"Making the Desert Bloom": The Rio Grande Project (Teaching with Historic Places)

Aerial of Rio Grande area from space. (NASA/Visible Earth)

This lesson is part of the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program.

In 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

This lesson is based on National Register of Historic Places documentation for “Elephant Butte Irrigation District,” “Elephant Butte Dam,” “Elephant Butte Historic District,” and on Reclamation’s publications. This lesson was created cooperatively by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program and the Bureau of Reclamation under an Interagency Agreement and was completed in partnership with the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers.

The lesson was written by Marilyn Harper, historian, and edited by Teaching with Historic Places and Reclamation staff. It is one in a series that brings the important stories of historic places into classrooms across the country.

Where it fits into the curriculum

Topics: This lesson could be used in American history, social studies, geography, government, and civics courses in units on the Progressive Era, history of the West, political history, cultural geography, science, or the history of technology.

Time period: Early to mid-20th century

Relevant United States History Standards for Grades 5-12

"Making the Desert Bloom": The Rio Grande Projectrelates to the following History Standards:

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

  • Standard 1B—The student demonstrates understanding of Progressivism at the national level.
  • Standard 1C—The student demonstrates understanding of the limitations of Progressivism and the alternatives offered by various groups.

Curriculum Standards for Social Studies

(National Council for the Social Studies)

"Making the Desert Bloom": The Rio Grande Project relates to the following Social Studies Standards:

Theme I: Culture

  • Standard D - The student explains why individuals and groups respond differently to their physical and social environments and/or changes to them on the basis of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs.

Theme II: Time, Continuity, and Change

  • Standard A - The student demonstrates an understanding that different scholars may describe the same event or situation in different ways but must provide reasons or evidence for their views.

  • Standard B - The student identifies and uses key concepts such as chronology, causality, change, conflict, and complexity to explain, analyze, and show connections among patterns of historical change and continuity.

  • Standard C - The student identifies and describes selected historical periods and patterns of change within and across cultures, such as the rise of civilizations, the development of transportation systems, the growth and breakdown of colonial systems, and others.

  • Standard D - The student identifies and uses processes important to reconstructing and reinterpreting the past, such as using a variety of sources, providing, validating, and weighing evidence for claims, checking credibility of sources, and searching for causality.

  • Standard E - The student develops critical sensitivities such as empathy and skepticism regarding attitudes, values, and behaviors of people in different historical contexts.

  • Standard F - The student uses knowledge of facts and concepts drawn from history, along with methods of historical inquiry, to inform decision-making about and action-taking on public issues.

Theme III: People, Places, and Environments

  • Standard A - The student elaborates mental maps of locales, regions, and the world that demonstrate understanding of relative location, direction, size, and shape.

  • Standard B - The student creates, interprets, uses, and distinguishes various representations of the earth, such as maps, globes, and photographs.

  • Standard C - The student uses appropriate resources, data sources, and geographic tools such as aerial photographs, satellite images, geographic information systems (GIS), map projections, and cartography to generate, manipulate, and interpret information such as atlases, data bases, grid systems, charts, graphs, and maps.

  • Standard E - The student locates and describes varying land forms and geographic features, such as mountains, plateaus, islands, rain forests, deserts, and oceans, and explains their relationships within the ecosystem.

  • Standard F - The student describes physical system changes such as seasons, climate and weather, and the water cycle and identifies geographic patterns associated with them.

  • Standard H - The student examines, interprets, and analyzes physical and cultural patterns and their interactions, such as land uses, settlement patterns, cultural transmission of customs and ideas, and ecosystem changes.

  • Standard I - The student describes ways that historical events have been influenced by, and have influenced, physical and human geographic factors in local, regional, national, and global settings.

  • Standard J - observes and speculates about social and economic effects of environmental changes and crises resulting from phenomena such as floods, storms, and drought.

  • Standard K - The student proposes, compares, and evaluates alternative uses of land and resources in communities, regions, nations, and the world.

Theme IV: Individual Development and Identity

  • Standard B - The student describes personal connections to place--associated with community, nation, and world.

  • Standard H - The student works independently and cooperatively to accomplish goals.

Theme V: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

  • Standard B - The student analyzes group and institutional influences on people, events, and elements of culture.

