) The Reclamation Act established a special “reclamation fund,” intended to pay for the construction of the dams and canals needed to irrigate the West. Money in the fund would come, not from the U.S. Treasury, but from the sale of public lands. The Reclamation Act limited people on Reclamation projects to 160 acres, required residence on the property, and use of at least half of the land for agriculture. A key provision stipulated that those using the water had to repay the government’s construction costs within 10 years.
The Reclamation Act’s 160-acre provision, which followed a standard set by the 1862 Homestead Act, failed to recognize that some Western land was so inhospitable that it was more suited to grazing than farming and that 160 acres wasn’t enough for success in parts of the West. John Wesley Powell, in fact, recommended that up to 2,560 acres of public land be allowed to individual settlers, advice that was ignored. Such hard Western realities would present a learning curve for Reclamation during its early years.
The Federal Government had long subsidized internal public works, from building roads and harbors to pulling snags from rivers, but the Bureau of Reclamation was an unprecedented intervention in water matters. Many historians view it as the final piece of a government land policy rooted in Jeffersonian ideals of the yeoman farmer as the bedrock of democracy. The Reclamation Act of 1902, as had the Homestead Act of 1862, aimed to serve the nation’s social goal of settling families on the land. Beyond the 100th meridian, that goal depended on water, and a reliable flow of water, even for farmers who lived along a stream, was difficult to come by. Even if a farmer managed to plug a freshet and create a stock pond, he needed a canal to get the water to his fields. That required money and expertise beyond the reach of most individuals.
In the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of private irrigation companies tried to reclaim the West’s arid lands, only to collapse from lack of know-how, profiteering, chaotic Western water laws, drought, harsh winters, or the devastating depression of the 1890s. Private efforts that did succeed proved it was possible to make the desert bloom, but large-scale projects presented great financial risk, making private capital hesitant to invest. In Wyoming, for example, even a man as famous and wealthy as William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody gave up on his dream of using Shoshone River water to irrigate 60,000 acres around his newly founded town of Cody. When he and his business partner investigated the feasibility of the project, they decided it was cost prohibitive. The Wyoming State Board of Land Commissioners then turned to the U.S. Congress for help, and Buffalo Bill, in 1904, transferred his water rights to the Federal Government, which took over the project.
Also instructive is the story of Sheriff Pat Garrett, well-known killer of Billy of Kid. After settling down, Garrett envisioned transforming the Pecos River Valley in the southern New Mexican desert into small, prosperous farms. He enlisted financial help from well-heeled businessmen and, by 1890, the Pecos Irrigation and Investment Company dammed the Pecos River and constructed the core of a complex irrigation system. Investors soon discovered, however, that the irrigation system was costing them more than they had expected and, in 1905, they sold the entire network to the new U.S. Reclamation Service. Countless other private attempts, as well as a few state efforts, to irrigate slices of the West also collapsed. As much as the West prided itself on its stubborn individualism, making the desert bloom seemed a task too big for even a hardy Westerner. Slowly, it became apparent that the Federal Government, with its capital, engineering skills, and organizational structure, was the one entity that seemed able to take on the gargantuan task of transforming the desert and succeeding.
With formation of the U.S. Reclamation Service in 1902, the work went forward with astonishing speed. The very next year, five projects were authorized: the Salt River Project in Arizona Territory; Milk River Project in Montana; Truckee-Carson (Newlands) Project in Nevada; Sweetwater (North Platte) Project in Nebraska; and the Gunnison (Uncompahgre) Project in Colorado. Six more were approved in 1904 and nine more in 1905. By the end of 1907 there were 24 authorized Reclamation projects, at least one in each of the original 16 Reclamation states, with the exception of Oklahoma. The Reclamation Service excelled in dam building, constructing some of the most impressive water diversion structures and the largest and highest dams in the Western Hemisphere, like Theodore Roosevelt in Arizona, Arrowrock in Idaho, Elephant Butte in New Mexico, Pathfinder in Wyoming, and Belle Fourche in South Dakota. In Nevada, construction of Derby and Lahontan dams spurred the growth of desert towns such as Fallon, which prided itself on the juicy cantaloupes grown on irrigated lands. In Colorado, the Gunnison Tunnel holed right through the steep walls of the Black Canyon, and Wyoming’s Shoshone Dam, completed in 1910, fulfilled Buffalo Bill’s dream. (In 1946, Shoshone Dam was renamed Buffalo Bill Dam in honor of Cody.)
During its first quarter century, the Bureau of Reclamation became the foremost builder of water storage, diversion and transmission projects in the world. While these early projects did succeed in irrigating arid lands and spurring development, the number of acres reclaimed never met projections, and problems with everything from water-logged lands to high construction costs and disgruntled farmers who couldn’t make their payments led in 1923 to a Fact Finder’s Commission, directed to analyze the Reclamation program, including cost overruns. While the Bureau had spent $135 million on its projects, repayments totaled less than $10 million. Reorganization followed and, with it, a new name: the Bureau of Reclamation. Ended was the strict repayment structure for farmers, who now were offered loans to provide the time and aid necessary to make their farms productive. In the future, the sale of electricity would cover a large portion of costs.
A signal of things to come was creation of the Colorado River Compact, which involved management of the entire Colorado River Basin. The compact provided a formula for settling disputes over water rights among the seven states in the Colorado River’s drainage area (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). With the compact and approval in 1928 of the Boulder Canyon Project, centered on Hoover Dam, the Bureau of Reclamation enlarged its mission and embarked on huge, multi-purpose projects that aimed to do more than irrigate arid farmland. Its new projects focused on hydroelectric power as a principal benefit. This came about after an intense public debate on whether the Federal Government should become involved in public power production or whether that should be left to private enterprise. In 1939, Congress legitimized this new multi-purpose direction for the Bureau of Reclamation, whose future projects would address not only irrigation, but hydroelectric power, navigation, flood control, and municipal and industrial water supplies. Importantly, the sale of electricity provided revenue to pay for ever-larger Reclamation projects.
Even as President Herbert Hoover signed the first appropriation bill for Hoover Dam in the summer of 1930, the nation was falling into deep economic trouble. As it turned out, the Great Depression paved the way for some of Reclamation’s greatest achievements as the new administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt launched program after program in an attempt to spur the economy by “priming the pump” and providing jobs for out-of-work Americans. Unprecedented funds flowed to the Bureau of Reclamation as it became a key player in the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA), which spent “big bucks on big projects,” such as building the Lincoln Tunnel, the causeway linking the Florida Keys to the mainland, and big dams, which stood out as monuments to a prosperous future. By the outbreak of World War II, the PWA had authorized 37 Reclamation projects, 13 of which were major storage dams, including Grand Coulee on the Columbia and Shasta in California’s Central Valley.
The Bureau of Reclamation also became involved in government programs to resettle struggling farmers on irrigated lands and found work for unemployed young men with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), who lived at 34 camps set up on Reclamation sites. They lined canals with riprap to prevent erosion, cleaned drainage ditches, built roads, constructed recreation amenities, and cleared reservoir sites of brush and trees. In 1938 alone, they contributed almost a million man days to Reclamation projects. Unlike the CCC and Works Progress Administration, which provided jobs for millions of the unemployed, the PWA was not a work-relief program, although its projects, which were put out for bid to private companies, helped keep people off relief.
A Reclamation project funded by the PWA could involve more than a big dam. In January 1935, for instance, the PWA allotted funds for a study that led to the ambitious Colorado-Big Thompson Project, launched in 1937 and involving the construction of dams, dikes, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, pipelines, tunnels, transmission lines, substations, and other structures that spread over 250 miles. A key feature was the 13-mile-long Alva B. Adams Tunnel. Constructed beneath Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, it not only transferred water from one watershed to another, but cut right through the Continental Divide, taking water from the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains to the more urban Front Range on the Eastern Slope. Today, 11 cities depend on the project for municipal and industrial water, as well as hydroelectric power. The project offers recreation at its reservoirs and also provides supplemental water to irrigate as much as 720,000 acres.
The coming of World War II placed the Bureau of Reclamation in still more new roles. In the frenzy following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the Federal Government relocated 120,000 persons of Japanese and Japanese American ancestry from the West Coast to 10 inland internment centers, three of which were established at former CCC camps on Reclamation land: at Tule Lake in northern California, Minidoka in Idaho, and Heart Mountain in northwestern Wyoming. While there, internees worked on Reclamation projects, building canals and ditches to irrigate their own fields and to help the war effort. Also assigned to camps, under the government’s Civilian Public Service program, were conscientious objectors who labored on Reclamation projects in Oregon, Colorado, and South Dakota. German and Italian prisoners of war also were detained on Reclamation project sites, including Minidoka in Idaho and Belle Fourche in South Dakota.
Reclamation projects played a huge role as the American defense industry revved up for the war effort. Grand Coulee Dam, completed in 1941 on the Columbia River in Washington, provided the enormous electrical power needed to produce aluminum, used in the building of warplanes and ships. In fact, one-half of the military planes produced in the United States during World War II depended on power from Grand Coulee Dam. It was power from Grand Coulee, as well, that charged the production of plutonium at the nearby Hanford Site, which figured prominently in the making of the atomic bomb.
As hundreds of thousands of people moved West to work in the war industries, cities grew, especially in the three Pacific Coast states, where population mushroomed by a third between 1940 and 1945. In northeastern Washington, for instance, the Spokane Army Air Depot (today’s Fairchild Air Force Base) employed 10,550 civilians and 7,000 military personnel in repairing damaged aircraft. Meanwhile, the government built two nearby aluminum plants that were purchased after the war by the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. Today, Kaiser Aluminum’s Trentwood plant continues to employ people in the Spokane Valley. In Seattle, Boeing’s Plant 2 employed thousands of workers to build the heavy, B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 Superfortress bombers. Of the nearly 13,000 B-17s produced during the war, about half rolled out of the Seattle plant. In Southern California, San Diego, long a “Navy town,” seemed to mature overnight as it became the new headquarters of the nation’s Pacific Fleet and a training center not only for sailors, but for soldiers and Marines. Defense contractors went into high gear, including the Consolidated-Vultee Corp., which churned out B-24 Liberators. The city’s booming population so added to its water needs that San Diego, averaging only 9.9 inches of rainfall a year, feared a water shortage and began efforts to tap into Colorado River water by promoting the San Diego Project, with the first of two major aqueducts completed in 1947.
Reclamation’s early mission was rural--helping small farmers settle the land. But in the years before and after World War II, its job looked more and more urban, as did the West. By the year 2000, some 86 percent of Westerners lived in or near cities. Consider Las Vegas, a town of only 5,165 people when plans were being laid for Hoover Dam in 1930, a year when the population of the entire West was only 11 million people. After World War II, tourism took over as Las Vegas’ largest employer and, beginning in the 1980s, unprecedented growth began. The 2010 census recorded just shy of 2 million residents in Clark County, all but 3 percent of whom live in the Las Vegas area, a city that depends on Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead for 90 percent of its water supply. In recent years, facing a prolonged drought, Las Vegas and other cities in the Southwest have undertaken extensive conservation programs, but many question the sustainability of such large-scale growth.
Environmental concerns surrounding Bureau of Reclamation projects are not new (public outcry about conservation of Lake Tahoe dates to 1908), but concerns accelerated after World War II as the nation prospered. National parks became more of a travel destination, and Americans became more educated about man’s relationship to the environment. A sign of changing attitudes surfaced in the early 1950s when conservation groups tried to stop the slated construction of Echo Park Dam, which would have flooded miles of the Green and Yampa rivers in Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border. A compromise was struck, Echo Park spared, and Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River in Arizona, constructed instead. As public consciousness and political support for environmental protection grew in the 1960s, federal legislation resulted: the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act in 1965, the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and others.
Today, as it was in 1902, water remains indispensable to life in the American West. But populating the West, which grew by 32 percent in the last quarter of the 20th century, no longer is Reclamation’s goal. The question, as Lawrence J. MacDonnell writes in From Reclamation to Sustainability, is “not how to attract people to the West but how to maintain the quality of life that is attracting them.”
With the West’s rivers and streams extensively developed, the era of large dam construction is over. The last of Reclamation’s major authorizations, the Animas-La Plata Project in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, has been constructed. But that doesn’t mean Reclamation’s work is done. Projects involving dam maintenance and safety, as well as rural water projects remain. In 1999, for instance, the spillway at Tieton Dam, west of Yakima, Washington, was repaired and, in 2008, the spillway tunnel at Yellowtail Dam in Montana. In an age when a variety of interests compete for the limited water resources of the West, Reclamation aims to balance those needs and emphasize conservation, water recycling, and reuse. In the summer of 2010, through its WaterSMART program, for example, grants were issued to water districts, municipalities, and Indian tribes across the West who were seeking to achieve a sustainable water strategy. Projects ranged from a study to identify the potential impact of climate change on fish and wildlife habitats in Nevada’s Truckee River Basin, to efforts by a Port Isabel, Texas, water district to save electricity by making improvements to its non-potable water system.
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Mission of the Bureau of Reclamation
The Bureau of Reclamation is best known for its great dams and power plants. They stand astride the major rivers of the American West, monuments to a nation’s ingenuity and spirit of enterprise-–Hoover Dam on the Colorado River; Grand Coulee on the Columbia near Spokane, Washington; and Shasta Dam in California’s Sacramento River Valley. While these are among the most famous, they are only three of 476 dams maintained today by the Bureau of Reclamation, a unit of the U.S. Department of the Interior. While the dams give a face to the Bureau of Reclamation, it is the water stored behind them that goes to the heart of the Bureau’s core mission: managing, developing, and protecting water resources in the West.
Since 1902, the Bureau of Reclamation, or Reclamation in common usage, has played a central role in the settlement of the American West, a land so arid that parts of Nevada see fewer than 5 inches of rainfall a year. Irrigating the parched land was the earliest mission of the Bureau, established by the Reclamation Act of 1902. The act committed the Federal Government to construct permanent works--dams, reservoirs, and canals--to irrigate arid and semiarid lands in 16 western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming). (Texas was added in 1906.) As the West has grown, so has Reclamation’s mission. Today, it is the West’s largest supplier of water and its largest producer of hydroelectric power, an agency truly “Managing Water in the West.”
Reclamation’s name comes from its original goal, to “reclaim” arid lands for human use by providing a secure, year-round supply of water. Water meant family farms, towns, and an economic base for the sparsely settled West. Without adequate rainfall, at least 20 inches a year, a farmer faced formidable odds against making the land productive. In fact, some would say the West begins where annual precipitation falls below the 20-inch mark. In the United States, that is the 100th meridian, an imaginary longitudinal line running through the heart of the Dakotas, south through Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and then into Texas. On one side is the moist East; on the other, the arid West. The earliest mission of the Bureau of Reclamation (originally known as the U.S. Reclamation Service) was to make it possible for small farmers to make a go of it west of the 100th meridian.
The West is, indeed, arid, but that does not mean it has no water. Water flows in its streams and rivers, sometimes so mightily that a river such as the untamed Colorado could carve canyons, including the Grand Canyon. The fundamental challenge for Reclamation was not a lack of water, but how to divert the water from wild rivers, store it behind dams, and then deliver it, at the right time, to the farm lands that needed it. While most Western rivers run fast in the spring, their beds filling with snowmelt from the high country, by mid-summer they slow to a trickle in lower elevations, just when crops need the water the most. The Bureau of Reclamation solved the problem by constructing many dams, some of them the highest and largest dams in the world, storing water behind them, and then releasing it, as needed, to farmers and towns via canals, ditches, and aqueducts.
Reclamation was not the first to harness the West’s water. Even in prehistoric times, native peoples diverted streams to irrigate crops, and American settlers followed in the 19th century. In the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of private irrigation companies tried to reclaim the West’s arid lands but, within 10 years, most had collapsed, brought down by a lack of know-how, profiteering, chaotic water laws, harsh weather, or the severe depression of the 1890s. Private efforts that did succeed proved it was possible to make the desert bloom, but large-scale projects presented great financial risk, making private capital hesitant to invest.
In Nevada, for instance, water advocate Francis G. Newlands launched the Truckee Irrigation Project, which he envisioned would create a “new” Nevada by irrigating the desert. Like so many other private projects, however, it fell flat, doomed by squabbling financiers and Nevada legislators. When Newlands became Nevada’s representative in Congress, he still believed in his dream for Nevada, but now he pushed for federal help to make it come true. It was Newlands who introduced the bill that became the Reclamation Act of 1902, signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt the very day it landed on his desk.
The Reclamation Act established a special “reclamation fund,” intended to pay for construction of the dams and canals needed to irrigate the West. Money in the fund would come, not from the U.S. Treasury, but from the sale of public lands. People who developed farms on Reclamation projects were limited to 160 acres, required to reside on the property and use at least half of it for agriculture. A key provision stipulated that those using the water had to repay the government’s construction costs within 10 years.
Ambiguities in the Reclamation Act would entangle the Bureau in many legal questions, most often over where federal authority ended and state or local authority began, but the great work of transforming the desert went forward with astonishing speed. Pioneer engineers went into the desert, recording stream flows, studying drainage basins, and deciding on the size of dams and reservoirs needed to support irrigated farms. Modern theories of dam building and structural analysis were still so new that engineers often had to develop and test new designs and methods along the way. By the end of 1907, the year the Reclamation Service gained independent status within the Department of the Interior, 20 projects had been authorized, at least one in each of the original 16 states, with the exception of Oklahoma. The Federal Government brought the necessary capital, engineering skills, and organizational structure that private enterprise was not able to provide, but needed to undertake the huge projects.
Over the years, details would change, but Reclamation’s general principles continued to center on a key provision that federal monies spent on reclamation would be repaid by water users. As the years progressed and hydroelectric power became a benefit of key importance, users also paid for the electricity generated by Reclamation projects. Starting in 1909 with Theodore Roosevelt Dam near Phoenix and Minidoka Dam near Rupert, Idaho, Reclamation began using the massive power of falling water to generate electricity, but it wasn’t until 1928 that it embarked on huge, multiple purpose projects, the first of which was Hoover Dam, where hydroelectric power was a principal benefit. This followed an intense public debate on whether the Federal Government should become involved in public power production or whether that should be left to private enterprise. In 1939, Congress legitimized this new multi-purpose direction for the Bureau of Reclamation, whose future projects would address not only irrigation, but flood control, navigation, electric power, and municipal and industrial water supplies.
Thus, as the 1930s came to a close, Reclamation’s original mission under the 1902 Reclamation Act had expanded from just watering arid lands to multifaceted endeavors. Importantly, revenue generated from producing more hydroelectric power would be used to repay construction costs on ever larger and more expensive projects. In 1999, for example, revenues from hydroelectric generation at Grand Coulee Dam equaled about two-thirds of Reclamation’s entire appropriated budget.
Repaying government costs of construction had proved a sticky issue in Reclamation’s early years because many settlers were unable to meet the overly optimistic 10-year repayment period established under the Reclamation Act. In 1923, Congress dropped the 160-acre limit and revised the strict repayment structure for irrigation districts, giving them a long leash and even offering loans to give farmers the time and aid necessary to make their farms productive. A sign of things to come was authorization in 1928 of the Boulder Canyon Project, with Hoover Dam at its core. It was the first time large appropriations began to flow to Reclamation from U.S. general funds instead of the sale of public lands.
The Great Depression of the 1930s paved the way for some of Reclamation’s greatest achievements as the new administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt launched program after program in an attempt to spur the economy and provide jobs for out-of-work Americans by “priming the pump.” Unprecedented funds flowed to the Bureau of Reclamation as it became a key player in the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA), which spent “big bucks on big projects,” such as building the Lincoln Tunnel, the causeway linking the Florida Keys to the mainland, and big dams, such as Grand Coulee, which stood as a monument to a prosperous future. Under the PWA, the Bureau of Reclamation undertook 37 projects; bringing the total number of authorized Reclamation projects by the outbreak of World War II to 68. Unlike the Works Progress Administration, which provided jobs for millions of the unemployed, the Public Works Administration was not a work-relief program, although its projects, which were put out for bid to private companies, helped keep people off relief. Unemployed young men, ages 18 to 24, did find work on Bureau of Reclamation projects through the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Thirty-four CCC camps were established on Reclamation sites, providing men to line canals with riprap to prevent erosion, clean drainage ditches, build roads and recreation amenities, and clear reservoir sites of brush and trees.
As great cities rose from the Western deserts during and after World War II, from Phoenix and Tucson to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, it was clear that the Bureau of Reclamation served the West far beyond its original rural vision. Today, Reclamation’s responsibilities extend not only to irrigating the arid West, but to generating hydroelectric power, delivering reliable and clean water supplies to municipalities and industries, regulating river flows for navigation, protecting lives and property from floods, and exploring ways to improve water quality and preserve wetlands and habitation for fish and wildlife. Reclamation’s huge reservoirs, from Lake Mead in Nevada to Belle Fourche in South Dakota, have created oases for outdoor recreation and extended Reclamation’s mission to working in partnership with non-profit organizations and cooperating groups such as Ducks Unlimited and the American Outdoors Association.
Today, as the West’s largest supplier of water and the largest wholesaler of water in the United States, the Bureau of Reclamation maintains 476 dams and 348 reservoirs with a total storage capacity of 245 million acre feet of water. (An acre foot equals about 326,000 gallons, enough to serve two average families for one year.) Reclamation projects bring water to more than 31 million people, and provide 140,000 farmers (one of every five in the West) with irrigation water for 10 million acres of farmland. Those lands produce 60 percent of the nation’s vegetables and 25 percent of its fruits and nuts. Reclamation also manages 289 recreation areas with a total of 350 campgrounds. As the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the American West, Reclamation has 58 power plants online, producing enough electricity to serve 3.5 million homes.
The Bureau’s expanded mission since its founding more than a century ago reflects today’s greater understanding of the complexities of water resource development. The Bureau has evolved into a contemporary water management agency with a mission not only “to manage, develop, and protect water and related resources” in the West, but to do it “in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public.” To accomplish this mission, Reclamation today works in partnership with state and federal agencies, American Indian tribes, stakeholders, non-profit organizations and private groups to address and resolve issues. And, of course, engineering excellence remains integral to the Bureau, as it applies its expertise to projects big and small--from designing fish passageways and enhancing power grids, to monitoring older dams and employing technology to meet and balance competing needs in a world in which water is an ever-increasingly valuable resource.
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Bureau of Reclamation Engineering Achievements
So big and strong, yet beautifully graceful is Hoover Dam that it stands as an American icon, a symbol of a nation’s strength, ingenuity, and spirit of enterprise. But unlike many other of the nation’s icons, be they Mount Rushmore or the Washington Monument, Hoover Dam was built, above all else, to be useful, to store water for irrigation, for municipal supplies, and to create hydroelectric power. That is what modern dams do in the American West. How they came to be built is the story of the Bureau of Reclamation, but the story of dams is as old as human civilization. The ancient Egyptians and Romans built dams, as did native people in the Americas. While the way dams are constructed has evolved with human knowledge and technology, basic traditions of design and function remain unchanged.
In functional terms, as historian Donald C. Jackson writes, dams fall into two categories: diversion dams and storage dams. Diversion dams, as their name implies, divert water from a stream or river, through a canal or conduit to another place where it is needed. In Nevada, for instance, Derby Diversion Dam diverts water from the Truckee River through a canal to irrigate land farther south, in the Lahontan Valley. Storage dams retain water for long-term use in the reservoirs they create. Hoover Dam, for instance, is a storage dam; Lake Mead its reservoir.
When it comes to design, two basic traditions reign: the massive tradition and the structural tradition. Dams in the massive tradition depend on their weight to hold back water, while dams in the structural tradition depend on their shape. Those depending on weight are known as gravity dams because their weight pulls down on the dam, offering resistance to the pressure exerted by the water stored behind them. Dams depending on their shape are either arch dams or buttress dams. Arch dams are built in narrow canyons with solid walls because the walls help carry the weight of the water, pushing back and squeezing the concrete in the arch, making the dam rigid. Buttress dams generally are built in wide valleys and depend on several buttresses for support. Arch dams, because they do not depend on sheer bulk, generally require less material to build, and thus are less expensive than gravity dams.
In the United States, dam building received little attention until the Great Flood of 1889, which killed 2,209 people when the South Fork Dam collapsed, 14 miles upstream from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The disaster, memorialized at the National Park Service’s Johnston Flood National Memorial, occurred at a time when American cities were growing and the new electric light industry was taking root. North of New York City, engineers began building Croton Dam in 1892 to supply growing water needs. Unlike South Fork Dam, which was an earth embankment dam impounding a recreational lake, Croton Dam was a masonry gravity dam, which was standard for municipal storage dams at the time. (Masonry can mean brick, stone, or concrete, bound together by mortar.) When completed in 1906 at 297 feet high, Croton Dam was the tallest in the world. In the late 19th century, slender arch dams were so unusual that the 64-foot-high Bear Valley Dam, built in California in 1884, was considered a wonder--a wonder because it didn’t crack in two. A gravity dam like Croton seemed so much safer.
People have built dams for thousands of years, including the Romans’ famous arch dams, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that engineers in Spain began to use mathematical formulas to calculate dimensions while designing dams. In 1736, the first book on how to design dams, written by a Basque nobleman, appeared. Engineers in France and England added to knowledge by publishing essays in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As Jackson explains, an engineer in the 1850s figured out how much masonry was needed to make a gravity dam safe if it were to impound a certain amount of water. This could be done by calculating the horizontal pressure of the water pushing on the dam and the vertical pressure exerted by the weight of the mass itself. One needed to understand that pressure always was greatest at the base of the dam. The key was to make sure the force fell within the middle third of the dam’s cross-section; if that happened, the dam would not slide away or tip over.
In the United States, passage of the Reclamation Act of 1902, which created the U.S. Reclamation Service (now the Bureau of Reclamation), pushed dam building forward and put the nation on track to become the preeminent dam builder in the world. The Reclamation Act, intended to help open the American West to settlement, committed the Federal Government to construct permanent works--dams, reservoirs, and canals--to irrigate arid and semiarid lands in 16 western states and territories (the 17th state, Texas, was added in 1906).
