The Reclamation Act of 1902 gave Reclamation one job: to provide water for irrigation. But the water stored behind Reclamation's dams could be used for more than just irrigation. The force of that water could be used to generate electricity. A number of early irrigation projects used electricity to pump water for irrigation. The Minidoka Powerplant produced a lot of power, more than was needed for irrigation pumping. Congress passed a law in 1906 that allowed Reclamation to sell this "surplus" electricity. The money from selling power went back into the Reclamation Fund. That helped Reclamation by giving them more money to build new projects. It also helped the settlers because it was used to pay some of what they owed Reclamation for building and operating their project. But irrigation still came first. Reclamation could only sell power that was not needed for irrigation purposes. The bureau also wasn't allowed to build a powerplant except when electricity was needed for a project.
Reclamation installed five power units in the Minidoka Powerplant between 1908 and 1911. This made surplus power available all year round at Minidoka. Paying customers could use any electricity not needed for pumping during the May-September irrigation season. They could use all of the electricity during the rest of the year.
By 1912, Reclamation had hired Barry Dibble to sell the powerplant's surplus power to the towns and the settlers on the project. He worked to identify ways people could use electricity for more purposes. This was important because Reclamation needed to sell power to keep the plant running all year-round. Dibble didn't think lighting and other ordinary uses would raise enough money to do that. Electric heating seemed to be the answer, because it would use power only during the winter when the full amount was available to sell. Heating with coal was much cheaper, so using electricity for heating was almost unheard of at the time. Reclamation kept the price for electric heating very low to encourage more people to use it, rather than use coal.
Several project towns signed contracts to buy electricity from Reclamation in 1910. They would then sell the power to homes, stores, and factories. Reclamation built transmission lines from the powerplant to the towns. Reclamation also built substations in the towns, which stepped the power down to levels safe for use. Each town then built the distribution network to deliver electricity to their customers. They did not use much electricity at first, but sales to the towns doubled by the end of 1912. That year Reclamation also signed its first contract with a business, the Amalgamated Sugar Company in Burley. In 1914 and 1916, the towns of Rupert and Burley decided to install electrical systems in their new public high schools. By 1920, most stores and houses in towns were using electric power for heating and lighting. By this point, Reclamation called Minidoka the "Electric Project" because power was so widely used in towns.
It took longer to get electricity to the farms. In 1913, Reclamation signed contracts to deliver power to some farms close to the existing transmission lines. But building power lines to farms farther away from existing lines cost too much. Dibble encouraged settlers to form cooperatives to build the new lines, buy power from Reclamation at low rates, and then sell it to their members. He wrote that the farmers were initially "dumbfounded" at the cost to build the lines. But they soon came "to realize that the economies and comforts they can enjoy with electricity are sufficient to warrant the expenses." 1 About half of the 2,500 farms on the Minidoka Project had electricity as of 1926.
Increasing commercial sales was a mixed blessing. Surplus power had been available in 1911. But by 1915, the powerplant could not generate enough power to serve both irrigation pumping and sales. Reclamation needed to add another generating unit to the powerplant, but didn't have the money. In 1921, the Idaho Power Company, a private utility, provided some electricity for project use. In 1923, Reclamation bought Idaho Power Company's powerplants at American Falls, and used that electricity for the project. But it was still not enough power to run the irrigation system and meet the public demand for electricity. In 1927, Reclamation was finally able to add a sixth generating unit to the powerplant, which solved the power shortage for a while. Money from sales of surplus electricity between1910 and 1926 covered the whole cost of adding the sixth unit. In 1942, a seventh and final unit was added to the Minidoka Powerplant. All power from units 6 and 7 was for public sale.
At Minidoka and elsewhere, Reclamation sold surplus power to help pay the cost to build new project dams and canals. But until the late 1920s, Reclamation was not allowed to build powerplants where no project power was needed. It also wasn't allowed to build bigger plants just to generate more electricity to sell. This was because Congress did not want the Federal Government to compete with private electrical utility companies.
This changed when, in the 1920s, residents and politicians from southern California asked Reclamation to build a dam on the lower Colorado River. The river's floods had destroyed towns and farms in southern California. Reclamation was interested in building the dam, but it would cost more than was available from the Reclamation Fund. The solution was to build the dam with powerplants that could generate massive amounts of electricity. That electricity could be sold to cities in California and elsewhere in the southwest. That money would be used to repay the cost to build the dam. After long debate, in 1928 Congress passed the Boulder Canyon Project Act, which directed Reclamation to build Boulder Dam. Boulder Dam was soon renamed Hoover Dam. Congress approved building the dam with massive powerplants. The dam would not do just one job, it would do four jobs: prevent flooding, improve navigation on the lower Colorado, store water for irrigation and other uses, and generate electricity. This made Hoover Dam Reclamation's first "multi-purpose" project. After Hoover Dam was approved, Reclamation's mission was no longer limited to irrigation.
Questions for Reading 2
1) Did the Bureau of Reclamation plan to sell electricity when it began planning the Minidoka Project? Why did it start? Why did it keep on selling power?
2) How was the money that came in from selling surplus power used by Reclamation? How did that help Reclamation? How did it help the settlers?
3) By 1913, irrigation pumping and power sales took up almost all of the electricity generated at the Minidoka Powerplant. What problems do you think might have existed for farmers on the Pumping Division if there wasn't enough power? What problems for people in towns?
4) Why do you think Reclamation's mission was limited to irrigation before the Boulder Canyon Project? What tasks did Hoover Dam have, in addition to irrigation? Why do you think Congress decided to add these new tasks?
Reading 2 was compiled from "Minidoka Dam, Powerplant, and South Side Pump Division" (Fraserdesign and Hess Roise and Co., Loveland, CO, and Minneapolis, MN, 2002) and "Dams, Dynamos, and Development: The Bureau of Reclamation's Power Program and Electrification of the West" (Toni Rae Linenberger and Leah S. Glaser, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, 2002).
1 "Annual [Minidoka] Project History," 1914, quoted in "Minidoka Dan, Powerplant and South Side Pump Division" Fraserdesign and Hess Roise, Loveland CO, and Minneapolis, MN, 2002, photocopy, 141.