  • Standard C - The student describes the various forms institutions take and the interactions of people with institutions.

  • Standard E - The student identifies and describes examples of tensions between belief systems and government policies and laws.

  • Standard F - The student describes the role of institutions in furthering both continuity and change.

  • Standard G - The student applies knowledge of how groups and institutions work to meet individual needs and promote the common good.

Theme VI: Power, Authority, and Governance

  • Standard B - The student describes the purpose of the government and how its powers are acquired, used, and justified.

  • Standard C - The student analyzes and explains ideas and governmental mechanisms to meet needs and wants of citizens, regulate territory, manage conflict, and establish order and security.

  • Standard E - The student identifies and describes the basic features of the political system in the United States, and identifies representative leaders from various levels and branches of government.

  • Standard I - The student gives examples and explains how governments attempt to achieve their stated ideals at home and abroad.

Theme VII: Production, Distribution, and Consumption

  • Standard C - The student explains the difference between private and public goods and services.

  • Standard D - The student describes a range of examples of the various institutions that make up economic systems such as households, business firms, banks, government agencies, labor unions, and corporations.

  • Standard J - The student uses economic reasoning to compare different proposals for dealing with a contemporary social issue such as unemployment, acid rain, or high quality education.

Theme VIII: Science, Technology, and Society

  • Standard B - The student shows through specific examples how science and technology have changed people's perceptions of the social and natural world, such as in their relationship to the land, animal life, family life, and economic needs, wants, and security.

  • Standard C - The student describes examples in which values, beliefs, and attitudes have been influenced by new scientific and technological knowledge, such as the invention of the printing press, conceptions of the universe, applications of atomic energy, and genetic discoveries.

Theme IX: Global Connections

  • Standard B - The student analyzes examples of conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among groups, societies, and nations.

  • Standard E - The student describes and explains the relationships and tensions between national sovereignty and global interests in such matters as territory, natural resources, trade, uses of technology, and welfare of people.

Theme X: Civic Ideals and Practices

  • Standard C - The student locates, accesses, analyzes, organizes, and applies information about selected public issues--recognizing and explaining multiple points of view.

  • Standard D - The student practices forms of civic discussion and participation consistent with the ideals of citizens in a democratic republic.

  • Standard F - The student identifies and explains the roles of formal and informal political actors in influencing and shaping public policy and decision-making.

  • Standard H - The student analyzes the effectiveness of selected public policies and citizen behaviors in realizing the stated ideals of a democratic republican form of government.

  • Standard I - The student explains the relationship between policy statements and action plans used to address issues of public concern.

Curriculum Standards for Geography

"Making the Desert Bloom": The Rio Grande Project relates to the following National Geography Standards:

Standard 14—Understand how human actions modify the physical environment.

Standard 15—Understand how physical systems affect human systems.

Objectives for students

1) To describe President Theodore Roosevelt’s proposed plan for irrigating the arid West.
2) To outline the early history of the Bureau of Reclamation.
3) To describe the creation and construction of the Rio Grande Project and list three short- and long-term problems the Project encountered.
4) To describe the components of the Rio Grande irrigation system.
5) To identify water-related resources in the students' local area.

Materials for students

The materials listed below can be used directly on the computer or printed out, photocopied, and distributed to students. The maps and images appear twice: in a small version with associated questions and alone in a larger version.
1) Two maps showing the arid West and the Rio Grande Project;
2) Three readings: a selection from President Theodore Roosevelt’s first State of the Union Message; a history of Reclamation’s early years, and a chronology of the Rio Grande Project;
3) One illustration showing a section of the Mesilla Valley, and
4) Five historic photos

Visiting the site

Interstate 25 generally follows the Rio Grande. The canals and irrigated fields of the Rio Grande Project in New Mexico are visible from a number of state highways and local roads accessible from the interstate. The fields are private property and not open for visitation.

Elephant Butte Dam and reservoir are located 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. Leasburg Dam State Park includes the dam, a section of the Leasburg Canal, and the National Register-listed Dam Tender’s Residence. The Percha Diversion Dam and sections of the main canals serving the Rincon Valley are located within Percha Dam State Park. A small visitor center is open seasonally. For more information, including maps and directions, see the New Mexico State Parks website.