As the neophyte Reclamation Service began building its first big dams, discussion of gravity dams vs. arch dams--mass vs. form--was front and center. But the American West was a special case. As engineer George Y. Wisner argued, the region was so arid that its dams needed to be of great height if reservoirs were going to be able to store adequate water to meet needs. But the higher the dam and the more water stored behind it meant, of course, greater pressure on the dam. In 1905, a contract was let for one of Reclamation’s first large dams--Pathfinder, to be built on Wyoming’s North Platte River, near its confluence with the Sweetwater. Wisner, and fellow engineer E. T. Wheeler, were selected to design it. An arch dam made sense because the North Platte ran through a steep, narrow canyon, perfect for an arch dam. But what of Wyoming’s high elevation and harsh weather? The thin upper arch needed extra protection, the engineers thought, or it might crack.
To deal with their concerns, Wisner and Wheeler designed an arch dam, but did something new by adding a gravity section. Pathfinder would function as an arch and gravity dam combined, distributing the load between horizontal arches and vertical cantilevers. This method, which they called the “Arch-and-Crown Cantilever Method,” was the predecessor of the Bureau of Reclamation’s “Trial Load Method,” which would be used later in the construction of dams as big and as famous as Hoover. The method, Norman Smith writes in Man and Water: A History of Hydro-Technology, “put arch dam design on a much sounder footing.”
Pathfinder Dam, completed in 1909, and its Wyoming neighbor, Buffalo Bill Dam, completed on the Shoshone River a year later, were at the forefront of these ideas as the new Reclamation Service got its feet wet. The two dams were the first to be analyzed using the Arch-and-Crown Cantilever Method. In these early years, as author David P. Billington writes, large dams appealed not only to designers like Wisner, but also to Reclamation’s top man, Frederick H. Newell. Newell wanted the West’s dams not only to appear safe, but also to serve as symbols of the Bureau of Reclamation’s ability “to accomplish great things.” At 325 feet high, Buffalo Bill Dam surpassed Croton Dam as the highest in the nation and was one of the first arch dams to be constructed, not of rock like the Pathfinder, but of mass concrete. Both dams, however, used the Cyclopean technique of carefully fitting huge, irregular stones together, which explains the rough face of Pathfinder Dam. At Buffalo Bill Dam, the method involved placing granite plum rocks in the concrete, ramming them into position, and then using the part that projected to bond the next layer of concrete. The granite plum stones reduced the amount of cement needed in the dam, thus reducing costs.
Also a forerunner was Theodore Roosevelt Dam, completed in 1911 on the Salt River, about 75 miles northeast of Phoenix. While it, like Pathfinder, is a masonry dam following the Cyclopean method, Roosevelt Dam is one the first of the Reclamation’s dams to produce hydroelectric power. Prior to the early 20th century, dams were built with one purpose in mind, either to irrigate fields, power mills, store a town’s water supply, or control flooding. But that changed with the growing demand for electricity.
While Thomas A. Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879 and built the first electric power plant in 1882, it was George Westinghouse who succeeded first in building a central power station that was able to transmit electricity over long distances. He did it by using the massive power of Niagara Falls to propel two, 5,000-horsepower, alternating-current generators housed in his Adams Power Plant Transformer House, which went online August 26, 1895. By 1901, with a full component of 10 generators in operation, Westinghouse proved the success of the venture by lighting the Pan-American Exposition in nearby Buffalo, New York. Today the Adams Power Transformer House is a National Historic Landmark, known as “the birthplace of the modern hydroelectric power station.”
President Theodore Roosevelt was in office less than a year when he signed the Reclamation Act of 1902 and put the Federal Government at the center of water issues in the American West. In 1903, as construction was set to begin on Arizona’s Roosevelt Dam, named in honor of the new president, small, hydroelectric generators were installed at the construction site to power the aerial cableway and other equipment needed to lift the huge dolomite blocks into place. Surplus power was sold to the community and, in 1909, a 4,500-kilowatt power plant was constructed.
The notion to build dams to produce electricity, and not just to irrigate arid lands, would take time to gain acceptance. In fact, more than 20 years would elapse before the first great multipurpose dam, Hoover, got under way. In the meantime, Owyhee Dam went forward on the Owyhee River (pronounced oh-Y-hee) in eastern Oregon. Owyhee Dam, as Eric B. Kollgaard and Wallace L. Chadwick writes, was “a proving ground for theories being developed to assist with the design and construction of Hoover Dam,” which, at 726 feet, would stand nearly 300 feet higher than Owyhee. Engineers needed to know how concrete would act when poured in such massive quantities. What materials were needed? What methods of construction?
At Owyhee, where construction began in 1928, questions were answered. The system of cooling coils used in the construction of Hoover Dam, for instance, first was tested in a 28-square-foot concrete section at Owyhee. Because concrete, in hardening, creates great internal heat and expansion, engineers worried that subsequent cooling and contraction would create dangerous cracks in the interior of the dam. To solve the problem, Reclamation engineers experimented at Owyhee by funneling cool water through a network of 1-inch coils imbedded in concrete panels. Later, at Hoover Dam, the cooling system consisted of 590 miles of pipe loops circulating frigid water.
Tests also were conducted on Owyhee’s morning-glory spillway, a “daring design” at the time because few existed. Glory-hole, or morning-glory, spillways work like a giant drain, as swirling water drops through a vertical shaft and then discharges downstream through a tunnel. Owyhee’s spillway tunnel, and another completed at Gibson Dam in 1929 on the Sun River in Montana, were the first of the Reclamation’s dams to use such tunnels. Thermal property tests also were conducted at Gibson, which holds the distinction of being the first American dam not only to be analyzed according to the trial-load method, but designed using it.
The headlines, however, went to Hoover Dam, where construction began in 1931. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it a “twentieth century marvel,” and Cadillac Desert author Marc Reisner writes of it as “perhaps the most significant structure that has ever been built in the United States.” Hoover Dam became an American icon, “a great symbol,” as David P. Billington writes, “of mankind’s ability to tame nature through technology and human effort.”
The dam was a major undertaking on a major river. The Colorado is one of the wildest in the country, dropping nearly 13,000 feet from its headwaters in the Colorado Rocky Mountains to its mouth in the Gulf of California. The sheer size of the dam, 726 feet high and 660 feet wide at its base, created new problems of design and construction that required intensive research. Models were created and tested. The type of cement to be used in such a massive structure was a big concern. Desiring a low-heat variety, tests were conducted on 49 commercial cements from around the country. Hoover Dam’s two spillways, so huge they each could float a battleship, presented challenges requiring new research and modeling before spillway design could process. Ultimately, Reclamation used the new ogee, or “S” shape crest design, as well as a better understanding of the sizing of stilling basins, which protect riverbeds from erosion by lessening the energy of fast-flowing water.
Hoover Dam continued to be a teacher as recently as 1983 when flood waters caused cavitation damage in its tunnel spillways, leading to new research and design innovation. Cavitation results when vapor bubbles form and implode, which can rip out concrete, iron, and steel as well as ruin pumps and motors. As the authors of the essay “Concrete Dam Evolution” write, the many tests involving design, analysis, and construction of concrete dams “led to significant advancements in the state-of-the-art, ultimately to become the state-of-practice.” The Hoover Dam project, perhaps above all others, “came to represent the Bureau of Reclamation’s world renowned expertise.”
Construction began after the letting of a $31 million federal contract, the largest up to that time, to a consortium named the Six Companies. Hoover Dam would require 5 million barrels of cement and 45 million pounds of reinforcement steel. The mass of concrete used weighed 6.6 million tons and could pave a road stretching from San Francisco to New York City. Lake Mead, when filled to capacity, contains enough water to cover Connecticut 10 feet deep. It would take a maximum of 5,218 men (employed in any one month) a total of five years to build the dam. To house and feed the workforce, the government and Six Companies designed and built the still thriving Boulder City, six miles from the dam site. To get materials to the site, Reclamation built a railroad from Las Vegas. To power the equipment, a 220-mile electric power line was strung from San Bernardino, California.
Before construction began, the mighty Colorado had to be diverted so workers could have access to a dry river bed. Four tunnels were driven through the canyon walls, two on each side, and the river funneled past the dam site. Because the dam needed to rest tightly against the canyon walls, men called “high scalers” were lowered over the rim in safety belts or boatswain chairs to drill and chip away any loose rock. In the river bed below, huge power shovels gulped up the mud and silt until reaching solid bedrock. Abutments had to be shaped and cuts made in the canyon walls to ensure the dam could carry the expected load of more than 41 billion tons. Because engineers wanted a single concrete mass, the design called for a series of vertical columns, an estimated 215 of them, each constructed block by block, the concrete poured into square forms varying in size from 25 to 60 feet square. Each block interlocked with the next by vertical and horizontal keyways, like a Lego set.
Buckets of concrete were hoisted by one of five 20-ton cableways strung from canyon rim to canyon rim. During the summer, as each section was poured, it was the sole task of 20 men to keep the concrete moist by spraying the surface with water. Inside each block, the artificial cooling system first tested at Owyhee was at work, as well. Thus was Hoover Dam, the greatest engineering achievement in Reclamation’s history, built concrete block upon concrete block until the last bucket was poured on May 29, 1935. Water had begun to back up into Lake Mead the previous February when a great steel bulkhead in one of the original diversion tunnels was lowered. The tunnels had been plugged at strategic places and now played a key role in funneling water to the intake towers.
Today, as then, electrically operated hoists atop the intake towers raise and lower gates below, releasing water from the reservoir. The water rushes in through headers and down huge pipes called penstocks to the powerhouse, where water flowing at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 cubic feet per second operates the 17 main turbines that spin the generators that create electricity. When the first hydroelectric power surged out of Hoover’s Dam power plant, it raced on its way to Southern California through a transmission line built by the City of Los Angeles. Water for irrigation found its way to South California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys through the All-American Canal. If an emergency warrants, a series of pipes known as the outlet system can bypass the turbines and divert water into the river channel downstream. In addition, two spillways, 27 feet below the top of the dam, stand ready to send any water reaching that high into tunnels that connect to two of the original diversion tunnels.
Following all the years of experimentation and learning, Hoover Dam was the outcome: the ultimate arch-gravity dam designed and built using the trial-load method. As the tons of water in the reservoir push horizontally against the dam’s great arch, the canyon walls push back, squeezing the concrete in the arch and making the dam rigid. Meanwhile, the great weight of the concrete, stacked in vertical columns, pushes the structure down, countering the net force of tons of water pressing on its side. With its concrete base a full 660 feet thick, the length of two football fields, Hoover’s design actually was conservative when it came to safety; so massive is its gravity profile, Billington and Jackson write, that designers “neglected to make essential use of the arch effect.”
In addition to innovations in design and construction, Hoover Dam marked a crossroads in the direction of the Bureau of Reclamation. Unlike previous dams, a principal benefit of Hoover was the hydroelectric power it created and transmitted to Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada. In coming years, Reclamation’s dams would do far more than supply water for irrigating the arid West; they would generate hydroelectric power, deliver reliable and clean water supplies to municipalities and industries, regulate river flows for navigation, and protect lives and property from floods. Importantly, the sale of electricity provided revenue to pay for other large Reclamation projects, including Grand Coulee on the Columbia River in Washington.
As Reclamation studied what kind of dam to build on the Columbia in eastern Washington, questions centered on whether to design a high or low dam, and whether to make it a gravity dam or a multiple-arch. Costs favored a low, multiple-arch dam, meaning a dam made of a number of single-arches with concrete buttresses as the supporting abutments. Reclamation, Billington and Jackson write, had become “wedded to massive forms” like Hoover and concluded that it would be too difficult in the future to add on safely to the height of a low, multiple-arch dam. Thus, the Bureau of Reclamation went with a high gravity dam, Grand Coulee, which was grand indeed; it was one of the largest concrete structures in the world, standing 550 feet high, its crest stretching for nearly a mile--four times farther than that of Hoover Dam. So large is Grand Coulee that, according to the website WordIQ.com, all the pyramids at Giza could fit within its base. Grand Coulee, built from 1933 to 1941, is so massive that its reservoir, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake, backs upstream for more than 150 miles. While no construction features of Grand Coulee were particularly innovative, an interesting construction feature was a steel trestle built the length of the dam, over which a tramway ran, carrying buckets of concrete mixed at the site.
Although studies for a multiple-arch dam were not used at Grand Coulee, the design work did not go to waste. In 1936, Bartlett Dam on the Verde River in Arizona was constructed as a multiple-arch dam, the only major one ever built by the Bureau. In 1938, Shasta Dam, built on the Sacramento River in northern California followed. Construction methods were nearly identical to those used at Grand Coulee. Completed in 1945, Shasta is the third largest of Reclamation’s concrete dams (behind Hoover and Grand Coulee).
In the boom years following World War II, the Bureau of Reclamation quickly built many more large dams. The first to rise was Hungry Horse, a concrete arch dam begun in 1948 on the South Fork of the Flathead River in Montana. Because several faults were present in the excavated area where the dam was to be built, engineers used an “unusual foundation treatment” for the first time, which involved washing out clay and backfilling with grout. Into the late 1950s and 1960s the Bureau of Reclamation would continue to find new and better methods for evaluating foundation conditions, as well as seismic stability.
New concepts in arch design led to construction of Reclamation’s first double-curvature dam, Morrow Point, completed in 1968 in Colorado’s narrow Black Canyon of the Gunnison. As the first, and only, Reclamation dam with an underground power plant, Morrow Point involved engineers in extensive geologic examinations, which included the use of television to explore drill holes. Morrow Point was a component of the last major dam building project undertaken by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River Storage Project, which would see the likes of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado and Flaming Gorge on the Green River in eastern Utah, both completed in 1964. At Glen Canyon, engineers went back to the thin arch design first used at Pathfinder Dam fifty years before. As Billington and Jackson write, Glen Canyon “certainly represents a move beyond the massive curved gravity form used for Hoover Dam.” Flaming Gorge, also of thin arch design was the last of Reclamation’s major dams to be built on the main stem of the Colorado River.
In 1968, the last of Reclamation’s major projects was authorized under the Colorado River Basin Project Act. Today, with the West’s rivers and streams extensively developed, the era of large dam construction is over. The last of Reclamation’s major authorizations is near completion, the Animas-La Plata Project, built in southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico to fulfill a water rights settlement with the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes. But that doesn’t mean Reclamation’s engineering work is done. Following the failure in 1976 of the Teton Dam in Idaho, the Federal Government issued guidelines for dam safety. Reclamation’s dam safety and maintenance programs are ongoing, as well as the construction of projects to supply potable water (known as culinary water) to rural areas.
Advancements in engineering are not all that has changed since the Bureau of Reclamation was established in 1902. Before the age of computers, engineers did structural computations by hand, using mechanical calculators, compasses, and topography maps. But long before computers were a household item, the Bureau of Reclamation, beginning in 1957, used one of IMB’s first computers, the IBM 650, to develop a series of computer programs to do their trial-load studies. By 1967, the Bureau of Reclamation, headquartered in Denver, had a daily shuttle that took computer punch cards to what is today the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder to be read. Out of these early efforts came the sophisticated computer systems and analytical models of dam construction in use today.
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List of Sites
• Bartlett Dam, near Phoenix (Tonto National Forest) on the Verde River
• Hoover Dam, near Las Vegas (Arizona-Nevada Border) on the Colorado River
• Laguna Dam District, near Yuma on the Colorado River
• Parker Dam, near Lake Havasu City (Arizona-California Border) on the Colorado River
• Shasta Dam, near Redding on the Sacramento River
• Parker Dam, near Lake Havasu City (Arizona-California Border) on the Colorado River
• Gunnison Tunnel, the West Portal is near Montrose and the East Portal is in the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park
• Anderson Ranch Dam and Powerplant, near Mountain Home on the
• Arrowrock Dam, near Boise on the Boise River
• Minidoka Dam and Power House, near Twin Falls on the Snake River
• Gibson Dam, near Great Falls on the Sun River
• Hungry Horse Dam, near Kalispell on the South Fork of the Flathead
• Derby Diversion Dam, near Reno on the Truckee River
• Hoover Dam, near Las Vegas (Arizona-Nevada Border) on the Colorado River
• Lahontan Dam and Power Station , near Fallon on the Carson River
• Avalon Dam, near Carlsbad on the Pecos River
• Elephant Butte Dam and Spillway, near Truth or Consequences on the Rio Grande River
• Leasburg Diversion Dam, near Las Cruces on the Rio Grande River
• Percha Diversion Dam, near Truth or Consequences on the Rio Grande River
• Owyhee Dam, near Nyssa on the Owyhee River
• Belle Fourche Dam, near Belle Fourche on Owl Creek
• Grand Coulee Dam, near Spokane on the Columbia River
• Tieton Dam, near Yakima on the Tieton River
•Buffalo Bill Dam, near Cody on the Shoshone River
•Glendo Dam, near Glendo on the North Platte River
•Guernsey Dam, near Guernsey on the North Platte River
•Pathfinder Dam, near Casper on the North Platte River
Anderson Ranch Dam and Powerplant, Idaho
At 456 feet high, Anderson Ranch Dam was the highest embankment dam in the world when it was completed on Idaho’s Boise River in 1951. That happy day was slow in coming because builders found themselves in the middle of a World War II labor shortage and questions about the nation’s racial exclusions.
Work on Anderson Ranch Dam hardly had begun in 1941 when Japanese war planes bombed Pearl Harbor, launching America into the world war and intensifying hostility toward Japanese Americans. As wartime hysteria mounted, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living mostly on the West Coast to leave their lives behind and move inland to one of ten relocation centers.
In Idaho, the Minidoka Relocation Center was located on Bureau of Reclamation land at Hunt, in Jerome County, just 65 miles southeast of the Anderson Ranch Dam construction site. As the first Japanese-American evacuees arrived at Minidoka on August 10, 1942, workers at Anderson Ranch were busily excavating the 200-foot-wide cutoff trench, which would be filled with impervious materials to form a watertight foundation and help anchor the dam in place.
The dam contractor, facing a manpower shortage as more and more men joined the military, recognized a solution to his problem: the nearby Minidoka Relocation Center, where Japanese Americans were arriving at the rate of 500 a day. By September 14, 1942, a total of 8,381 internees were at the Relocation Center, many of whom went to work. During the fall of 1942, nearly 2,500 internees helped Idaho farmers in their fields while others stayed in camp, performing whatever labor the Morrison-Knudson Company needed to finish building Minidoka. Still other Japanese Americans were enlisted to work on Anderson Ranch Dam, which was being built by a joint venture of four companies, including Morrison-Knudson.
The use of Japanese-American labor raised significant issues because the Reclamation Act of 1902, which committed the Federal Government to build irrigation dams in 16 western states and territories, stipulated that “no Mongolian labor shall be employed.” Since its formation in 1902, the Bureau of Reclamation, created to administer the Reclamation Act, “had held fast to this racial exclusion labor policy.” It was, as historian William D. Rowley writes, “an iron-fast rule until labor shortages during World War II forced a change.” In 1943, Congress changed the law specifically so that Japanese-American internees could work on Reclamation projects.
Manpower was not the only wartime shortage to have an impact on Anderson Ranch Dam. A scarcity of building materials led the Federal Government’s War Production Board, which allocated materials and fuel during the war, to halt work on the dam the day after Christmas of 1942. Construction resumed on October 6, 1943, as part of the War Food Program; completion of Anderson Ranch Dam would mean more water for irrigation, and irrigation meant greater production from Boise Valley farms.
Constructing an embankment dam to such an unprecedented height presented many challenges, from locating sufficient embankment materials near the dam site to dealing with several rock slides. Nothing came easily. In addition to wartime delays and shortages, a complicated geology forced changes in design, and rock slides plagued the project. One slide in May 1943 dumped 20,000 cubic yards of rock into a tunnel at the intake portal. Another slide, however, turned out to be a boon, providing excellent embankment material and eliminating the need to haul material from farther away. Embankment dams are made of earth and rock and rely on their heavy weight, as well as a dense, waterproof core to prevent seepage and hold back the force of the water stored behind them. In addition to the dam core, a cement grout curtain helps control the flow of water through the foundation under the dam.
Work on the dam stopped again in early 1948 when funds dried up as Congress reduced public works projects. Construction started up again that April with a bid awarded to J.A. Terteling and Sons Inc. of nearby Boise. The company completed the crest, riprap, spillway, and outlet works and also built the Anderson Ranch Dam Powerplant, most of which was finished by early 1950, although the plant’s two generators were not totally installed and tested until 1951. The power plant produced hydroelectric power, not only for regional industries and towns, but to power irrigation loads in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. These units were up-dated in 1986, increasing their combined capacity from 27,000 kilowatts to 40,000 kilowatts. Anderson Ranch Dam, on the south fork of the Boise River, 42 miles upstream from historic Arrowrock Dam, adds storage for irrigation on the Boise Project, reduces damage from silt buildup, and protects the Boise Valley from floods.
Plan Your Visit
Anderson Ranch Dam is on the South Fork of the Boise River, 28 miles northeast of Mountain Home, ID. From Mountain Home, follow U.S. 20 (Sun Valley Highway) east for about 20 miles. Turn left onto Anderson Dam Road, which winds to the dam.
For more information about Anderson Ranch Dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Anderson Ranch Dam website. The 17-mile-long Anderson Ranch Reservoir is popular for boating, water skiing, and fishing in the summer and snowmobiling in the winter. For information, click here Recreation.gov: Anderson Ranch Reservoir Boat Ramps. The Minidoka Relocation Center is a National Park Service administered National Historic Site.
Arrowrock Dam, Idaho
Forty miles east of Boise, near tiny Idaho City, Idaho, population 476, two streams come together to form the main branch of the Boise River. The river originates high in the Sawtooth Range of the Rocky Mountains and flows southwest into a valley so fertile that it is considered one of the best farming regions in the American West. But it was gold, not Idaho potatoes, that brought early American settlement to the Boise River Basin.
In 1862, gold was discovered around the headwaters of the Boise, bringing such a rush of gold seekers that the new town of Idaho City grew to a population of 48,000. Supplying the miners made for lucrative business, and people began to put down roots in the Boise Valley, where irrigation was easy along the bottomlands. Agriculture depended on irrigation, and irrigation depended on diverting water from the Boise River. Arrowrock Dam, the tallest dam in the world when it was completed in 1915, provided the means to store Boise River water so it would be available when needed.
The first right to divert the Boise River for irrigation was granted in 1864, and by the 1870s nearly all of the bottomland along the river was under cultivation. In the early 1880s, eastern capital arrived in the valley through Connecticut native A. D. Foote, who envisioned building a 75-mile-long canal all the way from the Boise to the Snake River on the Idaho-Oregon border. Not only would the canal--the New York Canal--irrigate thousands of acres of new lands, but it also could provide water for placer mines along the Snake. The canal proved enormously expensive to build, and after 16 years of work, only the first 10 miles of the canal had been completed. Even so, as agriculture surpassed mining as Idaho’s economic lifeblood, a series of farming groups took over operation of the canal.
The New York Canal was one of many private commercial canal enterprises attempted in the Boise River valley in the last decades of the century. All experienced difficulties caused by insufficient funding, a lack of engineering know-how to build storage reservoirs, operational costs that consumed anticipated profits, and unresolved water rights legal issues. However, there was sufficient success that by 1900, 102,000 acres were under cultivation, towns were platted throughout the valley, and small businesses such as the creamery in the nearby town of Meridian, and a fruit drying plant near Beatty, were flourishing.
As of 1900, irrigation in the Boise Valley still relied on flood flow. There were no storage reservoirs to hold back springtime flows for use later in the summer. With average precipitation of only 12.1 inches a year, a low-water year could stress a farmer out, especially if the dry years dragged on as they did in 1900, 1901, and 1902. Furthermore, it became increasingly apparent that the Boise River was over-appropriated, and even in wet years the flow was not enough to meet everyone’s needs. What was required to fix the problems was resolution of water rights issues, and construction of large-capacity reservoirs.
“The situation had become so strained,” historian Paul L. Murphy writes, “that irrigators along ditches in the western end of the valley were continually in dispute over the dwindling water supply.” Circumstances culminated in a legal fight dubbed the “Big Water Suit,” which began in 1902, the same year that the U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation) was created to administer the Reclamation Act of 1902. The act committed the Federal Government to build permanent irrigation works--dams, reservoirs, and canals-–in sixteen arid and semiarid Western states, including Idaho. As Murphy argues, the Big Water Suit, which focused on ways to solve the Boise water rights issues, paved the way for “enthusiastic local acceptance” of the Federal Government’s entrance into local water matters.
Land-owners in the Boise and Payette valleys organized into a water users association, and then petitioned Congress for approval of a Federal irrigation project in those valleys. In 1905, Congress approved construction of the Payette-Boise Project (now simply called the Boise Project). Reclamation purchased the New York Canal and its water rights, and signed water service agreements with other private irrigation companies that in effect incorporated all irrigation companies and their canals on the south side of the Boise River, into the Boise Project. A major portion of the Nation`s requirement for sweet corn seed is grown on the Boise Project. The project also produces large quantities of grain, alfalfa hay, pasture, sugar beets, corn, potatoes, onions, apples, and alfalfa seed. The hay and forage crops support a large number of dairy and beef cattle.
Arrowrock Dam is just one component of the project, which has expanded since its original authorization on March 27, 1905, to comprise five storage dams, two diversion dams, three power plants, 721 miles of canals, seven pumping plants, 1,323 miles of laterals, and 649 miles of drains. The project furnishes irrigation water to about 390,000 acres in southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon, assuring Idaho’s place in American agriculture. Today, Idaho produces 30 percent of the nation’s potatoes, 53 percent of its Austrian winter peas, and a fifth of its barley, mint, sugar beets, and wrinkled seed peas.
