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Setting the Stage


One of the definitions of the word "reclaim" is to "bring (waste land or land formerly under water) under cultivation."1

The 1862 Homestead Act offered up to 160 acres of vacant federal land to any U.S. citizen who paid $18 dollars in filing fees, built a house, lived on the claim, and farmed it for the next five years. However, few settlers in the western states and territories could take advantage of that offer because much of the West is too dry to farm without irrigation. Large areas there get much less rain than the 20 inches a year required for successful farming. If people were going to be able to settle the arid West, water had to be provided for their use.

The need to control and maximize the use of available water is critical for people in arid areas, who rely on what little there is for human consumption, agriculture, and industry. To farm arid land, dams were needed to create large reservoirs that could store springtime flood waters for use later in the year. Canal systems were needed to carry water released from the reservoirs to farms. But most settlers and private companies lacked the resources to build large dams or complicated irrigation systems. So by the 1890s, Westerners were calling for the Federal Government to build such projects. At the same time, the West was growing increasingly powerful politically, as former territories were becoming states. With their own senators and representatives in Congress, Western demands for irrigation assistance gained attention.

Theodore Roosevelt, who became president after President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, was an ardent supporter of the "Reclamation Movement." In his first State of the Union message he said, "The western half of the United States would sustain a population greater than that of our whole country today if the waters that now run to waste were saved and used for irrigation."2 He also announced his support for a federal program of irrigation in the West. With Roosevelt championing the irrigation cause, the Reclamation Act was passed on June 17, 1902. That law would allow the Federal Government to build dams and canal systems to irrigate the West.

Water can also be used to generate electricity. By the mid-1880s, there were forty to fifty privately built hydroelectric powerplants either operating or in the planning stages in the United States and Canada. However, they could supply power only to a very limited area near the plant, because of problems in transmitting electricity over long distances. By 1885, new technology had been developed that solved these transmission problems. By 1895, the first large hydroelectric powerplant in the United States began generating electricity at Niagara Falls, New York. It initially delivered power to Buffalo, New York, 26 miles away. By 1902, its power was transmitted to cities and industries in the East and the Upper Midwest. Technology that allowed power transmission over distance set the stage for construction of many new powerplants in the West.

1 "Reclaim." 2. Oxford English Dictionary. Online ed. Web. July 2015.
2
Theodore Roosevelt, State of the Union Address (December 3, 1901), found on the State of the Union website (accessed 1/2/15)

 

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