TwHP Lessons

"Making the Desert Bloom": The Rio Grande Project

The Rio Grande
(NASA/Visible Earth)

n 1962, someone asked John Glenn what he had noticed looking down from his Mercury spacecraft during his February flight in orbit around the earth.  One of the few things he remembered seeing clearly was a “lot of desert with a big irrigated area that comes down a valley northwest of El Paso.”1  This strip of green represented the fields of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s (Reclamation) Rio Grande Project (the Project).  The Project occupies the fertile bottomlands along the Rio Grande in south-central New Mexico and west Texas.  Southeast of El Paso, the river forms the boundary between the United States and Mexico.  The Rio Grande Project provides critical water to thousands of acres of rich irrigated farmland in southern New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.  Some of this land was already irrigated when the Project began, more than a century ago.  Other areas were still desert—fertile, but inhospitable for lack of water.

The heart of this huge Project is the Elephant Butte Dam, one of Reclamation’s largest dams when completed in 1916.  The dam’s reservoir stores the floodwater that pours down the Rio Grande in the spring and delivers it to farmlands during the summer and fall, when otherwise there often would be no water in the river at all.  Caballo Dam and reservoir, constructed in the mid-1930s, store more water and provide flood protection for the entire Project.  Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs can store a total of 2.3 million acre-feet of water.  The Project’s complex, interrelated irrigation system includes five diversion dams, 139 miles of main canals, 457 miles of smaller canals, and 465 miles of drains.  Innumerable individual ditches carry the vital water to fields and crops.  This lesson focuses on Elephant Butte Dam and the Mesilla Valley irrigation system, the oldest, largest, and best-preserved section of the Rio Grande Project.

Congress passed the Reclamation Act, which created the United States Reclamation Service, in 1902 to “reclaim” the lands of the arid West and turn them into productive family farms.  Bringing water to the West extended the benefits of the 1862 Homestead Act to parts of the far West that had not been able to take advantage of the free land it offered.  The Reclamation Act was one of the first laws passed after Theodore Roosevelt became president.  It was also one of the first important pieces of legislation passed during the Progressive Era. 

Today, the Rio Grande Project provides water for about 178,000 acres of land and electric power for communities and industries in the area.  The Project is home to some large family-owned and many small farms.  Crops those farms produce, of which the most important are cotton, alfalfa, vegetables, pecans, and grain, as well as the world-famous Hatch variety of green chili, are valued at over $200 million a year.

1   “Transcript of Glenn’s News Conference Relating His Experiences on Orbital Flight,” The New York Times, February 24, 1962.




About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
  1. Map 1: Federal Irrigation Projects, 1934
  2. Map 2: The Rio Grande Project Today

Determining the Facts: Readings

  1. Reading 1: President Theodore Roosevelt's State of the Union Address, 1901
  2. Reading 2: The Early Years of Reclamation
  3. Reading 3: The Rio Grande Project

Visual Evidence: Images
  1. Elephant Butte Dam under Construction, 1915
  2. Leasburg Diversion Dam, 1908
  3. The Mesilla Valley Today, North and South
  4. Out-take Connecting the Leasburg Canal with the Doña Ana Lateral, 1908
  5. Irrigated Cantaloupe Fields, 1930
  6. Dragline at Work, 1918

Putting It All Together: Activities
 1. To Irrigate or Not to Irrigate?
 2. Progressivism and the Reclamation Act
 3. The Future of the Rio Grande
 4. Where Does Your Water Come From?

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This lesson is based on the Elephant Butte Irrigation District in New Mexico. It is among the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.



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