Arrowrock, a 350-foot-high concrete arch dam, was constructed to store water, which then was diverted into an enlarged and extended New York Canal. The canal transported Boise water to Indian Creek, and then through a second canal to Deer Flat Reservoir, now known as Lake Lowell. After intensive surveys, a site for Arrowrock Dam was selected 22 miles upstream from Boise. Because the only access to the site was an old wagon road unable to handle the construction traffic and heavy loads, Reclamation wanted to build a 17-mile railroad spur from Boise. However, because the Intermountain Railway Company owned a right-of-way near the dam site, Reclamation struck a deal for an easement. Reclamation formed a common carrier to construct the tracks and run the train, while Intermountain leased the track rights. Thus, historian William Joe Simonds writes, “the Boise & Arrowrock Railroad was born,” the Federal Government’s first public railroad, registered on August 22, 1910, as a public carrier in Ada County, Idaho.
With the dam authorized on January 6, 1911, work began on the Arrowrock construction camp, which, at its peak, was home to 1,400 people, including 200 families. More than thirty buildings went up, including cottages and bunkhouses, a hospital, mess hall, hotel, store, post office, and amusement hall operated by the Y.M.C.A. A school, staffed by two teachers, enrolled ninety students.
Before construction on the dam could begin, the river was diverted around the site through a 470-foot-long tunnel. In late February 1912, excavation for the dam foundation began. When workers discovered a lava bench between 20 and 50 feet thick, it had to be removed because lava was not considered a suitable foundation material.
In November 1912, as the first concrete was poured, engineers were just learning that a massive pour of concrete, as it hardens, creates great internal heat and expansion. Engineers worried that subsequent cooling and contraction would create dangerous cracks in the interior of the dam. For this reason, engineers decided to use a mixture of Portland cement and sand in the construction of Arrowrock. The strength of the mixture proved, Simonds writes, "to be only slightly less than that of pure cement after 6 months, and comparable in strength after 1 year." The sand-cement, however, proved to be highly absorbent, and the consequent freezing and thawing caused deterioration. Between 1935 and 1937, Arrowrock’s downstream face was repaired with a new slab of concrete, and the dam was raised five feet.
Arrowrock was built in three sections. After the second section was completed in December 1913, the contractor sprinted toward completion setting several records for mixing and placing concrete. In April 1913, workers placed 45,700 cubic yards of concrete--believed to be a world record. Then they broke their own record, pouring 51,490 cubic yards that May and 56,520 cubic yards in June. (A cubic yard equals about 202 liquid gallons.)
When the last concrete was poured in November 1915, Arrowrock, at just over 348 feet, was the highest dam in the world and would not be surpassed until Owyhee Dam was completed on the Owyhee River in Oregon in 1932. The dam was dedicated on October 4, 1915, the day that also marked the end of daily service on the Boise & Arrowrock Railroad.
Plan Your Visit
Arrowrock Dam is on the Boise River, 22 miles upstream from the Idaho state capital of Boise. From Interstate 84, exit onto ID 21 North. Turn east at East Spring Shores Rd., which continues as Arrow Rock Rd. and then Deer Creek Rd. Take the bend onto North Fork Boise Rd./Nat for Dev Rd. 268 and the enormity of Arrowrock Dam comes into view. Roadside pull-offs offer photograph opportunities, but the dam and the road over its crest are now off-limits. Excellent views of the dam also are available to boaters in Arrowrock Reservoir, which stretches for 18 miles up a narrow canyon.
Arrowrock Dam is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Click here for the registration file: text and photos. For more information about Arrowrock Dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Arrowrock Dam website. For information and activities at Arrowrock Reservoir, click here Recreation.gov: Arrowrock Reservoir.
Avalon Dam, New Mexico
For all its ill luck, Avalon Dam has played a significant role in western irrigation history. First built in 1889 by private entrepreneurs on the Pecos River north of Carlsbad, New Mexico, Avalon was among the first irrigation dams in the United States to be constructed of loose rock with an upstream face of earth. Impressive as well was Avalon’s innovative sluice gate, which directed river water into the system’s Main Canal. The canal also boasted a striking feature--a wooden flume so long and wide that four mule teams could walk across it, side by side.
Avalon Dam was only four years old when flood waters breached its crest, damaging canals and the massive flume. That 1893 flood did not, however, dampen the enthusiasm of wealthy entrepreneur James John Hagerman, who had made a fortune from Colorado’s Mollie Gibson silver mine. Believing he could make the arid Pecos Valley bloom, Hagerman poured his money into rebuilding Avalon Dam, only to see a flash flood destroy it again in 1904.
The Pecos River, a tributary of the Rio Grande, proved an unreliable friend as it flowed out of the mountains near Santa Fe and into the generally flat plains of southeastern New Mexico, where temperatures could soar to 111 degrees in the summer. While the area received an average of only 12.5 inches of precipitation a year, the rain could come in torrents, washing down an arroyo (creek) or lifting the Pecos right out of its banks. The dangers hadn’t stopped local ranchers such as Charles B. Eddy and Pat Garrett from dreaming of turning the Pecos River Valley into an oasis. Eddy and Garrett (the former sheriff who killed Billy the Kid) formed an irrigation company, solicited outside financiers, including Hagerman, and began constructing substantial irrigation works, including the original Avalon Dam. As Hagerman and his associates became the dominant owners, they reorganized the company, started a railroad and promoted a new town called Eddy, the name later changed to Carlsbad, where the irrigation company set up shop in the First National Bank Building of Eddy.
Following the 1893 flood, the company hired 500 men and 165 horse teams to quickly rebuild Avalon Dam with an almost identical cross-section to the original dam. The flume and canals also were repaired in time for the 1894 growing season. In 1902-03, the Pecos Irrigation Company spent another $50,000 reinforcing the flume with concrete and four pairs of arches. Mark Hufstetler and Lon Johnson write that the massive, yet graceful, flume, “was a source of pride for the company and the Carlsbad community.” Measuring 497 feet long by 47 feet high, it reportedly was the largest irrigation flume in the United States.
The flume was barely complete, however, when a flash flood came roaring down the Pecos in October 1904, damaging not only the flume, but much of the canal system, as well as highway and railroad bridges in Carlsbad--and, for a second time, the hapless Avalon Dam. The flood and the valley’s unsuccessful attempts to find appropriate local crops all but spelled the end for the Pecos Irrigation Company. The story of failed private reclamation was not new in the American West. By 1900, 90 percent of private irrigation companies had gone bankrupt or closed.
Without irrigation, there could be no farming in the Pecos Valley, and settlers, who had been attracted to the region by the efforts of the irrigation entrepreneurs, were frantic. Wanting to rebuild but lacking finances, they formed the Pecos Water Users Association and began advocating aggressively for the Federal Government’s new Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation) to take over the project, an idea that appealed to the nearly bankrupt irrigation company.
In December of 1904, Reclamation engineers arrived to study the situation. As Reclamation evaluated, the Pecos Water Users Association raised $20,000 and, with design help from Reclamation engineers, performed temporary repairs on Avalon Dam--only to have the dam wash out again when a severe leak led to failure within hours of filling the reservoir. In November 1905, the Pecos Irrigation Company agreed to sell the remains of its systems to the Secretary of the Interior for $150,000.
Taking over the project, Reclamation set April 12, 1906, as the day it would open bids for rehabilitating what it called the Carlsbad Project, which included not only Avalon Dam but McMillan Dam and Reservoir, also built by private interests. McMillan was a storage dam, while Avalon served both to store water and divert it into the project’s Main Canal. The day came to open bids but, when no offers were placed on the table, Reclamation took over the project by force account, meaning Reclamation would do the work itself, from design to the hiring of subcontractors and laborers.
By June 1, 1906, construction was under way. Once again, Avalon Dam rose on the Pecos, its latest design reflecting many of the advances made in dam engineering since the original Avalon Dam was constructed in 1889. Avalon remained an earthen dam erected atop a rock-filled foundation, but this time Federal engineers added a thin, concrete and steel corewall and enlarged the spillways to withstand future flooding.
The new Avalon Dam, completed in 1907, was 1,025 feet long and up to 50 feet high. It still stands across the Pecos River, its height increased in 1912 and again in 1936; its crest now 58 feet high. Work done in the 1930s was performed by young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal work relief program. During the winter of 1911-12, Reclamation also incorporated two innovative cylinder spillway gates at Avalon, a design incorporated later into the intake towers at Hoover Dam. If a flood was anticipated, the gates could be raised, allowing the reservoir to lower rapidly.
By 1912, the Carlsbad Project was irrigating 15,000 acres and had attained a semblance of stability. In the early years of the 20th century, cotton and alfalfa were leading crops. Today, the project irrigates 25,000 acres along a 20-mile stretch of the Pecos River. Cotton and alfalfa remain the principal crops, although wheat, barley, oats, and vegetables also are produced in abundance.
Although title to the Carlsbad Project remains in the hands of the Federal Government, today the Carlsbad Irrigation District, created in 1932 by water users, operates and maintains the system. The transfer from federal to local control took place on October 1, 1949, beginning yet another chapter in the story of irrigation in the Pecos River Valley. The Carlsbad Project is a significant example of how a private irrigation effort in the American West evolved into a publicly sponsored Reclamation project and then back to a locally operated water district. Because of its significance, the irrigation district was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964. The historic district comprises seven buildings and 22 structures, including Avalon Dam and reservoir, the Main Canal, Pecos River flume, and the First National Bank of Eddy in downtown Carlsbad, which for many years housed the offices of the Carlsbad Irrigation District.
Plan Your Visit
Avalon Dam is on the Pecos River, five miles north of Carlsbad, NM. From downtown Carlsbad, follow Canal St. north to Avalon Rd., and turn left to the dam and Avalon Reservoir, which offers fishing and boating.
Avalon Dam is part of the Carlsbad Irrigation District National Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file: text and photos. For more information, visit the Bureau of Reclamation's Avalon Dam website. The dam has also been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record.
For recreational opportunities at Avalon Reservoir, click here: Recreation.gov: Avalon Reservoir.
Bartlett Dam, Arizona
Bartlett Dam, on the Verde River northeast of Phoenix, was the first multiple arch dam built by the Bureau of Reclamation. The distinction stems from the timing of Bartlett’s birth in the midst of the Great Depression. As bids were let in the fall of 1935, cost was a prime concern. Bartlett’s buttresses were hollow and its arches thin, meaning less material was needed, saving on concrete and freighting costs. The sophisticated design also required more laborers to shape its nine buttresses, 10 arches, and a short gravity section at each end of the dam--a boon in years of high unemployment. When completed in May 1939, Bartlett Dam was 286.5 feet tall and 800 feet long, and the highest multiple arch dam in the world.
Bartlett Dam, named for a government surveyor, is a relatively late component of the Bureau of Reclamation’s complex Salt River Project, which led to the development of central Arizona and includes not only dams and reservoirs, but hundreds of miles of canals. Without the project, historian Robert Autobee writes, “Phoenix would still be the domain of the cactus and snake instead of the corona of the ‘Valley of the Sun.’”
Bartlett Dam, the first on the Verde River, is one of six storage dams comprising the Salt River Project, which involves both the Salt and Verde rivers in central Arizona. Two of the dams were constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation (Bartlett and Theodore Roosevelt), three by the Salt River Valley Users Association (Horse Mesa, Mormon Flat, and Stewart Mountain), and one (Horseshoe) by the copper mining company Phelps-Dodge under a water exchange agreement with the Salt River Valley Users Association.
So extensive is the system of dams on the Salt River east of Phoenix that they form a chain of lakes 60 miles long. The largest lake--and once the largest manmade lake in the world--is Theodore Roosevelt Lake, which covers more than 17,000 acres when full. The reservoir stores water behind Theodore Roosevelt Dam, completed in 1911 as the Bureau of Reclamation’s first multipurpose dam, providing not only irrigation and flood control, but hydroelectric power to Phoenix.
Other dams followed in the 1920s and, in August 1936, work began on Bartlett. The purpose of the dam was to tap the Verde River for the many private users in the Salt River Valley, as well as for the Salt River Indian Reservation, home of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. The Verde River, named for the malachite deposits along its banks, was considered one of the most unpredictable rivers in Arizona. The river lived up to its reputation during construction of Bartlett Dam as record-breaking floods interrupted work twice.
The long and complicated battle between competing groups to tap Verde water dates to 1889, but it wasn’t until July 1936 that the California contractor, Barrett, Hilp and Macco Corp., arrived in the desert to begin Bartlett Dam. The contractor built roads and a work camp--dormitories and houses for 200 laborers, a dining hall, commissary and recreation halls, a school, and a hospital. The Bureau of Reclamation built a warehouse, a shop, and living quarters for its engineers, as well as installing its own phone system to Phoenix.
As workmen prepared the canyon walls, excavated the spillway, and dug to bedrock, construction engineer E. C. Koppen pored over drawings and wrestled with ways to make the complicated design “readily understood by a gang of carpenters.” The design was innovative; it had not one arch but 10, although Arch No. 9 and Arch No. 10 were partial arches due to the steepness of the canyon abutment. Nine buttresses, spaced 60 feet apart and left hollow to save material, provided support, as did a short gravity section at each end of the dam. On February 7, 1937, just two days after the first concrete was poured, the Verde River crested at its greatest flow on record, 62,500 cubic feet per second, as compared to its normal flow of under 500 cfs. (A cubic foot equals 7.48 gallons.) More flooding on February 15 and March 17 partially destroyed the temporary coffer dams built to turn the Verde aside during construction. Contractors brought in nine pumps to dry out the construction site, but that wasn’t enough, so deep well turbines were used. By year’s end, Bartlett was only 38 percent complete. Then another massive flood poured down the Verde in March 1938, peaking at 108,000 cfs. By then, however, all but Arch No. 2 were above the stream bed, so damage was minimal.
In addition to flooding, a contract requirement that concrete could not be poured when the temperature exceeded 95 degrees threatened to sabotage the dam’s 1,000-day construction deadline. To speed up the process, the Bureau of Reclamation, with the contractor’s help, designed a “fog spray” to artificially cool the freshly poured concrete. A low-heat concrete was also used. When Bartlett was completed in May 1939, it not only had met its deadline, but was also under budget by $270,000. Thankfully, the contractors had purchased flood insurance.
Events leading to construction of Bartlett Dam date to the early 1900s, when the Salt River Project was among the first five projects authorized by the U.S. Reclamation Service, created by the Reclamation Act of 1902. The next year, the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association, representing 4,800 individuals in the Phoenix area, pledged their lands as collateral to receive federal funding for a reclamation project on the Salt River. In 1911, Theodore Roosevelt Dam was completed on the Salt, 76 miles northeast of Phoenix. In 1917, the Water Users’ Association took over operation and maintenance of the Salt River Project, which included a diversion dam, two main canals, and hundreds of miles of secondary canals. Backed by private funding, other dams followed throughout the 1920s.
Finding ways to irrigate the desert had been at the center of Arizona’s history for centuries. Two thousand years before Americans settled in central Arizona’s Salt River Valley, the native Hohokam people developed an extensive canal system to water a harsh land where less than an inch of rain might fall in June and temperatures could soar to 120 degrees. Then again, as happened in February 1890, the Salt River could rise 17 feet in 15 hours, overflowing its banks, and washing away crops and adobe homes. In February 1891, the Salt spread nearly three miles wide and demolished the railroad bridge between Tempe and Phoenix, leaving Phoenix without a rail connection for three months. In January and February of 1905 the Salt River raged again, wiping out a 100-foot section of the privately owned Arizona Dam, a timber-crib structure that diverted water into the Northside Canal system, making irrigation difficult.
Americans had been slow to settle in the Salt River Valley, arriving some 20 years after the end of the Mexican War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which transferred California and much of the American Southwest, including most of Arizona, to the United States. In 1865, Fort McDowell, a government outpost on the Verde River, seven miles from its junction with the Salt, provided a market for settlers. One settler was Jack Swilling, a former Confederate soldier who made good use of an irrigation ditch long abandoned by the Hohokam. With $10,000, Swilling and 12 other men dredged the “community ditch,” which supplied water to grow hay for government horses, sparking the settlement that became Phoenix. In 1870, the valley had a population of only 235, but with water development came more people. Boasting a growing season of 305 days a year, settlers planted fruit trees, alfalfa, and grain. In 1887, a railroad spur reached Phoenix, allowing for the marketing of crops, and by 1900 Maricopa County recorded a population of 20,457.
With growth came new canals until a total of 15 crisscrossed the valley by 1912. The region’s early history was marked by battles over water rights and failed efforts to unite neighbors to build a storage dam so that water could flow when needed. Things were no less contentious when irrigators focused attention on the Verde River, which forms southwest of Flagstaff and meanders 195 miles southeast before emptying into the Salt River just east of Scottsdale. The Verde flows through the reservation of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, as it nears its confluence with the Salt River.
Attempts to tap the Verde dated to 1889, but competing groups tangled for more than 40 years over who needed the water, how much was available, who owned what rights, who had the financial means to build a dam, and who should manage the project once built. Finally, in 1927 and 1928 a cooperative agreement was worked out, only to be rejected a year later. Then the stock market crashed, ruining the bond market. With private investment no longer an option, federal funding became the only way to finance a dam on the Verde River. Soon, as historian David M. Introcaso writes, the project was touted as a work relief project and a way to fulfill the government’s obligation to provide water to 6,310 acres on the Salt River Indian reservation. After a long and litigious battle, which included a promised loan that was rescinded from the New Deal’s Public Works Administration, the Salt Valley Water Users’ Association, with political might on its side, entered into an agreement with the Federal Government to build the dam on the Verde. The Association was assigned 80 percent of the price tag, while the Federal Government, on behalf of the Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, paid 20 percent.
Bartlett Dam and its reservoir, Bartlett Lake, played a role in the unprecedented growth of Phoenix when World War II brought war industries and war work to the city. Today, Bartlett Lake, with a capacity of nearly 180,000 acre feet of water, is the second largest in the Phoenix area and offers boating, camping, and picnicking (An acre foot is 325,851 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre one-foot deep.) Bartlett Dam was modified between 1994 and 1996 to address safety concerns. Among the changes was raising the dam 21.5 feet to prevent overtopping.
Plan Your Visit
Bartlett Dam is in the Tonto National Forest, 48 miles northeast of Phoenix, AZ. Take Interstate 17 north to the Carefree Hwy. (exit 223). Turn right (east) and travel nine miles to Cave Creek Rd. Travel four miles and turn right (east) onto Bartlett Dam Rd. (Service Rd. 205), which passes Bartlett Lake Marina before reaching the dam. The road is rough, especially after a rain. The dam is enclosed by a fence and is off-limits to the public, although it may be seen in the distance from the road. Boaters on Bartlett Lake, however, can get a close-up look at the upstream arches. Boat rentals are available at the marina, and outdoor enthusiasts will find a variety of recreational opportunities at the lake, including shoreline camping. Visitors may see mule deer, bald eagles, javelina, and coyotes, as well as indigenous plants such as the saguaro and ocotillo.
For more information, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Bartlett Dam website. For more information on recreational activities, visit Recreation.gov: Bartlett Reservoir. Bartlett Dam has been documented by the Bureau of Reclamation and is included in the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record.
The Salt River Project History Center, 1521 N. Project Dr. in Tempe, offers exhibits on Arizona’s water history, including its historic canals and the building of Theodore Roosevelt Dam. The free museum is open 9am to 4pm Monday-Friday.
Belle Fourche Dam, South Dakota
On June 28, 1897, the Sundance Kid and four other outlaws robbed the Butte County Bank in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. They made off with only $87 and ended up getting captured in the botched robbery, which turned into a comedy of errors. In those Old West days, Belle Fourche (pronounced Bell FOOSH) was shipping 2,500 carloads of cattle every month, making it the agricultural center of the Tri State area of northwestern South Dakota, northeastern Wyoming, and southeastern Montana and, apparently, an attractive target for would-be bank robbers.
While large ranches and railroad corporations dominated the aptly named Butte County in the 1890s, farmers also called Belle Fourche home. Even before construction began in 1905 on Belle Fourche Dam--at the time the largest rolled earthfill dam in the world--local companies had built small irrigation works to divert water from the nearby Redwater and Belle Fourche rivers. The “beautiful forks” (or Belle Fourche in French) of the two rivers seemed a prime spot for a dam when Congress passed the Reclamation Act of 1902, which committed the Federal Government to build irrigation works--dams, canals, and reservoirs--in 16 arid and semi-arid states in the West, including South Dakota. The citizens of Butte County wasted no time; they recommended their beautiful forks to the Secretary of the Interior, and by July 1903, engineers with the brand new U.S. Reclamation Service began investigating the Belle Fourche River watershed for irrigation works.
The Belle Fourche, a tributary of the Cheyenne River, rises in northeastern Wyoming and flows past Devils Tower National Monument before turning abruptly southeast as it crosses the border into South Dakota. The river flows past the town of Belle Fourche, population 4,600, and around the northern side of the Black Hills before joining the Cheyenne River 50 miles from Rapid City. In February 1904, Reclamation surveys estimated that 90,000 acres could be irrigated from the river’s flow--73,000 acres on the north side of the Belle Fourche and 17,000 acres on the south side. On May 10, 1904, the Belle Fourche Project received the go-ahead, and within the month, area residents formed the Belle Fourche Valley Water Users’ Association to negotiate a repayment contract with the Federal Government.
Plans were laid for a 122-foot-high earthfill dam to store water from the Belle Fourche River--even though the dam was built, not on the Belle Fourche, but across one of its tributaries, Owl Creek. A second smaller dam, a diversion dam, was built on the Belle Fourche, upriver from Owl Creek and about 1.5 miles from the town of Belle Fourche. A 6.5-mile canal, the Inlet Canal, would convey water from the diversion dam to the reservoir behind Belle Fourche Dam. A construction contract for the storage dam, known locally as "Orman Dam," was awarded on November 15, 1905, to Orman and Crook Construction Company of Pueblo, Colorado. Work began on March 1, 1906.
The Belle Fourche Project, the second project undertaken by the new U.S. Reclamation Service (now the Bureau of Reclamation), was fraught with troubles and provides an excellent example, as Christopher J. McCune writes, “of the difficulties Reclamation encountered in trying to make the arid lands of the American West ‘blossom as the rose.’” At the same time, however, many of the design details and construction procedures developed at Belle Fourche still are used by Reclamation engineers, making Belle Fourche, Richard Lyman Wiltshire writes, “a truly amazing and unique early embankment dam.” Not only was Belle Fourche one of the highest embankment dams in the world, but it stood over a mile long at 6,262 feet. In 1977, Belle Fourche Dam was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and, in 1988, it was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Its troubles, however, were great in its early days. During a slumping agricultural economy in the 1920s, for instance, several farms were abandoned, while other would-be farmers didn’t have the cash necessary to settle on an irrigated Reclamation farm, which required the water user to pay a share of the project costs. Some former Black Hills miners who settled on Reclamation lands managed well, but a great many others were lawyers, doctors, or clerks who lacked farming experience or treated farming as a pastime. Land speculation, where someone bought the land but did not develop it, also plagued the project. As farms failed or passed into the ownership of non-residents, Belle Fourche plaugued Reclamation.
The nature of the land also was troublesome. South of the Belle Fourche River the soil is a thirsty, sandy loam, which proved good for sugar beets. But north of the river the land is mostly sticky clay “gumbo” that retains water, meaning the soil needs time to dry out. In these early Reclamation years, lack of knowledge about irrigation led to overwatering and drainage problems. By 1914, irrigation no longer was possible on 1,500 acres of the project and, by 1921, 4,000 acres were waterlogged and in need of drainage.
In constructing the Belle Fourche embankment, local gumbo clay was obtained from nearby borrow pits. When steam rollers tried to compact the embankment, the gumbo was so sticky that it stuck to the rollers, leading the contractor to bring in 18- and 21-ton steam-powered traction engines with widened rear wheels to finish the job. When Belle Fourche Reservoir began to fill in the summer of 1910, a strata of disintegrated shale and gravel caused seepage that required a new drainage system, which, Wiltshire writes, “has been monitored ever since, and constitutes the longest continuous monitoring performed on one of Reclamation’s embankment dams.”
Other construction issues centered on finances. In early 1908 work on the dam stopped and the contract with Orman and Crook was suspended because the Colorado company went into bankruptcy. Colorado Governor Alva Adams came to the company’s defense, writing to President Theodore Roosevelt and blaming the nation’s new law creating an eight-hour workday. Laborers on the dam, working 10 hours a day, up and left when other employers offered the shorter day. A new contract through the National Surety Company, which had guaranteed completion of the work by Orman and Crook, was let to the Hayes Brothers Company of Janesville, Wisconsin. The dam was completed on June 30, 1911, at a total cost of about $1.3 million.
Concrete panels placed on the upstream face of the dam proved a concern even before the dam was complete. Because the nearest rock quarry was 32 miles away and the quality of the sandstone considered poor, engineers used eight-inch-thick concrete panels, measuring up to 6 ½ feet and weighing about 3,000 pounds to protect the face of the dam. Cast about five miles from the construction site, the panels were transported to the dam by a narrow gauge railroad--four slabs per car--placed on a bed of gravel and hammered into place on the embankment. Belle Fourche was still a year from completion when inspectors noticed the panels were crumbling badly in places, the result of wave action exacerbated by sustained high winds. Displacement occurred virtually every year and then, in 1928, cracks three inches wide and up to 12 feet deep were discovered in the embankment. Then, in 1931, part of the upstream slope slumped during a fairly rapid drawdown of the reservoir during a drought.
Reclamation reconstructed the embankment, conducted a laboratory investigation of the embankment material and finally, in 1939, constructed an earthfill berm, covered with riprap, to improve stability of the lower portion of the dam's upstream face. Much of this work was done by young men of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, who lived at Camp Fruitdale below the south end of the massive dam. As Christine Pfaff writes, the CCC enrollees conducted a variety of activities on the Belle Fourche Project, including teaching farmers how to grow strawberry clover and brome grass, valuable pasture crops that fit the landscape.
