Reading 1: The Minidoka Project
Congress passed the Reclamation Act in 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt signed it the same day it appeared on his desk. The Reclamation Act was one of the first laws passed after Roosevelt became the president. It was also one of the first important laws passed during the Progressive Era. Roosevelt sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior when he signed the Act into law. In it, he said: "I regard the irrigation business as one of the great features of my administration and take a keen personal pride in having been instrumental in bringing it about."1
The Reclamation Act directed the Federal Government to build irrigation projects. These projects would bring water to the arid lands of the West with dams and canals. The money to build the projects would come from the sale of federally-owned lands in 16 western states and territories. That money would be put into a newly created "Reclamation Fund."2 The settlers on an irrigation project would have to repay the construction cost once the project was complete. That money would go back to the Reclamation Fund and be used to build new projects. Each settler on a federal irrigation project could claim no more than 160 acres. This was because the vision for federal irrigation was to turn the desert into small family farms.
The Reclamation Act assigned responsibility for building and operating the irrigation projects to the Secretary of the Interior. He promptly created the U.S. Reclamation Service, a branch of the U.S. Geological Survey, to design, build, and operate the irrigation systems. The U.S. Reclamation Service became an independent agency within the Department of the Interior in 1907, and was renamed the Bureau of Reclamation in 1923. The term "Reclamation" is used throughout this lesson to refer to both the U.S. Reclamation Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Reclamation engineers immediately began to look for possible sites for irrigation projects. They soon found a good place for a dam at Minidoka Falls on the Snake River in southern Idaho. One hundred and twenty thousand acres of largely vacant land lay on either side of the river. The location was perfect for an irrigation project. The soil was fertile, but the area only got about 12 inches of rain a year. This is not enough for farming unless it is irrigated. The Secretary approved construction of the Minidoka Project in 1904. It was the seventh project approved since the Reclamation Act was passed. It was the first federal irrigation project in Idaho.
Some privately developed irrigation existed in southern Idaho by 1904. Ranchers irrigated hay fields and pasture on land along streams. A number of small irrigation companies were providing water to irrigate farms close to the Snake River and along other southern Idaho streams. However, most settlers and private companies did not have enough money to build dams or complicated irrigation systems. One exception was the Twin Falls Canal Company. In 1902 that company began work on an irrigation project near the town of Twin Falls, about 50 miles west of where Minidoka Dam would be built. The company began to deliver irrigation water in 1905. The enterprise was an immediate success. That helped attract settlers to Reclamation's irrigation project.
The first visitors to the Minidoka area remembered it as an uninhabited sagebrush desert. Reclamation's first step in turning the dry land into farms was to build Minidoka Dam. The dam would hold back the water of the Snake River to create a large reservoir. It would be an earthfill dam, with a long concrete spillway. The dam, which still stands today, is 736 feet long, 86 feet tall, and up to 412 feet wide at the base. The spillway extends another 2,400 feet to the south from the dam. This long spillway was needed to pass floodwaters. In total, the dam and spillway is 4,475 feet long. The first step to build the dam was to cut a diversion channel on the north bank of the river, with a concrete structure at its upper end. During dam construction the river was turned into this diversion channel. This left the river channel dry so that the men building the dam could work in safety. When the dam and spillway were finished, the concrete diversion structure became the lower level of the powerplant.
Water stored in the new reservoir flowed to the fields through two main canals, one built on either side of the river. Hundreds of miles of smaller canals and ditches carried water from the main canals to the farms. The canals and ditches work the same way today. The project contains both low-lying lands near the river and higher ground to the south. The low-lying land consists of nearly 60,000 acres north of the river (known as the North Side Gravity Division) and 10,000 acres on the south (the South Side Gravity Division). Water can flow to these low-lying lands using only the force of gravity. However, gravity-fed canals could not deliver water to the 50,000 acres of higher land south of the river (the South Side Pumping Division). Those lands are on terraces that sit at a higher elevation than the river, and water cannot flow uphill. Reclamation decided to use electric-powered pumps to "lift" water up to the higher terraces. Three pumping stations were built on the Main South Side Canal. One pumping station is on each terrace to raise the water up to the next higher terrace. On each terrace, water can then flow using gravity alone through canals and ditches to the farms. Minidoka Powerplant was built to generate the electricity needed to operate the pumps.