The CCC vacated Camp Fruitdale in 1942, and between 1944 and 1946, the War Department used the camp to house German prisoners of war who were captured in 1943 in North Africa and Anzio, Italy, and in 1944 at Normandy. The German soldiers provided labor to local farmers. In 1976-77 the second phase of dam modification constructed a berm that covered and stabilized the upper portion of the dam's upstream face and a new, grass-lined spillway was constructed. Today, Belle Fourche plays an important role in western South Dakota agriculture, providing irrigation for 57,000 acres on which alfalfa, barley, oats, and forage are raised; testament to the region’s cattle industry heritage.
Plan Your Visit
Belle Fourche Dam is about 10 miles northeast of Belle Fourche, SD. From Belle Fourche, take U.S. 212 east to Arpan Rd. Turn left and travel the few miles to the dam. An interpretive area on the dam's south side contains exhibits and displays about the dam's construction and the former Fruitdale camp of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Click here for the National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. For more information about the dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Belle Fourche Dam website. For recreation activities at Belle Fourche Reservoir, click here Recreation.gov: Belle Fourche Reservoir. Click here for information on the Rocky Point Recreation Area, on the shores of Belle Fourche Reservoir.
Buffalo Bill Dam, Wyoming
Construction of Buffalo Bill Dam, six miles west of Cody, Wyoming, was the key that opened about 90,000 acres in northwestern Wyoming to irrigated farming. So dry and forbidding was this part of the state that it was one of the last regions in the United States to be settled. It wasn’t until the 1890s, with dreams of irrigating the region and turning it into productive farmland, that a significant number of people began to settle there. Among the visionaries were William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and a group of investors who formed the Shoshone Land and Irrigation Company, founded the town of Cody, and acquired water rights from the Shoshone River to irrigate 60,000 acres. When the project proved cost prohibitive, the Wyoming State Board of Land Commissioners turned to the Federal Government for help. In early 1904, Buffalo Bill transferred his water rights to the Secretary of the Interior, and that July exploratory drilling began for Shoshone Dam--renamed Buffalo Bill Dam in 1946 in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of Cody’s birth.
When completed in 1910, Buffalo Bill Dam stood as an engineering marvel, one of the first concrete arch dams built in the United States. At 325 feet high, it also was the highest dam in the world (surpassing New York’s Croton Dam). Buffalo Bill Dam was an American triumph touted, along with completion of the Panama Canal, at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Here the U.S. Reclamation Service, barely a dozen years old, erected an exhibit featuring an idyllic forty-acre irrigated farmstead set in a desert valley rimmed by beautiful mountains. This was Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin modified to serve human needs through construction of Buffalo Bill Dam, a structure so significant that it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places within the first five years of the register’s creation.
The dam was part of the Shoshone Project, which comprised a system of tunnels, canals, diversion dams, and Buffalo Bill Reservoir. Today, the project irrigates more than 93,000 acres, where principal crops are beans, alfalfa, oats, barley, and sugar beets. Although the number of irrigated acres never reached the 150,000 acres originally projected by project proponents, the figure has increased steadily over the years: from 25,753 acres in 1915 to 41,331 acres in 1928 to 77,560 acres in 1953.
“It really is critical for our livelihood, and is so important to the people in the northern Bighorn Basin,” said Beryl Churchill, an author whose family farm in nearby Powell has depended on the water for decades. In fact, the city of Powell, which blossomed on the desert as the water began to flow, was laid out near the spot where the men building Buffalo Bill Dam pitched their tents. “When I go to a school to talk to kids about the dam or irrigation projects, the first thing I do,” Churchill told the Billings (Montana) Gazette in January 2010, “is show them an old picture of a man standing out in sagebrush and cactus, with not a tree in sight.” Not only did the dam make the desert bloom, but today Buffalo Bill Reservoir and its state park offer camping, fishing, boating, and other outdoor recreation.
What a different place it was in the autumn of 1905 when construction began on the barren, sparsely populated sagebrush flats. A contractor and men, mostly new immigrants from places such as Italy and Bulgaria, had to be imported. One contractor quit before the dam was complete, and the workers staged Wyoming’s first labor strike, demanding and getting more than $3 a shift, about 30 percent higher than the going rate in the Rocky Mountain region. Supplies were a problem, and once a road was built, it took a stout-hearted freighter to drive his team up the rocky lane, the towering cliffs of the Absaroka Range on one side and a straight drop to roaring waters and jagged boulders below on the other.
The Shoshone was no ordinary river to dam. It drained an almost entirely mountainous area and, with neither of its forks longer than 50 miles, the flow was rapid and powerful, dropping more than 7,000 feet by the time it reached the narrow canyon of the dam site. The rapid flow created trouble in the summertime when winter runoff came roaring down the river, bringing boulders and uprooted trees with it. So high was the water in the spring of 1908 that a newly dug foundation pit flooded and workmen had to start over. November brought freezing cold, and workers, seven of whom would die during construction, had to heat the sand and gravel before mixing and pouring concrete. When laborers poured the last bucket on January 15, 1910, the mercury registered 15 below zero. In all, they had poured 82,900 cubic yards of concrete, completing a dam designed with engineering theories developed to analyze stress factors--a forerunner of today’s trial-load method for large arch dams.
Buffalo Bill Dam, its Shoshone Power Plant (completed in 1922), and ongoing irrigation projects also played a significant role during World War II. In the frenzy following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the Federal Government relocated 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast to 10 inland internment centers. Among them was the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a National Historic Landmark, situated on 21,521 acres near Powell, Wyoming, on the Shoshone Project. At its peak, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center housed 10,767 people, many of whom worked on sections of the canal system originally slated for contract work, but which now supplied water to irrigate fields of the internees. Internees succeeded in growing a cornucopia of vegetables, including greenbeans, peas, carrots, spinach, beets, corn, tomatoes, and potatoes, as well as barley and wheat, and crops that reflected Japanese tastes, such as Chinese cabbage, daikon, takana, misuna, and nappa. In the first five months of 1944, internees excavated 2,816 cubic yards of canal, in addition to other canal and road work. At a time when much of rural America did not have electricity, Heart Mountain, with the nearby Buffalo Bill Dam and historic Shoshone Powerplant, was an exception. In 1993, the crest of the dam was raised, adding a needed 260,000 acre feet of storage capacity in Buffalo Bill Reservoir.
Plan Your Visit
Buffalo Bill Dam is six miles west of Cody, WY, on U.S. 16-20-14 (Yellowstone Hwy.) A visitor center at the dam is open daily May 1-September 30. Hours in May and September are 8am to 6pm Monday-Friday and 9am to 5pm Saturday-Sunday. Hours in June, July and August are 8am to 7pm Monday-Friday, and 9am to 5pm Saturday-Sunday. Visitors may stroll to the top of the dam, view exhibits and a short movie in the visitor center, or rent a self-guided audio tour.
The dam is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been documented by the Bureau of Reclamation, and included in the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Survey. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. For more information about Buffalo Bill Dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Buffalo Bill Dam website, or here for the Buffalo Bill Dam Visitor Center. Information is also available on the Wyoming State Parks website.
Derby Diversion Dam, Nevada
There’s nothing imposing about Derby Diversion Dam. It’s only 31 feet high, a gated, concrete structure flanked on the left by an earthen embankment. Situated on the Truckee River about 20 miles east of Reno, Nevada, the little dam makes no claims to unique design or construction. But when it comes to the history of water in the West, Derby Dam stands tall as the first project of the brand new U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation), organized under the Reclamation Act of 1902. The act committed the Federal Government to construct permanent works--dams, reservoirs, and canals--to irrigate arid lands in the West. The Reclamation Act was a bold federal experiment in internal improvements that laid the foundation for a powerful government presence in water matters in the West.
On March 14, 1903, Secretary of the Interior E. A. Hitchcock authorized five Bureau projects. Among them was what became known as the Newlands Project, named after Nevada Congressman Francis Newlands, who sponsored the Reclamation Act. Not surprisingly, a dam in Newlands, Nevada launched the project. Begun on October 2, 1903, and completed in May 1905, Derby Dam diverted water from the Truckee River basin through a canal to a reservoir on the Carson River, 32 miles to the south. Today, the Newlands Project provides irrigation water for about 73,000 acres of cropland in the Lahontan Valley near Fallon, Nevada, and bench lands farther west, near Fernley.
The story has not always been a happy one. As early as 1908, just three years after completion of the dam, problems were apparent. Irrigation water from the Truckee did not always drain properly after application, and too little was available late in the season. Over time, farmers created an irrigation district and built an extensive drainage system, but many farmers were unable to meet their obligations. There would be congressional legislation and lawsuits. The dam also has been an issue for the region’s fish population and the American Indians who depend on fish for food.
The Truckee River originates in Lake Tahoe and flows east into a Nevada jewel--Pyramid Lake, a natural, desert lake of great importance to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. The members have traditionally taken their name--cui-ui eaters--from the cui-ui, (pronounced kweē-weē), a gray-brown fish weighing up to 7 pounds that occupies habitat near the lake bottom. The cui-ui (Chasmistes cujus), and equally notable Pyramid Lake Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, (Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi) migrated from Pyramid Lake up the Truckee to spawn during high spring flows from March to June, and then returned to the lake. Prior to the 1900s, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Rick Christensen and Brent Mefford write, the cui-ui traveled as far as 25 miles upstream, and the Pyramid Lake Lahontan Cutthroat Trout as far as the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Problems occurred as irrigation water diverted from the Truckee River lowered the level of Pyramid Lake and caused a large sandbar delta to form at the mouth of the river, blocking migrations except in high flow years. The impact of the dam on fish moving upstream to spawn was recognized early on by the Bureau of Reclamation, which built a fish ladder at Derby Dam, though how long it remained in service is not known. Despite the Bureau’s efforts to provide fish passage, Derby Diversion Dam was one of several significant factors that led, in 1940, to population extinction of the Pyramid Lake Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. At the time, Craig Springer writes, it appeared that this native strain of Pyramid Lake trout was gone forever.
Other developments on the Truckee River also impacted fish populations. In 1859 Virginia City’s Comstock Lode led to a rush of gold and silver mining activities so intense that the Truckee and other waterways became clogged with sawdust and logging debris. Among the first acts of Nevada’s new Territorial Assembly, in fact, was to demand that all dams allow for natural transit of fish, a law often ignored. More ditches and dams began to appear, diverting water from the Truckee to irrigate crops or power mills. Then Derby Dam and the Truckee Canal were constructed, diverting water south to the Carson River. In 1915, as part of the Newlands Project, the Bureau of Reclamation also built Lahontan Dam on the Carson River. Behind that dam, Lahontan Reservoir stores Carson River water, as well as water diverted from the Truckee River. By 1967, with increased diversion of Truckee River water, natural evaporation from Pyramid Lake, and severe droughts, Nevada’s “blue jewel” reached its lowest level on record – more than 87 feet lower than it was in 1906 when diversions from Derby Dam began.
Many public and private groups, as well as the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, have worked to restore Pyramid Lake and recover its fish. In the 1970s, a new population of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout--which genetic studies found to be pure representatives of the original lake-dwelling trout--was introduced into the lake. The species was saved, Springer explains, when someone, at an unknown point in the past, transferred some of Pyramid Lake’s native trout into a small, fishless stream on Pilot Peak in Utah. This strain is now an active brood stock being recovered at the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery in Gardnerville, Nevada.
In 1975, the Bureau of Reclamation completed Marble Bluff Dam and the Pyramid Lake Fishway, about 3.5 miles upstream from Pyramid Lake. The dam manages the sand bar problem on the upper Truckee, while the fishway and corresponding locks provide a passageway for fish to move from the lake into the river to spawn. Known as the Marble Bluff Fish Passage Facility, this complex also includes a fish handling building, where biologists sample a small portion of cui-ui as they pass through the locks during the spawning season. They weigh, measure, determine the gender of the fish, and check for tags. This helps them understand the recovery needs of cui-ui and to assess their life history and population trends.
The Marble Bluff Fish Passage Facility recently began an incubation system for Lahontan Cutthroat Trout eggs, which allows the newly hatched trout to be raised in and imprinted with water from the Truckee River. In 2007, its first year of operation, the incubation system produced approximately 28,400 Lahontan Cutthroat Trout fry, which were stocked into upstream tributaries of the Truckee River.
The news has been positive for the cui-ui, as well, although it still is listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (The Lahontan Cutthroat Trout is listed as threatened.) The number of spawners increased steadily throughout the 1990s––from 66,000 in 1994 to 500,000 in 1998. In 2005, the Marble Bluff Fish Passage Facility reported that the run reached 1.2 million.
Plan Your Visit
Derby Diversion Dam (originally known as the Truckee River Diversion Dam) is about 20 miles east of Reno, NV, off Interstate 80. From Reno, take I-80 east to exit 36, turn right onto the frontage road and travel for about a mile. While there is no access to the dam, it is visible in the distance from a pull-off, where a Nevada Historical Marker offers a brief history of the dam. Derby Diversion Dam is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. The dam has been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record as part of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District. For more information on Derby Diversion Dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Derby Diversion Dam website.
The best time to visit the Marble Bluff Fish Passage Facility is during the busy spawning season, mid-March to mid-June. The gates, at 914 Marble Bluff Rd. in Nixon, NV, are open Monday-Friday, 7:30am to 3:30pm. There is no charge, but groups of more than five, or those seeking a tour, are requested to make an appointment by calling 775-861-6300.
Situated along a National Scenic Byway, Pyramid Lake is enclosed within the boundaries of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitors Center, 709 State St., Nixon, NV, is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10am to 4:30pm. The museum features exhibits and displays about the tribe’s culture and history, the natural history of Pyramid Lake, and reasons that the Paiute people hold it in such esteem. Camping, boating, fishing, and daily use passes may be purchased there. For more information, visit the tribal website or phone 775-574-1088. Click here for information on the Scenic Byways Program.
Elephant Butte Dam and Spillway, New Mexico
In Spanish, the word Rio means river, and the Rio Grande, of course, is the magnificent river that forms the southern border of Texas. From its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, the Rio Grande flows 1,865 miles south on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. All but 600 of those miles form the U.S. border with Mexico. In an arid countryside of sagebrush, mesquite, and rattlesnakes, the Rio Grande has been the source of life for centuries of human occupation.
The lower river’s modern era began in 1916 when the U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation) completed Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande, 125 miles north of El Paso. Elephant Butte Dam, named for a distinctive rock formation that now juts from the reservoir, not only makes a dependable water supply possible, but Elephant Butte Lake has a storage capacity of more than 2.2 million acre feet, making it the largest irrigation reservoir in the world at the time of construction. In addition, Elephant Butte Dam and its irrigation system were the first to touch off an international debate about the allocation of water between Mexico and the United States.
When Spanish conquistadors first made their way up the Rio Grande in the 1530s, they found Pueblo people irrigating and cultivating almost 30,000 acres of maize, beans, and squash near present day Juarez, Mexico. When Spanish priests established missions, they, too, irrigated the land until the 1680 Pueblo Revolt forced the Spanish out of present-day New Mexico. Spain soon re-conquered the region, however, and over the next century tilled as much as 40,000 acres along the Rio Grande. Following Mexican independence in 1821, settlers at Juarez dug modest canals and built a loose boulder dam, which diverted the Rio Grande to the town of El Paso, founded in 1827. Eager to settle their country’s northern frontier, the Mexican government, as had the Spanish, issued land grants to communities and individuals. It was on a former land grant, once owned by Don Juan Garcia, that the Bureau of Reclamation built Elephant Butte Dam and other units of the Rio Grande Project.
The Mexican War ended in 1848, but disputes over rights to the Rio Grande continued. In 1897, the private Rio Grande Dam & Irrigation Company proposed to build a low dam at Elephant Butte to serve a few landowners. When the company made no plans to divert surplus water south of the border, Mexico objected. The case went to court, and the irrigation company’s project never materialized because the United States sided with its neighbor, ruling that the project violated Mexico’s water rights by restricting the southward flow of the Rio Grande. Not only did Texas, New Mexico, and southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley depend on the Rio Grande, but also the Mexican border states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas.
The Rio Grande Dam & Irrigation Company was not the only entity to envision damming the Rio Grande. In March 1903, the brand new U.S. Reclamation Service conducted surveys of the bedrock in south-central New Mexico and a year later settled on a site to build a dam near the town of Engle, which, at the time, was a thriving station on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. A dozen miles to the west, the eroded cone of an ancient volcano reminded some of the head of an elephant. Here, Reclamation would build the 301-foot-high, concrete gravity Elephant Butte Dam, but only after the United States promised on May 21, 1906 (by way of a treaty with Mexico) to allow Mexico to receive 60,000 acre feet of water a year from the Rio Grande. In return, Robert Autobee writes, Mexico waived all claims to the river above the town of Fort Quitman, Texas, and all demands for past damages from water shortages. Water shortages, caused by extensive irrigation on northern stretches of the river in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, were apparent as early as the 1890s. One report stated that an estimated 925 ditches were drawing water out of the Rio Grande before the river left Colorado.
Reclamation favored a dam at New Mexico’s Elephant Butte, where Rio Grande water could be stored for use in the region’s Rincon, Mesilla, and El Paso valleys. However, the International Dam Commission, an assembly of Mexican and American engineers, wanted the dam to straddle the U.S.-Mexican border and for Mexico to own half of the dam, reservoir, and water supply. The commission lost the location battle, and Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project went forward even before the 1906 treaty was signed.
On February 25, 1905, Congress authorized construction of what originally was called Engle Dam, and area settlers, eager for Federal help in irrigating their lands, organized water users associations. That December, Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock approved the Rio Grande Project, which was among the earliest undertaken by the Reclamation Service, created to administer the Reclamation Act of 1902. The act committed the Federal Government to build irrigation works--dams, reservoirs, and canals--in 16 arid and semi-arid Western states and territories, including New Mexico, which did not attain statehood until 1912. Texas was not included as an original Reclamation state but was added in 1906 because it also stood to benefit from the Rio Grande Project.
The project kicked off with the building of a work camp and a 12.8-mile rail line to connect with the Santa Fe at Engle. With the final spike driven early in 1911, the train not only carried supplies to the camp, but also two sightseeing cars for the curious. Elephant Butte Dam has a smooth, concrete face, though construction of the dam involved the cyclopean technique, whereby large rocks known as plumstones were embedded in the masonry. The concrete pour, which began on June 3, 1913, was carried to the dam over a cable system powered by a 300-horsepower electric motor. By the summer of 1914, blocks of masonry about 100 feet long and of different heights rose from the bed of the Rio Grande. While the concrete was wet but of sufficient thickness, teams of men, with the help of a derrick, placed the plumstones. These plumstones account for 15 percent of the dam’s volume.
Work went on day and night (except for a day of rest on Sundays). When Union leaders complained that contractors were taking jobs from Americans by bringing in less-expensive workers from Mexico, Reclamation Director Frederick H. Newell wrote to Texas Senator Morris Sheppard, urging that jobs be limited to American citizens. In the work camp, a Mexican family ran a boarding house, serving meals said to be more savory and less costly than the kitchen run by the Reclamation Service. Although the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution did not stall work at Elephant Butte, a stir ran through camp in March 1916 with news that a band led by Pancho Villa had crossed the border and killed 16 Americans at Columbus, New Mexico.
Elephant Butte Dam was completed in 1916, with a series of concrete lampposts standing watch over its downstream side, its crest extending 1,674 feet with a road running across the top. Elephant Butte’s ogee weir spillway also was finished in 1916, but a channel and downstream concrete-lined chute took another six years to complete, in part because engineers rerouted the chute when they discovered better foundation rock. Additional spillway capacity comes from four large wells controlled by steel gates. During construction of Elephant Butte Dam, gates and six penstock openings were built into the dam, but demand for electricity in the rural area was so low that hydroelectric generation was shelved until 1940, when a power plant was placed in operation after the completion of the downstream Caballo Dam.
Today, 28 varieties of crops, with pecans and cotton as king, are grown on Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project. Green onions, peppers, and alfalfa also figure prominently on the Rio Grande Project, which supplies irrigation water for about 178,000 acres in south-central New Mexico and west Texas.
In 1997, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which includes 217 contributing features, including Leasburg and Percha diversion dams, was listed on the National Register. Also on the National Register is the Elephant Butte Historic District, which incorporates the individually listed Elephant Butte Dam, as well as an array of surrounding buildings, structures, and archeological sites that directly relate to the construction and subsequent operation of the dam and reservoir. Features include the original Reclamation Service office building for the project and camps established by construction workers. Many surviving buildings and structures date to the New Deal-era, when young men with the Civilian Conservation Corps built a boat house, still-in-use fish hatchery, and lakeside tourist cabins in the Pueblo Revival style. Landscaping, roads, and a campground still bear the mark of the CCC at Elephant Butte State Park. Elephant Butte Dam and its reservoir are also designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Plan Your Visit
Elephant Butte Dam is on the Rio Grande, 125 miles north of El Paso, TX, and four miles east of Truth or Consequences, NM. From El Paso, take Interstate 25 north to Exit 75 into Truth or Consequences. Follow South Broadway into town and continue on North Date St. to New Mexico 51 (East Third Ave.). Turn right, travel 3.2 miles, and turn left onto a side road that goes to NM 195, which passes over the dam.
The dam and historic sites are situated within Elephant Butte Lake State Park. A visitor center offers information and interpretive exhibits. Tourist cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (where visitors can stay) and Reclamation’s former administration building (converted to a bed and breakfast) are in the Dam Site Recreation Area. The historic fish hatchery is below the dam, in the Paseo del Rio Recreation Area. The park gate is open 24 hours a day. The entrance fee is $5 per vehicle, but free for bicyclists and walk-ins. For a park map and information, visit the New Mexico State Parks website.
Click here for the National Register of Historic Places registration file for Elephant Butte Dam and Reservoir: text and photos, Elephant Butte Historic District: text and photos, and Elephant Butte Irrigation District: text and photos. Click here for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Cultural Resources website. For more information about the dam and the Rio Grande Project, click here Bureau of Reclamation's Elephant Butte Dam and Spillway. As the largest of New Mexico’s state parks, Elephant Butte Lake State Park is a popular recreation area. For information, click here Recreation.gov: Elephant Butte.
Gibson Dam, Montana
In 1907, engineers with the U.S. Reclamation Service met at Great Falls, Montana, to open bids for a dam on the Sun River. But, alas, there were no bids to open. So remote was Montana’s Sun River that no contractor wanted to venture there. Willow Creek Dam, the first dam built on the Sun, thus had to be built by “force account,” meaning Reclamation had to use its own personnel and equipment. Twenty years later, when construction began on Gibson Dam, with a contractor hired, the nearest railroad was still a distant 23 miles. Situated in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, just west of Augusta, Montana, (population 284) Gibson Dam today remains off the beaten track, although its place is central in the history of structural dam design.
Constructed between 1926 and 1929, Gibson Dam holds the distinction of being the first American dam not only to be analyzed according to the trial-load method, as were Pathfinder and Buffalo Bill dams, but designed using it. The trial-load method relies on mathematical equations to determine stresses and strains acting on a dam. Gibson Dam, like Pathfinder and Buffalo Bill dams, functioned as an arch and gravity dam combined, meaning the load was distributed between horizontal arches (pushing the load out to canyon walls), and vertical cantilevers (directing the load down to the dam’s foundation). The method, historian Norman Smith writes, “put arch dam design on a much sounder footing” and would be used later in dams as large and as famous as Hoover on the Colorado River.
Gibson Dam, standing 199 feet high with a crest length of 960 feet, is an imposing, concrete half-moon able to store 99,000 acre feet of water in its reservoir. An acre foot is enough water to cover one acre a foot deep, or 325,851 gallons. Because a gallon of water weighs 8.33 pounds, an acre foot of water weighs 1,357 tons. Imagine how rock-solid Gibson Dam needed to be to store not just one acre foot of water, but 99,000 acre feet.
To deal with these weighty issues, engineers with the Bureau of Reclamation started to build scale models of dams. An exact replica of Gibson Dam was one of the first two built (the other was the Stevenson Creek experimental dam in California). The models, Popular Science magazine reported in August 1929, were made of the same material to be used in the dam, even if it meant carting dirt and bits of rock a thousand miles to the lab. Once the model was complete, engineers created a miniature flood by pressing heavy mercury against the upstream face of the model dam, testing to determine how high its wall could go before it gave way. The formula for Gibson Dam demanded that the dam’s base be built to a maximum width of 117 feet, tapering to 15 feet wide at the top.
The Utah Construction Company of Ogden won the contract in September 1926 with a bid of $1.5 million, and excavation began that December. Utah Construction’s project superintendent, Albert E. Paddock was among a handful of men killed on the project. With the dam just months from completion, Paddock was struck by a workman who tumbled to his death from a tower above.
As the dam was a prototype of Reclamation’s trial-load method, engineers sought to collect as much information as they could, so workers inserted instruments to measure pressures, loads, and variations in temperature--behavioral data was collected until 1942. Gibson Dam, completed in 1929, faced a severe test in June 1964 when the Sun River Valley recorded its largest flood in history. Heavy rains and snowmelt from the Continental Divide sent floodwaters three feet over the top of the dam, leading Reclamation to conduct a variety of studies over the next decade and a half. Fearing that Gibson could not withstand a 100-year flood or an earthquake, Reclamation placed a concrete cap, anchored by knob-shaped rock bolts and costing $1.8 million, over the dam’s right abutment. Engineers added controlling equipment in the spillway gates, aeration piers on top of the dam to maintain its downstream face, and structural behavior monitors to keep an eye on stability.
Montana’s Sun River, known as Medicine River to the indigenous Blackfeet, rises near the Continental Divide and flows 130 miles southeast, where it empties into the Missouri at Great Falls. Lewis and Clark passed this way and camped at the mouth of the Sun on July 4, 1805, celebrating the day by distributing the last of their “ardent spirits” to the men of the Corps of Discovery. Lewis ventured ahead, explored all five of the Missouri’s “great falls” and wrote of seeing a thousand bison grazing east of the Sun River.
Only a half-century later, with the buffalo disappearing and their people decimated by a smallpox epidemic, the Blackfeet signed a treaty with the Federal Government, which established an Indian agency a half-mile upriver from the present town of Sun River, population 131. There, Indian agent A. J. Vaughan established an agency farm and oversaw the planting of vegetables, fruits, and grain. A decade later, when the U.S. Army established Fort Shaw a few miles west, Colonel John Gibbon looked to the Sun River, too. He ordered the post adjutant to survey and build a ditch to irrigate the post gardens and the flowers he planted along the parade grounds. The ditch, with a capacity of about 15 cubic feet per second, was considered a marvel, but the Federal Government’s larger commitment to irrigating the Sun River Valley had to await creation of the U.S. Reclamation Service in 1902.
The very next year, Reclamation conducted the first reconnaissance of the region, but it took a Montanan, Samuel Bostwick Robbins, to dream big about irrigating--and populating--the Sun River Valley. Robbins, a graduate of Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, signed on as an engineer with the Reclamation Service in 1903 and, as Robert Autobee writes, began promoting the valley as “the greatest farming country under the dome of Heaven.” Following Robbins’s lead, the citizens of Great Falls formed a committee, went to Washington, D.C., and lobbied the Federal Government for an irrigation project. On February 26, 1906, their efforts paid off when the Secretary of the Interior authorized the Sun River irrigation project, which included plans to carve 206 farms out of the Fort Shaw military post, which had been
abandoned in 1890.
It was amid the crumbling adobe walls and clogged sewer pipes of the old fort that Reclamation set up its offices. Here, weary pioneer farm families often spent their first night in the Sun River Valley, sleeping on the floor of the Reclamation office. By 1920, Reclamation had constructed three dams, an extensive system of canals, and laid out two towns, Fort Shaw and Simms, but the project’s finances were a mess. Few water users could repay their $60 an acre obligation to the government, and by the fall of 1923 the Federal Government had spent $4.7 million to water 50,579 acres valued at only $2 million.
The situation was bad enough that Elwood Mead, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, went out to Great Falls in the summer of 1925. Heated words flew, Autobee writes, as Mead told the people of the Sun River Project that the Government “must put an end to supplying water to people year after year without requiring them to pay for it.” Even so, the recently completed “Fact Finders’ Report,” much of it written by Mead, directed Reclamation to improve life on its present projects rather than bring new ones online. The result for Reclamation’s Sun River Project was a new dam--Gibson Dam, a solid commitment by the Federal Government to put the past behind and meet the region’s water needs. Today, Gibson Dam and other units of the Sun River Project irrigate 91,000 acres, where principal crops are wheat, oats, barley, and alfalfa.
Plan Your Visit
Gibson Dam is on the Sun River, 70 miles west of Great Falls, MT. From Great Falls, head west on Interstate 15 to U.S. 89 (State Rte. 200). At Simms take a slight right onto MT 21 West, which becomes U.S. 287 outside of Augusta. At Augusta, turn right onto Warden Rd. and follow it about seven miles to Pishkun Ln. Turn left and travel about six miles before turning sharply right onto Sun Canyon Rd. Follow Sun Canyon Rd. into Lewis and Clark National Forest. Go about 13 miles and turn onto Beaver Willow Rd./Mortimer Gulch Rd., which winds to an overlook of Gibson Dam.
For information on Gibson Dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Gibson Dam website. For information on recreational opportunities at Gibson Reservoir, click here Recreation.gov: Gibson Reservoir. Click here for information on the Lewis and Clark National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary and Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Click here for information on the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Glendo Dam, Wyoming
Few issues in the arid West are as contentious or complicated as water rights. Wyoming and Nebraska tangled over rights to the North Platte River as early as the 1880s, disputes that on occasion ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. It took 11 years to resolve one lawsuit, the Supreme Court finally ruling in 1945 that Nebraska was entitled to 75 percent of the North Platte’s flow, and Wyoming 25 percent. When Wyoming’s Glendo Dam was authorized in 1944, it would operate under this Supreme Court decree, but there would be further complications.
The trouble with the North Platte is its disregard for state boundaries. While the river rises in the snowmelt of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, it flows north into Wyoming, and then curves sharply east, crossing into Nebraska northwest of Scottsbluff. When Glendo Dam was proposed, it was the latest of many dams already ringing the North Platte in Wyoming--Seminoe, Pathfinder, Alcova, and Guernsey (Kortes would be added in 1951; Gray Reef in 1961). Proposed for a site 25 miles downstream from Guernsey Dam, Glendo originally was not intended to add to irrigation development. Its purpose was to help reduce loss of capacity in Guernsey Reservoir due to silting. In addition, it would increase the region’s hydroelectric power by storing water released from upstream power plants, thereby letting those plants operate year round.
Although preliminary investigations for Glendo Dam and Reservoir began in 1944, competing state interests held construction up until December 1954. Nebraska feared Glendo Reservoir would reduce flow into Lake McConaughy at Ogallala, while Colorado thought the additional storage at Glendo might be grounds for it to request the use of more water in the state’s North Park region, headwaters of the North Platte. It took an act of Congress, Public Law 841, to reveal just how heated a water question could become in the West. No money would be appropriated for any part of the Glendo project, Congress stated, until a definite plan for water use was agreed upon by the three states and approved by Congress.
In 1954, the Bureau of Reclamation designed a plan that satisfied all involved, and bids for Glendo Dam were opened on November 9, 1954. Glendo Reservoir, all agreed, would be designed to store 800,000 acre feet of water (one acre foot is enough water to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot). The capacity then was divided--100,000 acre feet would be used for irrigation; 115,000 acre feet for sediment control; 275,000 acre feet for flood control; and 310,000 acre feet for power production. The agreement, further illustrating the complicated nature of water matters in the West, involved an amendment to the 1945 Supreme Court decree allocating the North Platte’s flow to Wyoming and Nebraska. The amendment provided that although 100,000 acre feet could be stored in Glendo Reservoir for irrigation, only 40,000 acre feet could be used in any one year--15,000 acre feet for Wyoming, and 25,000 acre feet for Nebraska. Additional hydroelectric power would serve both states, as well as Colorado.
With legal matters settled, the C. F. Lytle and Greene Construction companies began excavation for Glendo Dam in mid-December 1954 and completed the dam in the early fall of 1957. Glendo is an earthfill dam, standing 190 feet high and with a crest length of 2,096 feet. On the south side of the reservoir, nearly a half-mile of dikes were necessary in a low area. Construction also required relocating three miles of Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad tracks, and four miles of U.S. 87 (now part of Interstate 25), which runs along the west side of the reservoir. Glendo Dam and its power plant, situated on the North Platte River, are part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Glendo Unit of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Project.
Plan Your Visit
Glendo Dam is about 100 miles north of Cheyenne, WY. Follow Interstate 25 north to Exit 111 into the town of Glendo. Turn right on A St. and drive the few blocks to Lincoln Ave. Turn right onto Lincoln, which becomes Glendo Park Road and proceeds to the dam. A trail to the north offers a scenic overlook of the dam and reservoir.
For more information on Glendo Dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Glendo Dam website. For recreational opportunities at the reservoir, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Wyoming Lakes and Reservoirs website or visit the Wyoming Department of State and Cultural Resources, which administers Glendo State Park.
In addition to recreation, the department oversees cultural sites in the park, which include visible tipi rings. Glendo State Park charges a daily use fee ($6 for non-residents; $4 for residents).
Grand Coulee Dam, Washington
Grand Coulee Dam, on the Columbia River west of Spokane, Washington, is one of the largest structures ever built by mankind--a mass of concrete standing 550 feet high and 5,223 feet long, or just shy of a mile. Grand Coulee contains 12 million cubic yards of concrete, or enough to build a highway from Seattle to Miami. More massive than the Great Pyramid of Giza, Grand Coulee is listed by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven civil engineering wonders of the United States.
Coulee’s irrigation works extend 125 miles south, nearly to Oregon, and its reservoir, Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, stretches 150 miles north, almost to the Canadian border. A concrete gravity dam, Grand Coulee took eight years to build, employed thousands of men during the Great Depression and, when completed in 1942, provided the enormous electrical power necessary to make aluminum, so essential for World War II production of planes and ships. It was Grand Coulee, as well, that powered the production of plutonium at the nearby Hanford Site, which figured prominently in the making of the atomic bomb.
So grand was Grand Coulee Dam that in 1941 folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote “The Song of the Grand Coulee Dam” (though he was paid to do so under contract with the Bonneville Power Administration.) “Biggest thing built by the hand of a Man,” Guthrie sang. “Power that sings, boys, turbines that whine. Waters back up the Canadian Line.”
Appropriate as the word grand is for the dam, the name Grand Coulee actually refers to a unique geological feature created thousands of years ago when Ice Age glaciers blocked the ancient riverbed of the Columbia River. When water eventually traveled under the ice dam, great floods scoured out hundreds of miles of deep gulches, or coulees, in the Columbia River Basin. One of these, the Grand Coulee, is four miles wide and bordered on three sides by steep cliffs.
A local proposal to dam the Columbia at the head of the Grand Coulee dated to 1918, but the idea faced strong competition from another proposal that called for an irrigation canal to be built from the Pend Oreille River in northern Idaho. Proponents of this latter “gravity plan” argued that the hydroelectricity generated from the dam was not needed. Many studies followed, including one by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which took Grand Coulee’s side, recommending a high dam at the site and the pumping of irrigation water up to the surrounding countryside.
This recommendation took hold with the Bureau of Reclamation, which was promoting construction of multiple-use dams, through which the production of hydroelectric power could produce revenue to help repay the construction cost of a project. (The Reclamation Act requires that beneficiaries of a project repay those costs, and a multi-purpose project reduced the payment burden on irrigators.) The recommendation found traction with the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office in a time of great dust bowls and economic depression. Roosevelt launched federal program after federal program in an attempt to spur the economy by “priming the pump” and providing jobs for out-of-work Americans. Unprecedented funds flowed to the Bureau of Reclamation as it became a key player in the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA), which spent “big bucks on big projects,” Grand Coulee Dam among them.
Groundbreaking ceremonies took place on July 16, 1933, just days before funds were approved for another dam on the Columbia River--the huge Bonneville Dam, to be built downstream by the Corps of Engineers. Many other dams would follow on the Columbia, which traces its headwaters to the Canadian Rockies. The river crosses into the United States in eastern Washington and flows 400 miles through the state before taking a big turn west, forming the border with Oregon as it heads toward the Pacific Ocean.
Originally, Grand Coulee was to be a low dam (with plans to raise it higher at a later time). The contract for a low dam, awarded on July 13, 1934, went to the Mason-Walsh-Atkinson-Kier Company (MWAK). They quickly set about designing and building Mason City, touted as the world’s first “all electric city,” to house workers. Other towns sprang up, including Engineers Town, built by Reclamation to house its engineers, and the rowdy Grand Coulee, known for its taverns and gambling halls.
From the town of Odair, rails extended to the construction site, where MWAK used an innovative conveyor belt, rather than trucks, to carry the tons of rock and earth excavated each day. Meanwhile, at Reclamation’s experimental laboratory in Colorado, engineers tested different plans for diverting the Columbia so construction could begin. The selected design, William Joe Simonds writes, was a 3,000-foot-long, U-shaped, steel pile coffer dam, one for the river’s west side and one for the east, containing interlocking cells that were filled with rock and earth from the excavations. The dam, as well, was to be built in two sections--west and east.
Technical problems associated with plans to raise the low dam at a later date, as well as the low dam’s use for power only, led, in June 1935, to the decision to make Grand Coulee a high dam. That summer MWAK constructed two cement plants, one for each side of the dam, capable of producing 640 cubic yards (or 129,338 gallons) of concrete every hour. As workers excavated, exposing the bedrock foundation for the dam, others drilled test holes from 30 to 200 feet deep. Then, men were lowered into the holes to inspect the quality of the rock. Twenty to 30-foot deep grout holes also were drilled; the grout pumped in to provide a secure seal beneath the dam.
Concrete placement began in the fall of 1935 but, as winter set in, the air turned so cold that several concrete pours actually froze and had to be blasted away and replaced. In January, concrete work halted altogether until spring, when it picked up again, only to halt again the next winter, then pick up in the spring and summer at ever increasing speeds, setting several records for concrete placement. “MWAK’s record was remarkable,” Simonds writes. Nearly 11,000 men worked more than 27 million hours to divert the river, excavate the foundation, and place concrete. Forty-five workers died in the process.
On May 12, 1938, Reclamation received the completed foundation from MWAK, and a new contract was issued to Consolidated Builders Inc. (CBI) of Oakland, Calif., whose job it was to complete the dam to its full height of 550 feet and build the Left Powerhouse. (The company had changed its name from Interior Construction at the orders of the Interior Department.) As CBI took over concrete work, Coulee stood an average of 177 feet above the bedrock. Numerous subcontractors performed other tasks, including the Western Pipe and Steel Company of California, which contracted with Reclamation to manufacture and install the dam’s mammoth penstocks, which are pipes that carry water through the dam to operate the turbines that produce hydroelectric power. Measuring 18 feet in diameter, Grand Coulee’s original 18 penstocks were so huge they had to be fabricated onsite, in a building as long as a football field. Sixteen million pounds of steel were shipped in from the Midwest and South, the mills transporting the steel in semi-circular rolls so it could fit through rail yards and tunnels along the way. The Assembly Building, the building used to fabricate the penstocks, is still standing.
As the dam rose block by block from its bedrock foundation, construction proceeded on its two powerhouses and a pump station that one day would send irrigation water up the hillside to project lands. Like MWAK, CBI struggled with the cold in winter, as well as the heat produced as the concrete cured. In a process first used at Owyhee Dam in Oregon and also at Hoover Dam, more than 2,000 miles of one-inch cooling pipes were embedded in Coulee to carry away the heat generated during the concrete curing process and prevent cracking. By April 1939, more than 5,500 men were employed placing concrete. At one point in May, crews worked non-stop for 24 hours, placing an average of one cubic yard (202 gallons) of concrete every four seconds, setting a record. In September 1939, CBI placed 400,000 cubic yards of concrete, breaking a previous record set by MWAK.
The contract for the first three, 108,000 kilowatt generators at Grand Coulee went to Westinghouse at a cost of about $2.6 million each. At the time, the generators were the largest ever constructed. The turbines, built by Newport News Ship Building and Dry Dock Company, also were a record size. On October 4, 1941--just two months before America’s entry into World War II, Coulee’s first generator was placed into service. On December 12, CBI announced that the last concrete had been placed and, on January 1, 1942, Reclamation accepted the dam from CBI.
The irrigation benefits of Grand Coulee would have to wait because the pumps were not installed and all of the dam’s power was required for wartime production to defeat the Axis Powers. The dam’s second and third generators were in service by April 7, 1942, and completion of the next six units was given high priority. So urgent were wartime needs that Reclamation looked to the unfinished Shasta Dam in California for help. Because two of Shasta’s 75,000 kilowatt generators were in storage, awaiting completion of the dam, Reclamation decided to use them temporarily at Coulee, even though Shasta’s generators were designed to rotate counter-clockwise, while Coulee’s turned clockwise. Reclamation solved the problem by adapting Coulee’s generator pits and rerouting the penstocks. Shasta’s generators went into service in February and May 1943.
Grand Coulee played an important role in America’s amazing rollout of warplanes and ships. Coulee powered the Boeing Aircraft Works near Seattle and shipyards in Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. Airplanes required aluminum, and by war’s end, Grand Coulee was playing a huge part in a Pacific Northwest that produced more than one-third of the nation’s aluminum. The achievement is even more remarkable considering that in 1940, as Simonds notes, the region had no aluminum-manufacturing capabilities.
With the end of World War II, the economy in the Northwest continued to boom. Water pumped from Grand Coulee began reaching Columbia Basin lands in 1948 and today irrigates about 670,000 acres, although the project was designed to deliver a full water supply to 1.1 million acres. In a region once used only for dry land farming and livestock grazing, crops grown today range from forage and cereal grains to fruit, vegetables, and specialty crops such as mint and wine grapes.
In 1967, construction began on the massive, 20-story-high, Third Power Plant, and today Grand Coulee is the largest hydropower producer in the United States, producing 21 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year, or about 11 percent of the power requirements of the Pacific Northwest. Grand Coulee still ranks among the largest dams and top producers of electricity in the world, although it has been eclipsed in recent years by dams such China’s Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which has been criticized for its impacts on people and the ecosystem. Grand Coulee also has faced criticism, most notably for its impact on West Coast salmon and steelhead populations.
Grand Coulee Dam is on the main stem of the Columbia River about 90 miles west of Spokane, WA. From Spokane, follow U.S. 2 west to Wilbur. Turn north onto WA 21 and then west on WA 174, which proceeds to the town of Grand Coulee. Turn right onto Midway Ave./WA 155 and proceed 1.6 miles to the dam.
Plan Your Visit
A visitor center at the base of the dam offers tours of the Third Power Plant, hands-on exhibits, and a free, nightly laser light show from Memorial Day weekend through September 30. Visitor center hours are: 8:30am to 11pm, May 29-July 31; 8:30am to 10:30pm, August 1-31; 8:30am to 9:30pm, September 1-30; and 9:00am to 5:00pm, October 1-May 27. The center is open daily except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For more information on the visitor center or dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Grand Coulee Dam website. The Grand Coulee Dam has been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record. There are also many recreational opportunities at Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake.
Guernsey Dam, Wyoming
On the North Platte River in eastern Wyoming, Fort Laramie plays a starring role in the history of the American West. Now a National Historic Site, Fort Laramie once was a way-station for the thousands of pioneers heading overland to Oregon, California, or the Salt Lake Valley in the mid-1800s. With Laramie Peak in the distance, they rested briefly at the fort before lumbering on, their heavy wagons carving deep ruts in the soft sandstone south of present-day Guernsey, Wyoming. Overlanders followed the arc of the North Platte River deep into central Wyoming until they turned up the Sweetwater River, bound for South Pass over the Continental Divide.
The North Platte River Valley is rich in history from its centrality to the Plains Indians and the fur trade, to its stage stops and Army forts, to its overland trail route, with wagon ruts still visible near Guernsey. The river is no less important today as it supplies the water to irrigate more than 335,000 acres, transforming Wyoming and Nebraska sagebrush and rangeland into productive agricultural land, where alfalfa, corn, potatoes, sugar beets, and dry beans grow.
The Bureau of Reclamation has constructed a number of dams on the North Platte River, including the historic Guernsey Dam, completed in July 1927 with its two-generator power plant and its elegant, classical arch gatehouse, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, as an outgrowth of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Guernsey’s reservoir, Lake Guernsey, has become a showplace and prototype for developing “recreation areas” around western reservoirs. At Guernsey, National Park Service landscape architects assisted the state by developing the kind of “master plan” that would be used in scores of state and local park developments around lakes and reservoirs.
On May 21, 1934, the CCC, a work relief program for young men 18 to 25 years old, located a camp (Camp BR-9) on a scenic bluff north of Guernsey Dam. A second camp, Camp BR-10, was established about a mile west of the dam in July 1934, a time when the reservoir shoreline was largely undeveloped. These CCC workers set about constructing what became a showplace of state park design. They built roads, including Lakeshore Drive and Skyline Drive, where winding steps still lead to The Castle, an overlook offering a spectacular view of the lake. They built bridges, picnic shelters, water fountains, trails and a museum on the summit of a hill. Made of locally quarried bluff and white sandstone, and featuring a roof of heavy, hand-hewn timbers covered with cedar shingles, the museum proclaimed the rustic architecture considered appropriate for a park. Inside, two exhibit halls and 14 display cases depict eastern Wyoming history and prehistory, exhibits that mostly have been maintained in their original locations.
Lake Guernsey State Park, historian Christine Pfaff writes, is “the most important early example of recreational development around a Reclamation reservoir in the West.” The park was one of the first two joint endeavors by the Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service and CCC. In 1997, Lake Guernsey State Park District was designated a National Historic Landmark. The park, the nomination states, is “an extremely significant and well preserved state park of the period, and epitomizes the artistic quality and high aspirations held for the state parks designed by the Park Service and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s.” The historic district contains 60 contributing buildings, structures, and sites, of which all but a few were the work of the young men of the CCC.
Lake Guernsey’s location--so close to historic trail sites, and with its scenic, rugged shoreline covered with cedar and pine trees--figured in its selection as a recreation site. Just two miles upstream from the town of Guernsey, Wyoming, and within driving distance of Cheyenne and historic Scotts Bluff and Fort Laramie, local boosters pushed for development of the reservoir, realizing that it could draw additional tourists to the region.
Guernsey Dam itself is a 135-foot-high, diaphragm-type embankment of sluiced clay, sand, and gravel. Eastern Wyoming residents, in search of electricity, first discussed the possibility of a dam near Guernsey in 1915, but it wasn’t until 1924 that Congress gave its authorization. A bid was let on May 2, 1925, to the Utah Construction Company of Salt Lake City, the only company putting in a bid, and work began three weeks later. By summer, 200 laborers were at the site at the mouth of the small canyon, using steam shovels to gather broken rock for the dam’s embankment. Trains hauled the material to the dam site and dumped it from trestles on each side of the embankment. Completed on July 13, 1927, Guernsey Dam stores water and also controls flow from other dams on the river.
Plan Your Visit
Guernsey Dam is two miles upstream from Guernsey, WY. From Interstate 25, take U.S. 26 east toward Guernsey. Turn north onto WY 317 (Lake Shore Dr.), which goes to the dam and continues over it. Lake Guernsey State Park may be accessed from WY 317 on the south, or WY 270 from the north. The park grounds are open 24 hours a day, year round, weather permitting; the museum is open May 1-September 30. The park offers a variety of recreational activities, including camping and fishing; there is a daily use fee ($4 for Wyoming residents; $6 for non-residents). For information, visit Wyoming State Parks' Guernsey State Park website.
For information on the National Historic Landmark District, which includes Guernsey Dam, Power Plant and Civilian Conservation Corps camp, click here: text and photos. Click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Guernsey Dam website. Click here for information on the Fort Laramie National Historic Site, Scotts Bluff National Monument, and for the Scotts Bluff Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary.
Gunnison Tunnel, Colorado
The longest irrigation tunnel in the world when it was dedicated in 1909, Colorado’s GunnisonTunnel was an engineering marvel. The 5.8-mile tunnel cut right through the sheer cliffs of the famed Black Canyon, taking water from the Gunnison River and funneling it to the semiarid Uncompahgre Valley to the west.
It was none other than President William Howard Taft, vacationing in the West, who dedicated the tunnel in September of 1909. What a grand day it was for the little town of Montrose, which welcomed the president with a parade and a two-story-high memorial arch stretching across Main Street. No doubt the president was impressed, for the Gunnison Tunnel was built, as he put it, in the “incomparable valley with the unpronounceable name.” Uncompahgre (Un-come-PAH-gray) is a Ute Indian word meaning “hot water spring,” while Taft’s “incomparable valley” was the raw beauty of a Colorado landscape framed by plateau and the towering San Juan Mountains.
Flowing through the valley’s heart is the Uncompahgre River, long utilized by the Ute Indians until a mining boom in the 1870s and a tide of American settlers led to their removal from western Colorado. The new settlers, as had the Utes, looked to the Uncompahgre for sustenance; in the arid West, water was nearly as good as gold. Settlers dug canals and formed ditch companies, believing that the river with the unpronounceable name contained enough water to irrigate 175,000 acres. But the Uncompahgre proved unreliable. By 1890, with fewer than 30,000 acres cultivated, water shortage spurred new schemes for irrigating the valley.
Legend has it that a local farmer and one-time miner, Frank Lauzon, had a dream in which he came up with an idea: dig a tunnel from the more substantial Gunnison River, which roared in the Black Canyon beyond Vernal Mesa, and divert water to the Uncompahgre Valley. In 1900, local rancher John Pelton set out with a party of four men to run a line of elevation down the famed Black Canyon of the Gunnison River and determine whether a tunnel was feasible. The men put their two, heavy wooden boats into the Gunnison, only to crash one of them against the rocks, sending splinters and supplies downstream. Though their mission was a failure, it generated interest in the tunnel and, the next year, Abraham Lincoln Fellows of the U.S. Geological Survey and William Torrence of the Montrose Electric Light and Power Company set out with rubber air mattresses and waterproof bags. They emerged from the precipitous gorge nine days later with their lives as well as photographs and locations of the best sites to tunnel and build a diversion dam.
In 1901, the State of Colorado appropriated $25,000 to start the tunnel, but only 900 feet were driven before funds ran out. The next year, after Congress passed the Reclamation Act of 1902, the project moved forward again. The Reclamation Act committed the Federal Government to construct irrigation works--dams, reservoirs, tunnels, and canals-–to irrigate arid and semiarid lands in 16 western states and territories, including Colorado. With the formation in 1903 of an association of landowners obligated to pay back the government’s cost of construction, the Gunnison Tunnel (part of the Uncompahgre Project) became one of the first five projects undertaken by the new Bureau of Reclamation (originally known as the U.S. Reclamation Service).
The undertaking proved difficult and gargantuan. The plan called for workmen to dig two portals through Vernal Mesa--one would begin on the canyon floor and the other in the valley beyond-- with the goal of meeting in the middle. But first they had to scrape a road across the rugged mesa to the Gunnison River, roaring some 2,000 feet below the canyon rim. So tall were the canyon walls that they could tower over the Empire State Building. So steep was the road from rim to river that it descended in places at a 30 percent grade. Drilling equipment had to be eased down on skids, and it wouldn’t be until 1932 that an automobile succeeded in getting to the river, although it had to be pulled back up by a team of horses.
Seeping water, poisonous gasses, excessive temperatures, and the presence of clay, sand, shale, and a fractured fault zone complicated the drilling, which had to be halted for six months at one point so a ventilation shaft could be driven into the mesa. Although as many as 500 men were employed with good pay, few rarely stayed on the job for more than a few weeks. A cave-in took six lives, an explosion and smoke 12 more, and a falling boulder another. Many workers, some with families, lived near the West Portal in a temporary town called Lujane. At the other side of the mesa, clutching the slopes of the canyon, a community named East Portal also thrived. Both towns had amenities, including a dining hall, school, hospital and post office. Before the tunnel was done, technological advances made the work safer and easier. Jack hammers fed by a compressor replaced hand-turned drill bits, and dynamite replaced black powder for blasting.