Minidoka Dam was completed in 1906. The Gravity Division canals were completed in the winter of 1907/1908. Construction of the powerplant and the three pumping stations began in 1908 and finished in 1909. Reclamation installed the first power generating unit in the powerplant as soon as the building was finished in 1909. They also installed one pump in each pumping station. The last of the original five power units was installed in the powerplant in 1911. The powerplant was designed to allow more power units to be added in the future, if more electricity was needed. Reclamation often designed dams and powerplants to allow for future growth. The Minidoka Powerplant was the first federal powerplant in Idaho. After 1911, it generated the most electricity of all powerplants in the state.
The early years on the Minidoka Project were hard for those living there. The son of an early settler once called life there a "matter of survival."3 It was difficult because homesteaders began to file Homestead Act claims for project land in 1904, even before Reclamation began building the dam. But farmers on the gravity divisions did not start getting irrigation water until 1908. Those on the Pumping Division had to wait even longer. A lucky few received water in 1909, and by 1911, about 20,000 acres of the Pumping Division had water. While waiting for the water, settlers still had to complete actions to meet Homestead Act requirements. They had to clear the sagebrush and prepare the land to be farmed. They also had to build a house and live in it. These activities required money for building supplies or to hire help with doing that work. Many homesteaders gave up and abandoned their claims because they didn't have enough money to make these improvements and feed their families while waiting for the water to arrive.
Things were not easy even after the water came. Although fertile, the soil was sandy and difficult to farm. Many settlers had never before practiced irrigated agriculture, and some had never farmed at all. Settlers who had never tried irrigated farming were most likely to leave. The homesteaders who remained on their farms could not grow enough crops to make a profit until about 1916. Yet they still had to make annual payments to Reclamation to repay project construction costs, and for project operation and maintenance. There was also an annual charge for their water. In the early years, these expenses took most of what farmers earned. For these reasons, new settlers had replaced more than three-quarters of the original homesteaders by 1927.
By then, the water provided by the irrigation project and the hard work of the settlers had transformed the desert. One writer recalled a visit to the project in 1904:
By 1919, there were more than 2,000 farms on over 110,000 acres of green, irrigated project land. The population had grown from a few hundred to 17,000. Railroads carried thousands of carloads of hay, potatoes, and other farm products to distant markets. The value of all the land around the project rose from practically nothing to almost $8 million. Rupert, Burley, and Heyburn, the largest of the six new towns on the project, had their own banks, schools, churches, and newspapers.5
Farming was still a risky business. Even the best-run farms could not avoid droughts and pests that destroyed their crops, and falling prices could reduce profits to nothing. But many settlers, like an anonymous woman writing in New Reclamation Era in 1927, could say they were "satisfied and contented." This woman wrote:
Questions for Reading 1
1) What was the Reclamation Act of 1902 intended to accomplish? Do you think the Minidoka Project succeeded in carrying out that intent?
2) Why did Reclamation think Minidoka would be a good location for an irrigation project?
3) List the various elements that made up the Minidoka Project by 1920. When was each of them completed? Do you think the whole irrigation system would work without any single one of these elements? Explain your answers.
4) When did homesteaders begin to file claims on project land? What do you think their lives would have been like before the water came to their farms and homes? How did it change after they had water?
5) What other problems did early settlers encounter? Why do you think those who had no experience with irrigation farming were more likely to abandon their claims? What skills or knowledge do you think would be required of an irrigation farmer that a dry-land farmer wouldn't need to have?
Reading 1 was adapted from "Minidoka Dam, Powerplant and South Side Pump Division" report published by Fraserdesign and Hess Roise and Company (2002) and articles published in the "Reclamation Record" and "New Reclamation Era."
1 Theodore Roosevelt to Ethan Alan Hitchcock, letter, June 17, 1902, found on the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library website (accessed 1/2/15)