When tunnel construction began in 1905, survey measurements had to be precise, a difficult task in the rough terrain. Using geometry, engineers were able to draw a direct line through the mesa by sketching a series of polygons and linking together the hypotenuse, or long side of the right-angled triangles. On July 6, 1909, the tunnel bore--11 feet wide by 12 feet high--was “holed through” as workers digging from the West Portal and those digging from the East Portal met in the middle.
The Gunnison Tunnel, which is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. It has had a dramatic impact on the Uncompahgre Valley. By 1923, the valley’s population had doubled to more than 6,000, and its irrigated acres mushroomed from 37,000 acres in 1913 to 64,180 acres in 1933. Today, with its corresponding system of canals, laterals, diversion dams, and the Taylor Park Reservoir, the tunnel project irrigates nearly 76,300 acres, making the Uncompahgre Valley rich in alfalfa, wheat, corn, oats, potatoes, beans, onions and fruit--apples, pears and cherries. Beginning in the 1960s, project farmers started growing Moravian malting barley, used for the manufacture of Coors beer.
In 1991, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Project Office Building, built in conjunction with the Gunnison Tunnel, was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Constructed in 1905 at 601 N. Park Ave. in Montrose, the two-story, wood frame structure has been occupied since 1932 by the office of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association and is a good example of the Foursquare building type. The Gunnison Tunnel celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009, and is still in use today.
Plan Your Visit
The West Portal of the Gunnison Tunnel is 6 ½ miles east of Montrose, CO, off U.S. 50, but is not accessible.The East Portal is within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area. It is accessible from Montrose by taking U.S. 50 east to CO 347 and the South Rim entrance to the park; then follow the steep and winding East Portal Rd. to the river, where a low dam diverts water into the East Portal of the tunnel. (Vehicle with tow must not exceed 22 feet long. Road closed in winter.) An entrance fee to the park is charged. While visitors cannot actually see the tunnel, they pass over it while driving along East Portal Rd. At the bottom, interpretive signs tell the story of the tunnel and the old town site, where foundations of cottages and the buildings are visible. Exhibits and a movie at the South Rim Visitor Center in the park, tell more of the story, and park rangers conduct a 90-minute historical walk on a regular schedule during the summer. A free brochure is also available and rangers can provide information on other nearby sites associated with the tunnel. For more information click here for the Curecanti National Recreation Area, and here for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, or call for visitor information at 1-970-641-2337 ex. 205.
Click here for the Gunnison Tunnel National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. For more information about Gunnison Tunnel, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Uncompahgre Project and the Gunnison Tunnel.
Hoover Dam, Nevada and Arizona
Physically, Hoover Dam is a massive, concrete arch-gravity dam, 660 feet thick at its base and wide enough at its crest that traffic on old U.S. 93 coursed right over its top. Some 726 feet in the canyon below, or the equivalent of a 60-story building, the Colorado River lies tamed behind this great concrete wedge, its base as wide as two football fields are long.
Hoover Dam stores water that irrigates 2 million acres, not only in the rich farm fields of Southern California’s Imperial Valley, but across the state line in Arizona. Hoover Dam generates enough hydroelectric power to serve 1.3 million people each year, provides municipal water for urban centers including Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson, holds back flood waters, provides storage during drought and takes more than a little credit for the unabashed growth of the desert Southwest. For all that, Hoover Dam is much more; it is an American icon, a monument to the ingenuity of the nation’s engineers and the power of its machines. Hoover Dam is the symbol of an era when an urban, industrial America reveled in harnessing its natural resources.
The story of Hoover Dam begins long before the first bucket of concrete was poured on June 6, 1933, and it continues today with the recently opened Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge, an engineering marvel in itself, towering 900 feet above the Colorado River’s Black Canyon, just south of Hoover Dam. The new bridge diverts traffic from the top of the dam, lessening congestion and increasing security, while also offering unsurpassed views from its pedestrian walkway. Hoover Dam, spanning the Arizona-Nevada border about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, is the most-visited dam in the world, counting some 7 million tourists a year. With its 110-mile-long Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and its corresponding system of tunnels, outlet works, spillways, power plant, and transmission lines has transformed this bone-dry slice of desert into a vacation paradise.
As early as 1901, manmade canals diverted Colorado River water to the Imperial Valley’s fruit and vegetable fields. But the Colorado was a mighty river, gouging rock mesas as it went, including the most famous gorge of all--the Grand Canyon. The Colorado could grow angry, swelling to a torrent, flooding land for miles around, clogging irrigation canals with sediment, and washing away small earth dams. In 1905, the Colorado broke out of its banks at an irrigation canal head works and ran wild for months, sending its entire flow into the Salton Sink--creating the Salton Sea. As the Colorado destroyed homes and crops, and damaged highways and railroads, its name turned to mud, much like the landscape it destroyed.
To engineers at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the solution was clear: a large, multipurpose dam that not only would control floods, but harness the Colorado for irrigation and hydroelectric power. Years of debate followed as opponents questioned the economic feasibility and engineering know-how for such an enormous project. Furthermore, six of the seven states in the Colorado River drainage area (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada) expressed fears that California would get the lion’s share of the water. Then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover stepped up as the man of the hour when he oversaw a compromise in 1922 that became the Colorado River Compact. This compact divided the seven states into the Upper and Lower Basins, established a set amount of river water to be consumed annually, and left the apportionment percentages for the states to work out among themselves.
On December 21, 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed an act authorizing the Boulder Canyon Project, so named because a study originally had recommended the Boulder Canyon of the Colorado, not the nearby Black Canyon, as the site of the dam. On July 3, 1930, then-President Herbert Hoover signed the first appropriation bill. It was during dedication ceremonies on September 17, 1930, that Secretary of the Interior Ray L. Wilbur, while driving a silver spike for the railroad spur that would run to the construction site, announced that the name of the colossal structure was to be Hoover Dam. However, the soon-to-be-elected Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt continued to use the name Boulder Dam. It wasn’t until April 30, 1947, that a resolution of Congress made Hoover Dam the official name.
Building Hoover Dam was a monumental undertaking. Construction required 5 million barrels of cement and 45 million pounds of reinforcement steel. The mass of concrete used weighed 6.6 million tons and would pave a road stretching from San Francisco to New York City. Hoover Dam’s spillways could float a battleship, and Lake Mead, when filled to capacity, contains enough water to cover Connecticut 10 feet deep. It would take a maximum of 5,218 men (employed in any one month) a total of five years to build the dam, which actually was completed ahead of schedule. The construction contract went to a combination of six prominent contracting firms that pooled their resources and incorporated as Six Companies Inc. of San Francisco, for the express purpose of building Hoover Dam. Six Companies’ low bid of nearly $49 million, awarded on March 11, 1931, was the largest construction contract let by the U.S. government up to that time.
Housing and feeding workers was a huge task, as well. The government designed and built the still thriving Boulder City, six miles from the dam site. A state-of-the-art hospital anticipated the many injuries to come (the official death toll is 96 men), while a fully stocked department store, recreation hall, laundry, and amenities from a school to a post office rounded out the town. Married men and their families lived in 758 cottages, while single men lived in one of nine dormitories. The men paid $1.60 a day for room and board at the domitories, but they received a private room, transportation to and from the construction site, and all-they-could-eat meals. Beef, veal, lamb, and pork came in 20,000-pound lots shipped from Reno. With no dairies in southern Nevada, Boulder City’s food contractor purchased a 160-acre farm at Mesquite, Nevada, where 200 cows provided fresh milk, cream, and butter.
Less wholesome was the road to Vegas, where bars and brothels sprang up miles before the workers with pay in their pockets could make it to what in the 1930s was a Las Vegas of only 5,000 people. While gambling had existed illegally there for years, the town secured a legal thumbs up from the Nevada Legislature in 1931, the same year construction began on Hoover Dam. While gambling was legal, drinking was not. In Boulder City, officers seized eight stills and arrested 72 people before Prohibition was repealed in early 1933.
So how does one go about building a dam as large as Hoover?
First, engineers had to find a way to turn the mighty Colorado River aside so workers could have access to a dry river bed. They did this by driving four tunnels through the canyon walls, two on each side, the intent being to funnel the river past the dam site, then shoot it out below. With temperatures reaching as high as 140 degrees in the tunnels, workers suffered from deadly heat prostration, with a reported death of one worker occurring every two days in the summer of 1933. Not only did the tunnels need to be dug, but also lined with concrete and then grouted to fill any seams or cracks. The sun-scorched desert heat was intense in the open air, as well, where 115 degrees during the day and a low of 95 at night were common during the summer months. Tunnel excavation using traditional drill-and-blast methods proceeded for more than two years, from June 1931 to November 1933.
When two of the tunnels were finished, excavated rock and gravel were dumped into the river to form a temporary coffer dam, which began diverting the Colorado’s flow into those tunnels on November 14, 1932. Permanent coffer dams were then built, one upstream (98 feet high and 510 feet long) and one downstream (66 feet high and 350 feet long). The “construction stiffs,” as Fortune magazine referred to the workers, now were free to attack the canyon walls. Making an average 68 cents an hour, they were lowered over the canyon rim in safety belts or bosun chairs, then used steel bars to knock down any and all loose material, and 44-pound jackhammers to drill powder holes. By the summer of 1933, so many “high scalers,” as they were known, had been killed by rock slides and falling objects that the men took to making improvised hard hats by coating their cloth hats with coal tar, which proved extremely effective.
With water diverted and the river bed dry, excavation began for the dam, the powerplants that sit at its toe, and the twin set of graceful intake towers, which stand prominently on the reservoir side of the dam. Using huge power shovels, men labored in shifts, 24 hours a day, removing mud, silt, and rock to reach solid bedrock. Abutments had to be shaped properly and cuts made in the canyon walls to ensure the dam could carry the forthcoming load of more than 41 billion tons.
Finally, work on the actual dam could begin. Because engineers wanted a single mass, the design called for a series of an estimated 215 vertical columns. The columns were constructed block by block by pouring concrete into square forms varying in size from 25 to 60 feet square. Each block interlocked with the next by vertical and horizontal keyways, like a Lego set. Hoover Dam is a concrete arch-gravity dam, meaning, as explained by the Public Broadcasting Service website “Building Big,” that as tons of water in the reservoir push against the concrete in the dam, compressive forces travel along the dam’s great wall into the cliffs on both sides of the dam.
Because concrete creates great internal heat while hardening, Hoover Dam’s engineers worried about expansion and then contraction of the concrete. To solve the problem they created an artificial cooling system consisting of 590 miles of pipe loops embedded in the concrete with air-cooled or refrigerated water circulating through them. Buckets of concrete, mixed at two plants onsite and transported by rail, were hoisted by one of five, 20-ton cableways strung from canyon rim to canyon rim. During the summer, as each section was poured, it was the sole task of 20 men to keep the concrete moist by spraying the surface with water. Thus was Hoover Dam built, concrete block upon concrete block, the last bucket poured on May 29, 1935. That February 1, even before the last bucket was poured, water began to back up into Lake Mead when a great steel bulkhead in one of the diversion tunnels was lowered.
Today, as then, electrically operated hoists atop the intake towers raise and lower gates below, drawing water in from the reservoir. The water rushes in through headers and down huge pipes called penstocks to the powerhouse, where water flowing at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 cubic feet per second operates the 17 main turbines that spin the generators that create electricity.
Combined with the penstocks, a series of pipes known as the outlet system can bypass the turbines and divert water into the river channel downstream if an emergency warrants or if the penstocks need maintenance. In June 1998, a torrent of water shot from the outlet system and sent whitecaps rippling down the Colorado during testing of new jet flow gates that replaced 12 obsolete needle valves in the outlet works. The new gates increased the release capacity from about 50,000 cubic feet per second to 73,000 cubic feet per second. (One cubic foot equals about 7½ gallons.)
In addition, two spillways, 27 feet below the top of the dam, stand ready to send any water reaching that high into tunnels that connect to two of the original diversion tunnels.The other two original diversion tunnels, plugged at strategic points, play a key role, as well, in funneling water to the generators in the powerhouse and to the outlet system. Water never has gone over the top of Hoover Dam, nor is it supposed to, and the spillways have only been used twice. The first time, in 1941, was a test of the system. The second time, in 1983, was during a flood.
Plan Your Visit
Hoover Dam is about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas on U.S. 93 at the Nevada-Arizona border. The dam is a National Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file: text and photos. The dam and has been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record. Hoover Dam is also listed by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a Civil Engineering Landmark and a Monument of the Millennium. Hoover Dam is the subject of an online lesson plan “The Greatest Dam in the World”: Building Hoover Dam . The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places homepage.
The Hoover Dam Visitor Center is open 9:00am to 6:00pm every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tours of the dam and power plant are available. For a fee schedule, parking information, and more information about Hoover Dam, click here for Bureau of Reclamation's Hoover Dam website or call toll free: 866-730-9097. The busiest season for visitation to Hoover Dam runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The slowest months are January and February. The least crowded time of day for tours is from 9:00am to 10:30am and 3:00 pm to 4:45pm. On your visit, don’t miss the introductory film, the 30-foot-tall winged sculptures by Oskar Hansen, the gleaming terrazzo floors imbedded with Southwestern Indian designs, and two special plaques--one dedicated to workers, the other to the Hoover Dam mascot, a stray dog adopted by workers and buried nearby. For hands-on activities explaining how dams are built, visit the PBS website, “Building Big.”
Hungry Horse Dam, Montana
Hungry Horse Dam, on Montana’s Flathead River, has a name as charming as the timbered high country in which it stands. Just 15 miles from the west entrance of Glacier National Park and 44 miles from the Canadian border, Hungry Horse Dam knows the kind of winters that fur trappers experienced in the region in the early 1800s. When the snow flies in Montana, it can be a dangerous situation for man or beast, including horses. That’s what happened to Jerry and Tex, two freight horses working the Montana oil rush in the winter of 1900-01. They wandered away and weren’t found until a month later, belly-deep in snow and skinny as lodgepole pines. Nursed back to health, Jerry later pulled a fire wagon in Kalispell, and Tex did the same for a mercantile company. And so the name Hungry Horse stuck.
In 1953, Hungry Horse Dam was completed on the South Fork of the Flathead River, in a scenic spot surrounded by more than 25 mountain peaks. The dam took five years to build as construction shut down every winter, and crews labored to clear thousands of trees from the site, a job accomplished by chaining a huge, 4½-ton steel ball to a couple of tractors and pulling it through dead timber and over stumps left by loggers. One contractor built an iron drag shaped like an umbrella to gather the timber into a pile for burning. When Hungry Horse Reservoir inundated a fire lookout tower, the Bureau of Reclamation rebuilt it elsewhere, along with U.S. Forest Service roads, bridges, and buildings.
At 564 feet high, Hungry Horse is one of the largest concrete arch dams in the United States, and its morning-glory spillway, with water cascading over the rim and dropping 490 feet, is the highest in the world. Hungry Horse was built not for irrigation, as were so many other Reclamation dams, but to provide water storage that could be used to increase hydroelectric power production at Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams, downstream on the Columbia River. Hungry Horse, its reservoir, and the four generators in its power plant (which produce about one billion kilowatt hours of power a year) also provide flood control and electricity to the surrounding area, including the towns of Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls.
As early as 1921, the U.S. Geological Survey began studies of the Hungry Horse Dam site, but it wasn’t until 1943, with the nation in need of all the power it could find for war production plants, that organized support materialized. The Corps of Engineers initially proposed raising the level of Flathead Lake to store more water for downstream power plants, but local opposition to damming the pristine lake, the largest freshwater lake in the American West, turned the focus to the nearby South Fork of the Flathead River.
On June 5, 1944, Congress authorized the project and, despite its link to wartime production, pre-construction work did not begin until August 1945, just as World War II was ending. Two outfits were hired to clear more than 20,000 acres of trees from the reservoir site in what the workers dubbed “Operation Highball,” named for the heavy steel balls, eight-feet in diameter, used to clear timber. The General-Shea-Morrison Company of Seattle won the contract to build the dam and power plant, and set to work in April 1948. The company, as Eric A. Stene writes, erected a construction camp, complete with houses and dormitories for workers, a warehouse, schoolhouse, grocery store, and hospital. To permit nighttime work, General-Shea-Morrison strung floodlights across the steep, narrow canyon where Hungry Horse Dam took shape.
As Boyles Brothers Drilling Company constructed the morning-glory spillway, which acts like a giant drain in the reservoir, work on the dam proceeded simultaneously, with General-Shea-Morrison pouring the first concrete on September 7, 1949. When November arrived, work on the dam shut down for the winter, as it would again in the winter of 1950-51 and again in 1951-52. When spring came round, work resumed until the final block was finished on October 4, 1952. Three days earlier, President Harry S. Truman threw the switch to begin operating the Hungry Horse Power Plant, then attended a dedication ceremony at Flathead County High School in Kalispell.
Plan Your Visit
Hungry Horse Dam is on the South Fork of the Flathead River, 20 miles northeast of Kalispell, MT. From Kalispell, take U.S. 2 north. Turn right onto MT 40/U.S. 2 through Columbia Falls. At the little town of Hungry Horse, where one of the huge balls used to clear the forest is on display along the side of the road, turn right onto National Forest Develop Rd. 895 and proceed four miles on a scenic road to the dam. Caars may drive over the dam and proceed around the reservoir. A visitor center at the dam, which includes historic photographs and a video, is open from 9:00am-4:00pm. Wednesday-Sunday, from June-August
For more information on Hungry Horse Dam, click here for Bureau of Reclamation's Hungry Horse Dam website. For recreational opportunities at the reservoir, including trout fishing, click here: Recreation.gov: Hungry Horse Dam or here for recreation in the Flathead National Forest or Glacier National Park.
Laguna Dam District, Arizona
From its headwaters high in Rocky Mountain National Park to its mouth in the Gulf of California, the Colorado River cuts through 1,450 miles of mountains and valleys, forest and desert. Before it was dammed, the Colorado was a mighty river, gouging canyons and swelling to a torrent when it was angry. On its lower reaches, the Colorado ran so wild in 1862 that it washed away the nascent town of Yuma, Arizona, forcing the few hundred residents to start anew. When they rebuilt, there was no turning away from the river because without it, there would be no Yuma.
Today, with a population nearing 100,000, Yuma is an agricultural oasis made possible by irrigation works like Laguna Dam, on the Colorado River 13 miles northeast of town. At the outset, Laguna was a diversion dam, channeling water from the Colorado River to irrigate millions of acres of farmland. Wheat and cotton, lemons and tangerines, cauliflower, broccoli and lettuce turned the desert green. Yuma became famous for its lettuce--head lettuce, leaf lettuce and Romaine lettuce, a bounty celebrated every January at Yuma Lettuce Days.
Agriculture in the Yuma Valley was nothing new; the Quechan Indians used the Colorado to irrigate their fields as far back as the year 1000. But modern agriculture on the Colorado dates to 1909 and the opening of Laguna Diversion Dam, the first of many to be built on the Colorado, which, on its lower reaches, forms the border between Arizona and California. Laguna diverted river water into the Yuma Main Canal. Beginning on the California side of the river, the canal carries water southwest to fields in Imperial County, California, and the Yuma Valley in Arizona.
To enter Arizona the canal has to re-cross the Colorado River, which it does through an inverted siphon buried in the heart of downtown Yuma. The Colorado River Siphon, as it is called, is a concrete tube, 14 feet in diameter and dug 50 feet under the sandstone riverbed. The siphon acts like a tunnel; water in the Yuma Main Canal enters through an inlet on the California side, swirls 76 feet down through a vertical shaft, enters the tube, then bubbles up on the Arizona side. This curiosity can be seen by visitors who walk along the path at Yuma’s historic Quartermaster Depot, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The siphon, which delivered water to the Arizona side of the Colorado River for the first time on June 29, 1912, is just one component of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Yuma Project, authorized by Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock on May 10, 1904.
The project began with Laguna Diversion Dam, an “Indian weir” design selected after engineers studied dams in other countries where the foundations were built on sand and silt. Over the millenniums the Colorado had deposited so much silt that it seemed financially impossible to dig to bedrock. A weir is a relatively small impoundment wall that has no control structures to permit passage of water through the wall. Any excess water goes over the top. Measuring only 43 feet high with nearly two-thirds of the dam below the riverbed, Laguna resembles the Okla Weir across the Jumna River in India.
Work began on July 19, 1905, with contractor J. G. White and Company shipping materials upriver from Yuma on a steamboat or overland by wagon. Laguna is a rockfill weir, meaning it is an embankment dam with rock as the primary construction material. When rock quarried at the dam site fractured with what historian Eric A. Stene says was “an annoying regularity,” the frustrated contractor lost money, missed deadlines and turned the project over to the five-year-old U.S. Reclamation Service, which capped the top of the dam with concrete when suitable rock ran out. The Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation) hired mostly Mexican-American workers and gained the cooperation of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which built a rail line to the construction site.
A mile and a half below Laguna Dam, the Yuma Main Canal, constructed between 1907 and 1909, split into a second canal to serve the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation. In Yuma, the main canal split again into an East Main Canal and a West Main Canal, which ran to the Mexican border, about 20 miles distant. Yuma project canals continue to deliver irrigation water to about 68,000 acres, but today the water no longer is diverted at Laguna Dam. Imperial Dam, completed a few miles upstream from Laguna in 1938, does the job now. In 1941, diversions from Laguna Dam ended, and the outlet works were sealed permanently on June 23, 1948. Today, Laguna Dam serves to protect the toe of Imperial Dam and for partial regulation of river flows.
“Farming as we know it would not have existed without [Laguna] dam,” Tom Davis, general manager of the Yuma County Water Users Association, told the Yuma Sun in 2009, the 100th anniversary of the dam. Laguna was the first on the Colorado, and many others would follow, including Hoover Dam in 1936, Parker Dam in 1938 and Davis Dam in 1950. “The combination,” Davis said, “tamed the river.” The benefits were not without a cost, as natural riparian regions of the Colorado suffered as water was diverted elsewhere. Now efforts are underway at Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area not only to restore the region’s East and West Wetlands, but to reconnect the city of Yuma to its river heritage.
The Colorado always has been central to Yuma’s history. It was at Yuma, where the Gila River enters the Colorado, that a granite outcropping once provided a convenient place to cross the river, thus the name, “Yuma Crossing.” Indian people crossed here first, then Spanish explorers and Franciscan missionaries. The fur trapper Ewing Young crossed at Yuma in 1826 and the American general Stephen Kearney and his army came this way in 1846 during the Mexican War. Following the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which transferred much of the American Southwest from Mexico to the United States, the U.S. Army, in 1851, established Fort Yuma on a bluff overlooking the crossing from the California side of the river. A rope ferry ran to the Arizona side, where the town of Yuma (first called Colorado City and then Arizona City) grew up as a supply depot for the fort.
In 1864, below the mouth of the Gila River, the Army built the Yuma Quartermaster Depot, which now is part of Yuma Crossing and Associated Sites National Historic Landmark. At the depot, six-month supplies for U.S. military posts in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Texas arrived from California by ocean vessels. They sailed around the Baja Peninsula to Port Isabel near the mouth of the Colorado River, where cargo was loaded on streamers that plied upriver to Yuma. The Southern Pacific Railroad reached Yuma in 1877 and crossed the river on a swing span bridge, made to accommodate steamboats. By 1900, when the city counted about 1,500 residents, private efforts to irrigate the Yuma Valley began. Like so many places in the arid West, private companies faced a tough go of it. Silt accumulated in irrigation works, run-off was inconsistent, floods unpredictable and rainfall averaging only 3.5 inches a year.
When the Federal Government, with passage of the Reclamation Act of 1902, committed itself to irrigating arid and semiarid land in 16 western states and territories, Yuma County saw an opportunity. Potential water users formed the Yuma County Water Users’ Association to contract with Reclamation for the Yuma Project. Reclamation purchased the local irrigation and ditch companies and moved into units of the old Quartermaster’s Depot, abandoned in 1883 after the coming of the railroad. A contract for Laguna Dam was let on July 6, 1905, opening the way for the Yuma region to have a stable, year-round supply of water.
Adding to Laguna Dam’s unusual “Indian weir” design are nine-inch swastikas embedded in its masonry piers. These, the Yuma Sun writes, stem from the trip engineers took to India, where they “came across a symbol that represented a Hindu goddess with power over water. They thought it would be appropriate to place the symbol on the Laguna Dam.” It wasn’t until years later that the swastika became controversial as a symbol of Nazi Germany.
Plan Your Visit
Laguna Dam is on the Colorado River, 13 miles northeast of Yuma, AZ. The best viewing location is from County Hwy. S24 on the California side of the river. Cross the river at Fourth Ave. in Yuma and follow the highway north and east through the hamlet of Bard. Brush hinders the view from the Arizona side, but an old control gate is visible, as well as swastikas on an old bridge on Laguna Dam Rd. To access the dam from the Arizona side, take U.S. 95 north and turn west onto East Imperial Dam Rd., which becomes Laguna Dam Rd.
For Bureau of Reclamation information on Laguna Dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Laguna Diversion Dam District website. Exhibits about the Yuma Project are featured in the Bureau of Reclamation’s old office on the grounds of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, which is part of The Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area in downtown Yuma. Yuma Crossing and Associated Sites is a National Historic Landmark. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file: text and photos.
To reach the heritage area and Bureau of Reclamation exhibit from Interstate 8, take exit 172 to Yuma’s North Fourth Ave. The Reclamation exhibit, in the Corral House, includes historic photographs and displays chronicling construction of Laguna Dam, the Yuma Main Canal and the Colorado River Siphon, including a diving suit used during construction. Exhibits and the park visitor center are open 9am to 5pm, seven days a week, January-May and October-December, except during a special Christmas display, December 10-30. From June-September, park buildings close on Sundays. Visitors who follow a pathway around the park grounds can see water bubbling from the outlet of the Colorado River Siphon.
Lahontan Dam and Power Station, Nevada
Anyone who thinks of Nevada as a giant desert needs to visit the Lahontan Valley wetlands, 60 miles east of Reno in the Carson River basin. With more than 280 species of shorebirds and waterfowl, perchers and raptors, the valley is a birder’s paradise, defined by the National Audubon Society as “the most important waterfowl breeding and migratory site in Nevada,” as well as a place “critical to many species using the Pacific Flyway.”
Pelicans, herons, egrets and hawks often are seen at the nearby Lahontan Reservoir, a popular place to camp, boat and fish. The reservoir stores water behind the historic Lahontan Dam, one of the first projects of the nation’s brand new U.S. Reclamation Service (now the Bureau of Reclamation), established by the Reclamation Act of 1902. Lahontan Dam and its power station were part of the celebrated Newland’s Project (originally known as the Truckee-Carson Project), which was the first to deliver water from works constructed, not by private interests, but by the Federal Government.
The Newlands Project takes water from Nevada’s Truckee and Carson River basins to irrigate the Carson Desert and provide hydroelectric power. When launched in 1903, the project aimed to attract homesteaders and create communities, which is exactly what it did. Today’s tree-shaded town of Fallon, for instance, was incorporated in 1908 and calls itself “the Oasis of the Desert.” In times gone by, as travel writer David W. Tolls states, Fallon’s Hearts O' Gold cantaloupes, grown on irrigated lands, graced the menus of fine hotels and restaurants, and its turkeys brought premium prices. Today, Nevada agriculture centers primarily on livestock and alfalfa hay, but Fallon still celebrates its melons in the annual Hearts O’ Gold Cantaloupe Festival and Fair, held every Labor Day weekend.
It all harkens back to the Newlands Project, which has a number of components. First came the Derby Diversion Dam, which was built in 1905 to divert water from the Truckee River, northwest of Fallon. The water was diverted 32 miles through the Truckee Canal to the Carson River, which rises in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and flows east into Nevada’s Lahontan Valley. The increased water flow in the Carson River was for the benefit of homesteaders in the Lahontan Valley. But the going was tough; stream flows were highly variable, drainage was a problem, and water shortages were such that many would-be settlers avoided the area. To better regulate water available to Lahontan Valley farmlands, the Reclamation Service, in January 1911, began building Lahontan Dam on the Carson River.
Electric power to construct the dam came from the more than 100-foot fall of the Truckee Canal. Electric motors powered the dragline excavator, as well as a conveyor belt to transport gravel and soil, a 1,600-foot cableway to carry concrete and an electric shovel. According to project manager D. W. Cole, the shovel may have been the first electric one ever in use, handling the dam’s 500,000 cubic yards of gravel less expensively than any coal-powered steam shovel could. The electric machinery proved highly effective and Lahontan Dam, a 162-foot-tall earth and gravel fill structure, was completed in June 1915, its massive outlet tower boasting 12 gates at two different elevations. Its power plant, immediately below the dam, still supplies hydroelectric power through transmission lines to the communities of Fallon, Fernley, Wadsworth, Hazen and Stillwater, as well as Indian reservations and rural areas. (In 1988, a second power house was constructed at Lahontan Dam.)
Today, the Newlands Project irrigates about 73,000 acres, far short of an original estimate that envisioned 200,000 arable acres. In addition to Lahontan Dam and Powerplant, other units of the Newlands Reclamation Project listed on the National Register of Historic Places are: Derby Diversion Dam, Carson River Diversion Dam, Boca Dam, Lake Tahoe Dam and V-Canal Powerplant.
For all the benefits it has wrought, the Newlands Project has faced controversy. Even as its dams and canals helped farmers, they altered the hydrology of a desert landscape so remarkable that it has sustained hundreds of species of migrating birds for thousands of years. As explained by Graham Chisholm and Larry A. Neel in Birds of the Lahontan Valley, western Nevada once was covered by a deep, ancient lake, Lake Lahontan. Ten thousand years ago, the lake began to recede, leaving behind a mosaic of pools and the beginnings of today’s wetlands. The rivers that ran then, as now, into Nevada’s Great Basin have no outlet to the ocean. They end in lakes or what are called sinks, which act like bowls, filling up with water, then evaporating and drying out--all in a region that receives only five inches of annual rainfall. As Chisholm and Neel explain, it’s a boom-and-bust cycle, the basin transforming over the span of one season from fresh, clear lakes to brackish marshes.
Before the Newlands Project, the Carson River rushed down from the Sierra Nevadas in the spring, its uncontrolled runoff flooding the Lahontan Valley wetlands. Today, the Carson River and diverted water from the Truckee flow into Lahontan Reservoir, where water releases are regulated. Ongoing issues over who owns the rights to Truckee and Carson River water continue today as some groups, concerned about the future of the wetlands, have joined in efforts to buy additional rights to divert water there. That has heightened local concerns about the reliability of future water supplies for communities and individual water users.
At the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Fallon National Wildlife Refuge and the Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge at Pyramid Lake, visitors can see hundreds of thousands of shorebirds passing through during migration. Shorebird migration peaks in the third week of April, bringing thousands of American Avocets and Long-bill Dowitchers. In the fall, nearly a quarter million American Coots have been recorded. In the winter, cliff-nesting Prairie Falcons and Golden Eagles move into the valley, while summer fills with the trills and squeals of Marsh Wrens and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
Plan Your Visit
Lahontan Dam and Power Station are situated in Lahontan State Recreation Area, 18 miles west of Fallon, NV. The reservoir can be accessed from two entrances: U.S. 50 west of Fallon, or U.S. 95 south of Silver Springs. The U.S. 50 entrance is the best to view the dam. The recreation area is open 24 hours a day, year round. There is an entrance fee of $7 ($5 for Nevada residents). A hiking trail with interpretive signs about the dam’s importance and construction runs along the dam.
Click here for the National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. Click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Lahontan Dam website. Lahontan Reservoir, with 69 miles of shoreline, offers a wealth of recreational activities, including fishing, boating, and camping, and is said to be Nevada's only known nesting place for Bald Eagles. For more information on the dam or reservoir, visit the Nevada Division of State Parks: Lahontan State Recreation Area website or call 775-867-3001. For information on The Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which is listed as a site of international importance by the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.
Please remember that the desert is extremely fragile. Nevada law protects all plants, animals, rocks and minerals. Do not remove, cut or disturb any rocks, petrified wood or other natural objects. All artifacts and other signs of Indian civilization are protected by state and federal law. Keep motorized vehicles on approved routes.
Leasburg Diversion Dam, New Mexico
Leasburg Diversion Dam holds the distinction of being the first dam completed on the Bureau of Reclamation’s historic Rio Grande Project, which brought irrigation to the arid sagebrush and mesquite lands of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. While long overshadowed by the 300-foot-high Elephant Butte Dam, the small-scale Leasburg Dam, at only 10 feet high, nonetheless plays an integral role in the Rio Grande Project. While Elephant Butte Dam and its reservoir store water for irrigation, the project’s six diversion dams funnel the water into canals, which carry it to irrigation lands. Leasburg Dam, completed in 1907, diverts the Rio Grande into the 13.7-mile-long Leasburg Canal, which carries water to irrigate the upper Mesilla Valley north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The Mesilla Valley has been utilized by a variety of cultures for thousands of years. Archeological surveys in the vicinity of Leasburg Dam have found evidence, including subterranean pits, which place the Jornada Mogollon people in the area a thousand years ago. In the 1700s and 1800s, the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache lived here, while travelers heading north from Mexico City passed this way on the 1,500-mile El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (the Royal Road of the Interior Land), which today is a National Historic Trail. Following the Mexican War, the region became part of the United States, which established Fort Selden, built of adobe, to guard the Rio Grande. The town of Leasburg grew up outside the fort. For years, a diversion dam and community ditch at the head of the upper Mesilla Valley served Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans alike. Historian Robert Autobee describes the old diversion dam as “an obstruction” built of poles and interwoven with twigs and stones for ballast.
With authorization of the Rio Grande Project on December 2, 1905, the U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation) designed a 10-foot-high, 600-foot-long concrete weir to replace the old twig and stone diversion dam. Work commenced on the weir (a low dam where the water flows over the top) on November 20, 1906. By 1908, the Rio Grande was being diverted into the Leasburg Canal to irrigate 31,600 acres in the upper Mesilla Valley. Nine miles south of the dam, the 502-foot-long, steel truss Picacho Flume carried canal water over the Rio Grande.
Leasburg Diversion Dam was about 65 miles downstream from the site proposed for the Rio Grande Project’s flagship storage dam--Elephant Butte, which proved slow in coming. Negotiations with the Victorio Land & Cattle Company over the purchase price for 33,000 acres (much of it destined to be submerged under New Mexico’s largest reservoir) meant Elephant Butte did not get off the ground until late 1911. By the time Elephant Butte Dam was completed on May 13, 1916, Leasburg and its dam tender had been at work for nearly a decade.
With completion of Elephant Butte Dam, five other diversion dams joined Leasburg on the Rio Grande Project, including the National Register listed Percha Diversion Dam, completed in 1918, and Mesilla Diversion Dam in 1916. Percha Dam retains its original height, but the crest of Leasburg Dam was raised 1.25 feet in 1919, and that of Mesilla 1.66 feet in 1940. While not listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places, both dams are contributing features of the National Register listed Elephant Butte Irrigation District, as is the Leasburg Dam Tender’s Residence, which today is part of New Mexico’s Leasburg Dam State Park, 15 miles north of Las Cruces.
Plan Your Visit
Leasburg Diversion Dam is on the Rio Grande, 18 miles north of Las Cruces, NM. From Las Cruces, take Interstate 25 north to Exit 19 toward Radium Springs. Turn left onto Fort Selden Rd. and right onto Leasburg Dam Rd., which continues as Dona Ana Rd. Access to Leasburg Diversion Dam, as well as the National Register-listed Dam Tender’s Residence, is within New Mexico’s Leasburg Dam State Park. The park, which is open daily, 7am to sunset, includes a visitor’s center. The park entrance fee is $5 per vehicle, although bicyclists and walk-ins are free.
Leasburg Dam and the Dam Tender’s Residence are contributing features of the National Register-listed Elephant Butte Irrigation District. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. For information, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Rio Grande Project and the Leasburg Diversion Dam website. One may also call the park at 575-524-4068 or visit the Leasburg Dam State Park website. Click here for information on the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historical Trail.
Minidoka Dam and Power House, Idaho
The origin of the word Minidoka is unknown, but some postulate it is an American Indian word that means “well or spring,” and others think it is Shoshone for “broad expanse,” a reference to Idaho’s broad Snake River Plain, which sweeps across southern Idaho like a giant smile. From the air, green irrigation circles near the little towns of Rupert, Heyburn and Burley break this brown expanse of sagebrush, which a century ago was home to only a few scattered ranches. That changed with the completion, in 1906, of Minidoka Dam, the initial component of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Minidoka Project. Over the next dozen years, as the desert bloomed, 2,208 farms were launched and six towns born, three of which, including Rupert and Heyburn, were laid out by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Today, the multi-faceted Minidoka Project, which provides irrigation water to more than one million acres, counts a total of seven dams and thousands of miles of canals, laterals and drains. Still at the core is the more than 100-year-old Minidoka Dam, significant as the Bureau of Reclamation’s first embankment dam and the first Federally-built dam in the Pacific Northwest to include a power plant to supply electricity. Minidoka Dam stands only 86 feet high, but its spillway, designed to handle the great flow of the Snake River, is made of concrete and stretches 2,300 feet long, or nearly one-half of a mile.
The Snake River, which rises in the mountains of Yellowstone National Park, is the largest tributary of the Columbia River. It flows southwest, crosses Idaho and then turns north to form the eastern boundary of Oregon before emptying into the Columbia River near Pasco, Washington. The Snake’s broad plain through Idaho has long been an important transportation route. In the 19th century, thousands of overlanders came this way on the Oregon Trail, its ruts still visible along Interstate 84/86 west of American Falls. A far less glorious chapter in the region’s history occurred during World War II when Minidoka Project lands at Hunt, in remote Jerome County, Idaho, were selected as the site for a Japanese American internment camp. In operation from August 1942 to October 1945, Minidoka Relocation Center, 15 miles north of Twin Falls, housed a maximum population of 7,318 Japanese Americans.
Studies associated with the potential to build a dam at the Minidoka Rapids site started as early as the 1880s. The site was quickly adopted by the fledging U.S. Reclamation Service as the location for the first Reclamation project in Idaho. On April 23, 1904, Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock approved the Minidoka Project. By mid-summer, the design for the dam was completed, the first significant work by a young engineer, John Lucian Savage, who would later become Reclamation’s Chief Designing Engineer. By September, the construction contract was awarded and work soon started on excavation of a diversion channel and foundation trench for a massive eight-foot-high core wall needed to prevent leakage through the dam's embankment. The first concrete was placed on June 26, 1906, and that November the reservoir, called Lake Walcott, began to fill. It was named in honor of Charles D. Walcott, first director of the U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation).
It is of interest to note that many of the laborers on the dam hailed from outside the United States and included Greeks, Italians, Austrians, Irish, and Spanish.
Topography within the project service area allowed only land near the river to be served directly by gravity flow alone. On the higher terraces, water must be pumped up to a terrace and then it can be delivered by gravity flow; these lands are respectively called the “gravity” and the “pump” divisions. Construction of project canals serving the gravity division began in 1905, but Idaho’s severe weather, where the mercury can drop to 20 degrees below zero, and incompetence on the part of some contractors seriously delayed the work. Many farmers in the gravity division did not receive water until 1908. Funding issues delayed start of construction of the powerplant and the southside pump division canals and pump lift stations until 1908. Again, sub-zero weather slowed construction. It wouldn’t be until May 1909, following installation of one generator unit in the powerplant and completion of one pumping plant, that irrigation water first reached a portion of the pump division, and it was not until 1911 that all lands received water. That same year Minidoka Powerplant became fully operational, one of the first three power plants built by the Bureau of Reclamation. (Another was at Theodore Roosevelt Dam on Arizona’s Salt River and another on the Strawberry Valley Project in Utah.) Minidoka Powerplant was constructed to provide power for the pump division lift stations, but it proved to generate more power than needed for project purposes. Reclamation received authorization to sell the excess power to provide electricity to project area towns and farms; electricity was a rarity in rural America at that time. This rural power program was later used as an example to obtain support for passage of the Rural Electrification Act.
Other dams on the Minidoka Project soon followed Minidoka Dam. In 1907, the naturally fed Jackson Lake, in what is now Grand Teton National Park, was dammed to increase its volume. Idaho’s American Falls Dam followed in 1927, requiring the Bureau of Reclamation to relocate most of the town of American Falls, three-quarters of which was inundated by American Falls Reservoir. In the 1930s came Island Park Dam, north of Ashton, Idaho, and Grassy Lake Dam, northwest of Moran, Wyoming, as well as two diversion dams and more canals.
The Minidoka Project’s wide and meandering North Side Canal holds the inglorious distinction of serving as the southern boundary of the Minidoka Relocation Center, established after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Wartime hysteria led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066, which forced more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, mostly on the West Coast, to leave their lives behind and move inland to one of ten relocation centers.
The first Japanese Americans arrived at Minidoka on August 10, 1942, and, like Idaho farmers in the Snake River Valley, depended on irrigation. To water their fields, internees dug a ditch from Reclamation’s Milner-Gooding Canal, which ran five miles to the east of the camp barracks. By 1944, they had cleared 740 acres, where they grew a variety of garden vegetables. They also raised hogs and chickens and built a landscaped park and picnic grounds, which they watered initially by hand-carrying water from Reclamation canals. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) ran the Minidoka camp, which was surrounded by five miles of barbed wire fencing and eight watch towers. Reclamation employees, however, supervised internees in maintaining the Milner-Gooding Canal, as well as Reclamation laterals and gauging stations.
After the relocation center was closed, the land where it stood was divided into small farms. In 1947 and 1949, the farms were allotted to World War II veterans whose names were drawn in a lottery. Minidoka Project lands near Paul, Idaho, also were the site of a World War II Prisoner of War camp, where 3,000 German and Italian soldiers arrived in May 1944, as well as Russians, who had been pressed into service by the Nazis on the Western Front.
Over the years, Minidoka Dam has undergone additions and repairs, including the current reconstruction of its spillway. A sixth generating unit was installed in the power plant in 1927, and a seventh in 1942. Then, in the early 1990s, work began on a new power plant, with Units 8 and 9 added in 1997. Reclamation retired the original five generators from service but preserved them as museum pieces in the original powerhouse building, where visitors still can see them.
Plan Your Visit
Minidoka Dam is on the Snake River, about 55 miles east of Twin Falls, ID. From Twin Falls, take Interstate 84 east to exit 211 onto ID 24. Travel north through the town of Rupert, then another five miles to 400 North Rd. (known locally as Minidoka Dam Rd.). Turn right and travel another 5.5 miles to the dam. Access to the dam and spillway, which is being replaced, is no longer allowed. Both, however, can be seen from Walcott Park, across from the dam. A kiosk and interpretative panels in the park provide information about the area’s history and construction of Minidoka Dam. Operators at the dam are willing to provide a walk-through of the old powerplant if visitors call ahead. The number is 208-436-4187, ex. 101 or 104.
For the National Register of Historic Places registration file on Minidoka Dam, click here: text and photos. For more information on the dam, power plant, and Minidoka Project, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Minidoka Project website. The Minidoka Relocation Center is a National Park Service administered National Historic Site. The Jerome County Historical Society, 220 N. Lincoln Ave., in Jerome, Idaho, has exhibits about the North Side Canal and the Minidoka Relocation Center. The society is open 1pm to 5pm, Tuesday-Saturday.
Bird watchers will enjoy Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge, on the shoreline of Lake Walcott. Campers and boaters will find recreation at Lake Walcott State Park.
Owyhee Dam, Oregon
The Owyhee River is far less famous than the Colorado, which carved the Grand Canyon and backs up behind the most famous dam of all--Hoover. But the Owyhee River (pronounced oh-Y-hee) and its Owyhee Dam, 11 miles southwest of Adrian, Oregon, have much in common with Hoover and the Colorado. Owyhee Dam, the tallest in the world when completed in 1932, is significant as a proving ground for engineering techniques used later in construction of Hoover Dam. Not to be outdone, the Owyhee River, as it cuts through the arid uplands of southeastern Oregon, carves “Oregon’s Grand Canyon,” a deep and spectacular gorge where 14 million years of geologic history and numerous archeological and historical sites can be found.
The river’s name, Owyhee, is a local variation of “Hawaii,” commonly used in the 19th century. An 1826 fur trapper account says the river was named for three native Hawaiian fur trappers who were killed by Indians while trapping in the area for the Northwest Company. The Hudson Bay Company also was known to employ Hawaiians, hundreds of whom arrived at Fort Vancouver as indentured servants.
The Owyhee River was an early candidate for damming when the U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation) was created in 1902 to administer the Reclamation Act, which committed the Federal Government to build permanent irrigation works--dams, reservoirs and canals--to irrigate arid and semiarid lands in the American West. The Reclamation Service surveyed the Owyhee and its neighbor, the Malheur River, in 1903, noting their possibilities for irrigation works. Private irrigation projects, including the Owyhee Ditch, operated in the area as early as 1881, but the Owyhee, like so many Western rivers, was not dependable. Water flowed freely from February to May, but during the summer the Owyhee disappointed.
It wasn’t until 1924 that J. B. Bond, Reclamation’s project manager in nearby Boise, Idaho, recommended that a storage dam be built on the Owyhee at a place called “Hole-in-the-Ground.” The next year, Reclamation outlined an ambitious scheme for the Owyhee Project. At its center was Owyhee Dam, acting as both a storage and diversion dam, augmented by 172 miles of canals, 543 miles of laterals, nine pumping plants, and 227 miles of drains to serve eastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho. All told, the project, which included pumping water from the Snake River, would supply water for 46,000 acres of already irrigated land and 80,000 acres of new lands, with supplemental water for the Owyhee Ditch.
As construction began in 1928, plans were being laid for the much larger Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Hoover Dam, where construction began in 1931, would tower more than 300 feet above the 417-foot Owyhee and require new construction methods. Engineers needed to know how concrete would act when poured in such massive quantities. What materials were needed? What methods of construction? At Owyhee, many questions were answered; it was Hoover’s testing ground.
The system of cooling coils used later in the construction of Hoover Dam, for instance, first was tested in a 28-foot-square section at Owyhee. Because when hardening, concrete creates great internal heat and expansion, engineers worried that the cooling and contraction would create dangerous cracks in the interior of the dam. To solve the problem, Bureau engineers experimented at Owyhee by funneling artificially cooled water through a network of one-inch coils imbedded in concrete panels. The cooling system subsequently used at Hoover Dam was only slightly altered from that used at Owyhee.
Owyhee claims other engineering advancements. The most visually spectacular feature of the dam is its “morning-glory” spillway, with its ring-gate control mechanism, patented by Bureau of Reclamation engineers John L. Savage and Phillip A. Kinzie. The ring gate enables engineers to control the spillway flow across the entire circumference of the dam’s crest. Morning-glory or glory-hole spillways work like a giant drain, as swirling water drops through a vertical shaft and then discharges downstream through a tunnel. Owyhee’s spillway tunnel, and that at Gibson Dam in Montana, were the first of Reclamation’s dams to use such tunnels. Owyhee’s needle valves, which regulated discharge from the reservoir, also represented an engineering advancement. Owyhee, as well, holds the distinction of being the first dam to have a freight elevator installed, considered a necessity because of its great size--a 417-foot-high, concrete, thick-arch dam.
Before work could begin on Owyhee Dam, a 24-mile railroad to transport rock deposits to the site, as well as other materials, needed to be built. Construction began in January 1928, with laborers paid $4 a day, of which $1.50 was deducted for board and lodging. The first train into the campsite at the dam arrived on October 24, 1929, just five days before the Stock Market crash that heralded the arrival of the Great Depression. Still, work progressed, and at the peak of construction in 1932, the General Contracting Company employed 274 workers. Pouring of mass concrete was completed on May 28, 1932, and that July 17th Owyhee was dedicated. It would not be until 1935, however, that the first irrigation water was delivered.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s Owyhee irrigation project easily is the largest in Oregon, with surrounding farmland used for a combination of livestock grazing and specialty crops such as potatoes, sugar beets, onions, and alfalfa seed. In 1984 a hydroelectric powerhouse was built just downstream from the dam. Today, although still sparsely populated and with limited access, “Oregon’s Grand Canyon” region attracts hunters, fishermen, and river rafters.
Plan Your Visit
Owyhee Dam is 33 miles southwest of Nyssa, OR. Follow OR 201 south to Owyhee Junction and turn right onto Owyhee Lake Rd. The winding road leads to a park, which offers excellent views of the dam and its “morning-glory” spillway. The dam itself is not open to the public, but an onsite visitor center, situated in a historic building from the 1920s construction camp, has an exhibit detailing construction of Owyhee Dam. Visitor center hours are irregular; for information, call 541-339-2891. Other historic buildings and foundations from the construction camp remain and, along with the dam, are included in a historic district listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
For more information on Owyhee Dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Owyhee Dam website or visit the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record. A 120-mile stretch of the Owyhee River in Oregon is part of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System and offers many opportunities for recreation, including river rafting through the rugged canyonlands of southeastern Oregon. The Bureau of Reclamation, in partnership with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, operates Lake Owyhee State Park, which lies next to the 53-mile-long reservoir created by the dam.
Parker Dam, Arizona and California
What you see is not what you get at Parker Dam, known as “the deepest dam in the world.” Engineers, digging for bedrock on which to build, had to excavate so far beneath the bed of the Colorado River that 73 percent of Parker Dam’s 320-foot structural height is not visible. Its reservoir, Lake Havasu, is a different matter. Its deep blue water stretches for 45 miles behind the dam, creating an oasis in the Arizona desert. Gracing the shore at Lake Havasu City is the historic London Bridge, reconstructed brick by brick in 1971 and adding to the city’s claim as “Arizona’s playground.”
The Parker Dam story has not always been so lighthearted, though many benefits have come with the dam, built on the Arizona-California border 155 miles downstream from Hoover Dam. When construction began on Parker Dam in 1934, Arizona Governor Benjamin B. Moeur was so upset that he called out the Arizona National Guard to take possession of the territory around the dam site. He was angry because water stored behind Parker Dam was going to be pumped to cities in fast-growing southern California. Moeur saw it as yet another attempt by California to usurp Arizona’s rightful share of Colorado River water. Disagreement over who owned what rights to the Colorado had come to a head a dozen years earlier when plans were announced for the Boulder Canyon Project, including Hoover Dam and the All-American Canal, which funneled Colorado River water to southern California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys. Other states in the Colorado watershed--Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona--worried that California would leave them in the dust, literally.
To resolve concerns and divvy up the water, the states entered into the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which divided the seven states into the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and the Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California). Because the Colorado’s annual flow was determined (incorrectly) to be 16.4 million acre feet per year, each basin was allotted 7.5 million acre feet, with specific amounts to be decided by the states. (An acre foot is 325,851 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre one-foot deep.) Among the Lower Basin states, the bulk of the water, 4.4 million acre feet, or 58.7 percent of the allotment, went to California, where there was more irrigable land. Arizona received 2.8 million acre feet, or 37.3 percent; and Nevada 4.0 percent, or 300,000 acre feet. Feeling short-changed, Arizona unsuccessfully opposed the Boulder Canyon Project and would not ratify the compact until 1944, when it also took its complaints to court.
But all that was in the future as a contract was let on August 25, 1934, for another big storage dam on the Colorado River--Parker Dam. As Governor Moeur declared martial law and dispatched the 158th Infantry Regiment to the dam site that November, southern Californians already were building a 242-mile-long aqueduct in anticipation of receiving Colorado River water. The Colorado River Aqueduct, as it was named, was a creation of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a consortium of eleven cities, including Los Angeles, Burbank, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Anaheim and San Bernardino. The cities joined together to ensure a water supply for their booming communities, which had everything a paradise could want, except adequate water. The aqueduct, financed by a $220 million bond issue, headed east to Parker, Arizona, cutting through desert and mountains as it went, including the 13-mile-long San Jacinto Tunnel, which took six years to build.
During the early months of 1935, work on Parker Dam stopped, then started, then stopped again as the U.S. Supreme Court looked askance on Governor Moeur and issued a preliminary injunction against Arizona, only to dismiss it two and a half months later. Arizona lost the battle on August 30, 1935, when Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Bill, which included authorization for Parker Dam. Because Arizona’s 158th Infantry Regiment had commandeered a ferryboat to inspect the dam site, punsters made light of the Arizona Army that had become the “Arizona Navy.”
Construction of Parker Dam, a concrete arch structure below the mouth of Bill Williams River, proceeded with half the cost paid by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Frank Crowe, general superintendent at Hoover Dam, assumed the same role at Parker, which was subcontracted to the J. F. Shea Company, Inc., part of the Six Companies consortium that had constructed Hoover. By the fall of 1936, diversion tunnels were complete, turning the river aside so the extensive excavation work could begin. But troubles erupted anew in April 1937 when workers went on strike. Representatives of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were on the scene, trying to win the contract to represent the men. When the AFL won, some members of the CIO continued to maintain the picket line; on May 3 they were booted from camp by the contractor, who posted guards at the entrance.
Parker Dam received its first bucket of concrete that July of 1937 and, one year later, the last bucket was poured. On October 16, 1938, Lake Havasu, Mojave for “blue water,” began to fill. On the lake shore, about two miles upstream from the dam, the W. P. Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant sent water into the Colorado River Aqueduct, as it continues to do. Parker Dam’s four-generator powerplant, which went into operation in 1942, reserves about half of the hydropower it generates to pump water along the aqueduct, which terminates at Lake Mathews near Riverside, California.
The powerplant’s four, 22-foot diameter pipes, called penstocks, each can carry more than 41,000 gallons of water per second to turn the generators, which create the electric power that is sent over transmission lines for miles around. A system that interconnects Parker Dam with Hoover Dam and Davis Dam (completed upstream from Parker Dam in 1950) distributes electricity to Henderson, Nevada, on the north; Blythe, California, on the west; Yuma, Arizona, on the south; and Prescott, Phoenix, Tucson, and Cochise, Arizona, on the east. Along with a system of other dams and transmission facilities, known as the Colorado River Storage Project, 2,800 miles of high-voltage transmission lines serve 40 power substations managed from an office in Phoenix. The generating capacity of these Colorado River projects, marketed by the Western Area Power Administration, is enough to provide electric service for a year to more than two million homes. Colorado River hydroelectric energy brings annual revenues of more than $140 million to the U.S. Treasury.
Parker Dam was dedicated on November 19, 1938--in a ceremony sponsored by Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which today has grown to a consortium of 26 cities and agencies serving 19 million people. The water district’s Colorado River Aqueduct can deliver one billion gallons of Colorado River water to southern California cities every day.
In the end, Arizona was not to be denied its share of the Colorado. In 1944, Arizona finally signed the Colorado River Compact, which opened the way for it to receive its 2.8 million cubic feet of the Colorado’s flow. But disagreements remained and were not settled until a prolonged court battle, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963. The decision, which generally favored Arizona, cleared the way for another Bureau of Reclamation project--the Central Arizona Project, which involved another aqueduct from Lake Havasu--this one pumping Colorado River water into Arizona. The backbone of the aqueduct system runs about 336 miles from Lake Havasu to a terminus southwest of Tucson. It was completed in 1993, but work remains to bring water to several Indian distribution systems.
Plan Your Visit
Parker Dam is on the Colorado River, 25 miles south of Lake Havasu City, AZ. Follow AZ 95 south, turn right onto Parker Dam Rd., then right onto Arizona St. From the California side, follow CA 62 East, which continues north as Parker Dam Rd. Cars can travel over the dam from 5:00am to 11:00pm. Parking lots on either side of the dam provide good viewing. The dam is closed to tours, but ask a guard for a brochure.
For more information, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Parker Dam website. For photographs of Parker Dam and the Colorado River Aqueduct, click here for the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record. For recreation at Lake Havasu, visit the Arizona State Parks website.
Pathfinder Dam, Wyoming
Wyoming’s Pathfinder Dam was named for the explorer John C. Fremont, “the great pathfinder,” but the name could apply as well to the engineering trail carved there in the early years of the Bureau of Reclamation. When completed in 1909 on the North Platte River, 47 miles southwest of Casper, Pathfinder Dam was a triumph of early 20th century design. Wedged into a remote canyon near the place where the Sweetwater River empties into the North Platte, Pathfinder stands 214 feet high, an arch dam measuring 97 feet thick at its base but only 11 feet wide at its top. Built from granite quarried from nearby hills, Pathfinder’s crest stretches 432 feet from craggy rim to craggy rim, its face laid in large rectangular blocks.
Pathfinder Dam is one of the first constructed by the brand new U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation), created to administer the Reclamation Act of 1902, which committed the Federal Government to build irrigation works--dams, canals and reservoirs--in 16 arid and semi-arid states of the American West. Long before there was a Reclamation Service, homesteaders on the North Platte River in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming did their best to irrigate this sagebrush country. In the 1880s, as historian Robert Autobee writes, they dug small ditches and built water wheels to bring the North Platte to their homesteads near the river. Cattlemen, as well, dug a series of small canals to irrigate tracts along the bottomlands.
Near Nebraska’s state line with Wyoming, private companies made repeated surveys for a large irrigation project, including a dam, but costs proved prohibitive. When the U.S. Reclamation Service was established in 1902, the government began studying the region as well, but focused on the Sweetwater River, a North Platte tributary south of Casper. When it was determined that the Sweetwater did not supply enough water to justify a dam, Reclamation turned to a site on the North Platte, three miles below its junction with the Sweetwater. The dam would impound water from both rivers.
The first bids were let in February 1905. By that August, a tunnel, built through solid granite, was complete. The tunnel diverted the river around the dam site so construction could commence; once the dam was built, the tunnel would serve as an outlet from the reservoir. Even before engineer George Y. Wisner investigated the site for Pathfinder Dam, he argued that Reclamation needed to build masonry dams of great height if their reservoirs were going to be able to store adequate water to serve the parched lands of the American West. But the higher the dam and the more water stored behind it meant, of course, greater pressure on the dam.
While an arch dam made sense in Pathfinder’s steep, narrow canyon, Wisner and fellow engineer Edgar T. Wheeler worried about Wyoming’s high elevation and harsh weather. The thin upper arch needed extra protection, the engineers thought, or it might crack. Wisner and Wheeler designed an arch dam, but did something new--they added a gravity section. Pathfinder would function as an arch and gravity dam combined, distributing the load between horizontal arches and vertical cantilevers. This method, which they called the “Arch-and-Crown Cantilever Method,” was the predecessor of the Bureau of Reclamation’s “Trial Load Method,” which would be used later in the construction of dams as big and as famous as Hoover. The method, Norman Smith writes in Man and Water: A History of Hydro-Technology, “put arch dam design on a much sounder footing.”
Pathfinder Dam and its Wyoming neighbor, Buffalo Bill Dam, completed on the Shoshone River a year later, were at the forefront of these ideas as the new Reclamation Service got its feet wet. The two dams were the first to be analyzed using the Arch-and-Crown Cantilever Method. In these early years, as historian David P. Billington writes, large dams appealed not only to designers like Wisner, but also to Reclamation’s top man, Frederick H. Newell. Newell wanted the West’s dams not only to appear safe, but also to serve as symbols of the Bureau of Reclamation’s ability “to accomplish great things.”
Because of its pioneering and innovative engineering role, Pathfinder Dam was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The dam also is listed as a Wyoming Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Pathfinder Dam was constructed from hard, coarse-grained granite quarried within a quarter-mile of the dam site. As Autobee explains, pieces of rock 40 feet square were blown out of the canyon, then split into smaller blocks of 8 to 10 tons, cleaned, and placed into position on the dam by cables. To prevent leaks, concrete mortar filled the space between blocks. The cement was hauled 47 miles from Casper by horse and wagon, no easy feat in a rugged land of valleys and hills where the mercury could plunge to 29 below zero. The fastest freight team made the trip in three days; the slowest in 76. “After a day’s work,” Autobee writes, “freight teams were unharnessed and turned loose on the range to feed, and frequently, many subsequent days were lost in search of wayward animals.” All kinds of teams were used--from a sheep wagon drawn by two horses, to a mule carrying 24 sacks of cement, to a 22-horse team drawing five wagons loaded with 31,000 pounds of cement. The cement cost an average $2.68 a barrel, but the contractor paid an extra $3 for the journey to the dam. Pathfinder was so remote that after the dam was complete, the Denver contractor, Geddis and Seerie, left much of their equipment at the site rather than pay to haul it back to Casper and then ship it by rail to Denver. Completed on June 14, 1909, Pathfinder’s final cost was $2.2 million.
Today, viewed from its downstream side, Pathfinder Dam looks much as it always has. As noted in its National Register nomination, Pathfinder Dam’s imposing height, with water cascading from its mid-level outlet tunnel, “is truly an awe inspiring structure – a monument to engineering ingenuity.”
Plan Your Visit
Pathfinder Dam is on the North Platte River, 47 miles southwest of Casper, WY. From Casper, take WY 220 south; turn left onto County Rd. 409 (Pathfinder Road). A small interpretive center with exhibits about the dam is located in the old dam tender's house, and a 1.7-mile interpretive trail, which can be accessed by a historic, restored suspension bridge, offers views and information. Access to the top of the dam is currently limited due to construction work on the spillway; the work is scheduled for completion in early 2012. To visit the interpretive center, open only by appointment, call Natrona County Parks and Trails at 307-235-9325.
Click here for Pathfinder Dam’s National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. For more information on the dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Pathfinder Dam website. Camping, boating and fishing are offered at Pathfinder Reservoir. The Pathfinder National Wildlife Refuge is also located there.
Percha Diversion Dam, New Mexico
Percha is a diversion dam, one of six on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project, but the only one of the group that is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While only 18½ feet tall, Percha stands out as an integral feature of the Rio Grande Project, which irrigates the arid sagebrush and mesquite lands of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. The centerpiece of the project is the 300-foot-tall Elephant Butte Dam and reservoir, which store water for irrigation, while smaller-scale Percha Diversion Dam, as its name implies, diverts the stored water into a canal. The 27.1-mile-long Rincon Valley Main Canal carries water to irrigate lands in the Rincon Valley between Truth or Consequences and Las Cruces, New Mexico. The Rincon canal crosses over the Rio Grande in the Garfield Flume, and under the river in the Hatch and Rincon siphons.
Other diversion dams on the project, including the historic Leasburg and Mesilla dams, funnel water into other canals until, all told, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project supplies enough water to irrigate about 178,000 acres, where farmers grow pecans and cotton, green onions, peppers, alfalfa, and two dozen other varieties of crops.
Percha Diversion Dam was completed on the Rio Grande in 1918, about 25 miles south of Elephant Butte Dam. It is a reinforced concrete weir, meaning the water flows over its top. Though not tall, Percha is long. The dam itself is 350 feet long, but if you include its embankment wings, its crest measures 2,720 feet--more than one-half mile. The dam includes eight radial or Tainter gates that lift the level of the river 6 feet above its normal elevation so it can be diverted into the canal.
In 1938, Percha Dam got a neighbor, the 96-foot-high Caballo Dam, built just two miles upstream for flood control and to replace storage lost at Elephant Butte due to the buildup of silt. By storing winter releases from Elephant Butte, Caballo also made year-round power generation possible at Elephant Butte Dam, where a power plant was added in 1940. Construction of Caballo Dam and its large reservoir led to development of New Mexico’s Caballo Lake State Park and the nearby and much quieter 80-acre Percha Dam State Park, considered one of the top five bird-watching sites in New Mexico.
Plan Your Visit
Percha Diversion Dam is on the Rio Grande, 21 miles south of Truth or Consequences, NM, and two miles downstream from Caballo Dam. From Truth or Consequences, take Interstate 25 south to Exit 59 and proceed south on NM 187. Turn left onto County Rd. B38 and then left again onto Percha Dam Canal Rd. (County Rd. B097). The dam is accessible within Percha Dam State Park, which is open daily from 7:00am to 9:00pm. The park charges a $5 entrance fee per vehicle, although bicyclists and walk-ins are free. A small visitor center is open seasonally. For information, visit the Percha Dam State Park website or call 575-743-3942.
Click here for the National Register of Historic Place registration file: text and photos. The dam also is a contributing feature of the National Register-listed Elephant Butte Irrigation District: text and photos. For more Reclamation information on the dam, visit the Bureau of Reclamation's Rio Grande Project website, which includes the Percha Diversion Dam. Click here for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Cultural Resources website.
Shasta Dam, California
Northern California’s Shasta Dam is a keystone of the Bureau of Reclamation’s huge Central Valley Project, which involves 35 of California's counties and two major watersheds: those of the Sacramento River on the north and the San Joaquin River on the south. Together, these watersheds extend for nearly 500 miles, feeding the heart of California’s long, flat Central Valley, one of the most fertile and productive garden spots in the world. Grown here are more than 250 varieties of crops, including the almonds, artichokes, avocados and wine grapes that make California famous for more than movie stars.
Shasta Dam, dwarfed only by Hoover and Grand Coulee dams when it was completed on the Sacramento River in 1945, is breathtaking not only for its great size, but for its majestic setting in the southern range of the Cascades. The 602 foot-high, concrete, curved gravity dam holds back an immense blue reservoir, Lake Shasta, which boasts a 365-mile shoreline nestled amid evergreen hills and the snow-covered volcanic peak of Mount Shasta.
Shasta not only stores water to irrigate valley farms to the south, but it protects them from floods and the intrusion of saline ocean water that flows in from San Francisco Bay. The dam also provides water for towns and industries and furnishes hydroelectric power. Shasta is only one of 20 dams and reservoirs on Reclamation’s Central Valley Project, but it has been a key component from the beginning.
The project did not begin with the Federal Government, but with the State of California, which long recognized the benefits to be had by connecting the thirsty Central Valley with the state’s water-rich mountains. Stretching 400 miles from north to south, the valley’s precipitation fluctuates significantly. While the southern end below Bakersfield receives an average of only five inches of rain a year, the northern area around Redding gets more than 30. Then again, because most of the rain and snow falls from December through April, the Central Valley is subject to flooding in the spring or prolonged droughts. One drought was so severe in 1863-64 that it devastated California’s cattle industry, which was once prominent in the region’s history.
Development of irrigation in the valley began on a large scale in the 1850s, following the discovery of gold that brought hundreds of thousands of people from around the world to California’s mining regions. Until then, the area around today’s Shasta Dam was largely unpopulated by people of European descent. Among the Indian groups that called the region home for thousands of years were the Hupa, Achumawi, Achomawi and the Shasta, whose huge territory extended north into present-day Oregon. This is a land of many rivers and streams--the Trinity, Pit, McCloud and California’s biggest river of all, the Sacramento, which rises in the Klamath Mountains and flows 400 miles south into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, some 80 miles east of San Francisco. Many waterways converge in the delta, including California’s second largest river, the San Joaquin, which enters the delta from the south. Together, the Sacramento and San Joaquin flow into the Suisun Bay, then west into San Francisco Bay and out the Golden Gate to the Pacific Ocean.
Tapping these primary rivers and their many tributaries for irrigation began in earnest in the 1850s when private interests built canals to serve areas near the rivers. Local projects undertaken by communities, irrigation districts and public utilities followed. Efforts at a comprehensive plan for the Central Valley began in 1873 with a report by U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, followed by many other studies. In 1919, a plan was submitted to the governor of California, which spurred statewide interest and led to the first of a series of state appropriations to investigate ways to conserve, control, store and distribute the valley’s water. In 1931, California’s Division of Water Resources submitted what was known as the State Water Plan to the state legislature, which passed the California Central Valley Project Act in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. California voters approved the project, but when the bonds needed to finance construction proved impossible to sell, California looked to the Federal Government for help.
Assuming control, the Federal Government initiated its Central Valley Project with plans for two major dams, one at each end of the valley--Friant Dam, completed in 1942 on the San Joaquin north of Fresno, and Shasta (originally known as Kennett Dam) on the Sacramento River, north of Redding.
Reclamation opened bids for Shasta Dam on June 1, 1938, the undertaking so big that groups of contractors, as they had done on the Hoover Dam contract, pooled their skills and financial resources in an effort to land the job. Pacific Constructors Inc. (PCI), led by the prominent Los Angeles outfit of L. E. Dixon, won the job with a bid of $36.9 million. Soon to come on board as general superintendent was engineer Frank Crowe, who had taken charge at a number of other prominent Reclamation dams: Arrowrock, Hoover and Parker among them.
A crew that eventually totaled 4,700 men excavated millions of tons of granite from the hillsides and built a 9.6-mile-long conveyor belt, which operated 24 hours a day, transporting aggregate from a quarry nine miles away. A major undertaking was relocating 30 miles of Southern Pacific Railroad track, which ran right through the construction site. To reroute the track, crews constructed bridges, trestles and tunnels, including one tunnel later used to divert the river around the site so the dam could be built.
The railroad delivered cement, which was mixed with the aggregate and river water at a plant upstream, the wet concrete then hurried to the construction site on a huge cableway system that reached all parts of the dam. By July 1940, crews were hard at work pouring concrete from huge buckets into wooden forms that created a series of interlocking, 50-foot-by-50-foot blocks for the dam face. “Great care was taken,” historian David P. Billington writes, “to ‘vibrate’ the wet concrete to ensure that it completely filled the forms without leaving any voids or airspaces that would tend to weaken the structure.” Once the concrete hardened, which took about 48 hours, the wooden form was loosened and configured to handle the next five-foot lift of concrete.
By August 1942, four million cubic yards of concrete (or 807 million gallons) had been placed, and by the summer of 1943, the dam was taking final shape. Water storage began in Lake Shasta in February 1944, and the last bucket of concrete was poured on January 2, 1945. When Shasta’s five-generator plant came online in 1950, the project was complete.
At 602 feet, Shasta at the time was the second highest concrete dam in the world (behind Hoover at 726.4 feet) and was rivaled in mass only by the gargantuan Grand Coulee Dam, then under construction on the Columbia River in Washington. Shasta Dam is 883 feet thick at its base, 30 feet thick at its crest, and contains 6.5 million cubic yards of concrete weighing 15 million tons. At 487 feet long, its spillway was the largest manmade waterfall in the world, though it is eclipsed today by those at other dams, including Three Gorges Dam in China and Itaipu in Brazil.
Like those larger dams, Shasta also has been the subject of criticism, especially for its impact on the winter run of Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. To protect the salmon but still minimize the loss of power generation, a multi-faceted Temperature Control Device, which ensures the release of cold water for the benefit of the salmon, was completed in 1997 on the face of the dam.
Plan Your Visit
Shasta Dam is on the Sacramento River, about 10 miles north of Redding, CA. From Redding, take Interstate 5 north to Exit 685. Turn west onto CA 151 (Shasta Dam Blvd.) and follow it to the dam. The scenic route includes a vista point turnoff with views of the dam, Shasta Lake, and Mount Shasta. A visitor center, which offers free tours, is situated at the dam. Hours are 8:00am to 5:00pm, seven days a week except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day. The number of tours and times vary with the season. For tour times, call the visitor center at 530-275-4463.
For more information on the dam, click here for Bureau of Reclamation's Shasta Dam website. Lake Shasta is a popular recreation area, offering boating, fishing, and camping. Click here for the US Forest Services, which administers the lake.
Tieton Dam, Washington
The Evergreen state is more famous for its apples than the obscure hop vine and its cones, so necessary in the making of beer. But hops are big business in Washington, especially in Yakima County, which produces more hops than any other county in the United States. Farmers in the Yakima River Valley harvest 40 million pounds of hops every year or 77 percent of all hops grown in the United States. The Yakima Valley, nestled at the foot of the Cascade Mountains in south-central Washington, is one of the most fertile and productive farming regions in the world. Some call it the “Fruitbowl of the Nation” because it is rich in apples, cherries, peaches, pears, and apricots, as well as grapes, which, in recent years, have turned the valley into wine country.
Making all this possible in a region that receives no more than eight inches of precipitation a year is the Bureau of Reclamation’s multi-faceted Yakima Project, which irrigates a narrow, 175-mile strip on both sides of the Yakima River, a tributary of the Columbia. Tieton Dam (pronounced Tie-it-ton), 40 miles west of the city of Yakima, is just one of several dams on the project, but it stands out. When completed in 1925, Tieton was the highest earthfill dam in the world. The Yakima Project as a whole is notable as an example of how irrigation of the arid West often began with private efforts that later joined with the Federal Government to ensure agricultural growth.
The Yakima Valley is dry, but its soil, comprised mostly of volcanic ash, is deep and rich in minerals. With central Washington’s mild and sunny climate, water was all that was needed to transform this sage land into lush orchards and fields. The valley’s fertile soil and the many tributaries of the Yakima River have long figured in the region’s economy. Prior to 1852, Catholic priests built a ditch to irrigate a garden at their Indian mission on Ahtanum Creek. Other early settlers also irrigated on a small scale.
Times changed after 1884, when the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway opened the valley to outside markets. Larger and more complex irrigation projects took root, including the important Sunnyside Canal, which served lands on the northeast side of the Yakima, from Union Gap to Prosser. The railroad was a key player in construction of the canal until the financial depression of 1893 forced it to withdraw. Work stalled until the Washington Irrigation Company acquired the project. By 1906, the Sunnyside Canal was 56 miles long, and another 47 canals and ditches ran up and down the Tieton, Naches, and Yakima rivers, irrigating a total of 150,000 acres. So successful were these private irrigation efforts that farmers in the Yakima Valley were touted, historian Christine Pfaff writes, “as among the most prosperous in the West.”
Trouble brewed, however, when it became apparent that water in the valley was over-appropriated. With irrigation companies desperate to meet demands, tensions ran so high in 1905 that the Washington Irrigation Company blew up a storage dam built by the newer Union Gap and Irrigation Company. As early as 1903, landowners organized and got up a petition urging the newly formed U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation) to get involved in the valley’s water issues, which Reclamation did by sending engineers to Washington state.
When the engineers recommended expanding and enlarging the Sunnyside Canal, Reclamation purchased the canal and its lateral system from the Washington Irrigation Company for $250,000. Reclamation, a federal agency, thus expanded on work already begun by private enterprise. On December 12, 1905, Secretary of the Interior Ethan Hitchcock approved the Yakima Project and, within 35 years, Reclamation constructed six storage dams and three diversion dams, including one diversion dam in the picturesque Tieton River Canyon.
The canyon, formed by the Tieton River as it rushed down from its headwaters on the Eastern Slope of the Cascade Mountains, seemed an ideal place to build another storage dam and reservoir, which would furnish water to irrigate an additional 100,000 acres of project lands. In 1917, with the summit of Mount Rainier in the distance, Reclamation engineers began building Tieton Dam in a narrow gorge of the Tieton River Canyon. Ponderosa pines and intriguing basalt formations towered above the river as a construction camp took shape to house and feed a labor force that, at its height, reached 570 men. Workers were digging a tunnel to divert the river around the dam site when World War I brought a sudden halt to construction. Work did not resume until 1921 with Reclamation personnel taking the lead, but letting small contracts to others to cut and clear 2,700 heavily timbered acres.
When completed four years later at 321 feet high, Tieton Dam was the highest earthfill dam in the world. Its concrete core wall is anchored in solid rock nearly 100 feet below the riverbed, as well as on its abutments. As Pfaff and David W. Harvey explain, engineers used mining methods to excavate the core wall, digging shafts, then cutting horizontal cross tunnels and filling them with concrete. The finished core was five feet thick at its base, tapering to one-foot thick at the top. The dam’s embankment was comprised of earth, gravel, and boulders excavated from nearby borrow pits, hauled on trestles and dumped at the site. Jets of water from high-pressure hoses separated and pushed the smaller material of sand and silt against the core wall, leaving the coarser material near the outer faces.
Two of the foremost engineers in water development in the West were involved in the construction of Tieton Dam; Frank Crowe later would be superintendent for construction of Hoover Dam, and Frank Weymouth would become chief engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation.
Tieton Dam and its 10-mile-long Rimrock Lake are part of a Yakima Project that today comprises six storage dams and reservoirs, five diversion dams, 416 miles of canals, 1,698 miles of laterals, 30 pumping stations, 144 miles of drains, two power plants and 73 circuit miles of transmission lines. The Yakima Project, encompassing 464,000 acres, is divided into seven divisions: Storage, Kittitas, Tieton, Sunnyside, Roza, Kennewick, and Wapato, the latter of which is operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. More than 45,000 acres not included in the seven divisions are irrigated by private interests under contract with the Bureau of Reclamation.
Plan Your Visit
Tieton Dam is on the Tieton River, 40 miles west of Yakima, WA. From Yakima, follow U.S. 12, which goes through Tieton Canyon. The highway passes directly by the dam, which is visible to the left, and then parallels Rimrock Lake.
For more information on the dam, click here for the Bureau of Reclamation's Tieton Dam website. The Tieton Dam is documented in the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record. For recreational opportunities at Rimrock Lake, click here: Recreation.gov: Rimrock Lake or visit the Washington State website.
The American Hop Museum in Toppenish, 20 miles south of Yakima, is an excellent place to learn about hops. The museum, at 22 South B St., chronicles the history of the American hop industry from its earliest days in the New England colonies to its rapid expansion in California and the Pacific Northwest. The museum is open from May 1-September 30. Hours are 10:00am to 4:00pm Wednesday-Saturday and 11:00am to 4:00pm Sunday. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for students, and free for children under 5.