Getting Started

Inquiry Question

Crane moving dirt. (National Archives and Records Administration; photographer unknown)

(National Archives and Records Administration; photographer unknown)

What do you think is going on in this photo?

Setting the Stage

Debates about “internal improvements” and the role the federal government should play in building them date back to the nation’s earliest years. During the 19th century, the government had authorized programs that directly funded or subsidized the construction of roads, harbors, canals, railroads, and other kinds of “public works,” mostly in the eastern states. By the 1890s, Westerners were calling for the government to invest directly in irrigation projects. Several factors contributed to the demand for irrigation. The published reports of John Wesley Powell and other explorers wrote of the potential to develop the West if irrigation was available. Irrigation organizations and "congresses" lobbied for federal support for irrigation after many private efforts proved of limited success. Studies conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Geological Survey identified potential sites for dams and reservoirs. In addition, the political power of the West was growing, as territories became states with their own elected representatives in Congress.

One of the definitions of the word “reclamation” is “the recovery of a wasteland or of flooded land so it can be cultivated.”1 Much of the American West is considered “arid” or “desert” because annual rainfall is generally far below the 20 inches a year that is needed for successful farming. The need to control and maximize the use of available water has always been a critical issue for the people in arid areas, who rely on what little there is for human consumption, agriculture, and industry. As settlers moved from the eastern states into the arid West, they watched helplessly as water from melting snow in the mountains flooded down the rivers in spring and early summer. They knew that they would sorely miss that “wasted” water in the dry days of late summer.

At first, settlers simply diverted water from streams and used it to irrigate nearby land. As more settlers arrived, the demand for water increased. Reservoirs created by dams could store springtime runoff and release it later through systems of diversion dams and canals. This would make more water available for use when needed during the dry season, and would distribute that water to farms and towns over a wide area. A number of private and state-sponsored companies tried to build storage reservoirs and canals in the late 19th century, but most of them failed because their builders didn’t have enough money or lacked engineering experience.

The "reclamation movement” demonstrated its strength when pro-irrigation planks found their way into both party platforms in the presidential election of 1900. Nothing much happened to support that movement during President William McKinley’s brief second term. When he was assassinated in 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt succeeded him and everything changed.

Locating the Site

Map 1: Federal Irrigation Projects, 1934

Bureau of Reclamation’s irrigation projects in 1934. (National Archives and Records Administration)

(National Archives and Records Administration)

This map shows all of the Bureau of Reclamation’s irrigation projects in 1934. The names of the projects are shown in capital letters. Early projects are in brown; projects that were new at the time are shown in blue

Questions for Map 1
1. How many early projects can you find? What states are they in? Why do you think federal irrigation projects existed only in these states?

2. Find the Rio Grande. Most of the water in the river comes from melting snow in the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Settlers in those areas were already using up much of that water by 1900. Farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas claimed that they should have the right to some of the river’s water. How do you think these disputes could be settled? Who do you think should be responsible for making decisions about water rights?

3. Farmers in the Rio Grande valley in Mexico also claimed rights to the water of the river. Who do you think would be responsible for settling this dispute?

4.Find the Rio Grande Project (the Project), the blue area labeled Elephant Butte Reservoir, and the brown area to the south on either side of the river. How long is the Project between the northern end of the reservoir and the southern end of the brown area? Use the map scale to estimate the distance.

Locating the Site

Map 2: The Rio Grande Today

Map of the Rio Grande today. (Bureau of Reclamation)

(Bureau of Reclamation)

Questions for Map 2
1. Find Elephant Butte Reservoir. How many acre-feet (“AF”) of water does it contain? “Acre-foot” is a term used by irrigation engineers to measure stored water. It is defined as the volume of water that would cover one acre of land one foot deep. Many water systems calculate that this amount of water is what a family of five uses every year. Why do you think the engineers use a measure like that, rather than something like gallons? How many gallons of water are in an acre-foot?

2. Look carefully at the section of the Project in New Mexico. First, trace the course of the river. How many reservoirs and how many diversion dams can you find? Why do you think the diversion dams are downstream of the storage reservoirs? Why do you think they have no reservoirs themselves?

3. Next, find the valleys. How many are there? How many acres does each valley contain?

4. Finally, locate the canals (shown by thin blue lines). How many can you find? See if you can identify any places where the canals cross the river. Why might that be necessary? How do you think you would go about carrying canal water over or under another watercourse?

Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Early Years of Reclamation

The Reclamation Act passed by wide margins in both houses of Congress. President Roosevelt signed it on June 17, 1902. The new legislation called for the federal government to build and maintain storage dams, diversion dams, reservoirs, and canals in 16 western states and territories. These were Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Texas was not part of the original group because it had no federal lands, but was added in 1906. Money from the sale of federally owned public lands in these states and territories would pay to build the irrigation projects.

The Reclamation Act built on the foundation of the 1862 Homestead Act. Current U.S. citizens (or those planning to become citizens) who were either heads of families or individuals at least 21 years old could claim up to 160 acres of public land.1 If they built a house, lived on their claim, and farmed it for the next five years they could get final ownership. The cash payment to the government was only $18 in filing fees.

A number of general principles governed the Reclamation program. These were defined in the Reclamation Act, as well as subsequent law and policy. People who benefitted from the irrigation projects (“water users”) would repay the federal government for its costs to build the dams and canals. Nevertheless, the federal government would continue to own the facilities. Originally, water users had to repay what the government estimated it had spent for construction within 10 years after a project’s completion. After they had repaid most of these costs, the operation and maintenance (O&M) of the works would transfer to a water user’s organization. Then that organization would pay the cost for O&M. People receiving water originally could own no more than 160 acres. They also had to live on or near their land and to use at least half of the land for agriculture.

Responsibility for building and operating the irrigation projects lay with the Secretary of the Interior. He created the U.S. Reclamation Service as a branch of the U.S. Geological Survey to implement those responsibilities.2

President Roosevelt had recommended that Reclamation not “begin by doing too much . . . since much would be learned from early efforts.” However, intense pressure from western irrigation interests pushed him to promise one project in each of the 16 western states. By 1906, the Secretary of the Interior had approved 25 projects. By the early 1910s, many projects were in financial trouble. Construction costs were often much higher than expected, while profits from the sale of crops on some projects were much lower than expected. In addition, on many projects, poor natural drainage caused rising underground water levels. That often brought so much natural salts to the surface that nothing would grow. The only way to correct these drainage problems was to build expensive drainage systems. As a result, some settlers earned less money than anticipated from their crops, while paying higher than expected construction repayment and farm start-up costs. By the early 1920s, many original settlers had abandoned their claims, many projects were not meeting their repayment obligations, and the reclamation fund was running on empty.

Settlers on Reclamation projects complained. They were particularly unhappy about the 160-acre acreage restriction and the 10-year repayment schedule. Settlers thought that both of these were entirely unrealistic. In response, in1923 Congress appointed a group of experts (the “Fact Finders Committee”) to study these problems. Published in 1924, Reclamation’s Twenty-Third Annual Report summarized much of what the Committee learned.

When the [Reclamation] Act was framed . . .it was the common belief that all that was needed to obtain irrigated farms and prosperous homes was to provide water by building canals and reservoirs. The sponsors of Federal reclamation believed it would be a simple matter to change arid, unimproved land into farms because they thought the settlers would have virtually free land, and that water would be cheap because the irrigation works would be constructed by the Government without profit, and with interest-free money. The obstacles settlers would encounter in subduing the land, equipping farms, and meeting payments on water rights were not regarded as serious. Time has shown that this was a mistake. Land had not been free; a majority of the settlers had to buy their farms from private owners, in some cases at extortionate prices. . . . The cost of changing 40 or 80 acres of raw land into a farm . . . often equals or exceeds the cost of canals and reservoirs. It is beginning to be realized that [irrigation] development requires a study of agricultural and economic problems, and the working out of settlement and development plans if the land is to be brought under cultivation without disastrous delays and waste of money and effort.3

Congress responded to these conclusions by passing the Fact Finder's Act in 1924. The new law reshaped Reclamation’s processes. Thereafter, Congress, not the Secretary of the Interior, approved new projects, and only after Reclamation had collected detailed information on soil and water conditions and indentified what kinds of crops would grow there. Settlers also might have to prove they had farming experience and enough money to establish their new farms. Congress responded to settler complaints by extending the repayment period and by relaxing the 160-acre limit for some new projects.

At about the same time, Reclamation’s focus began to shift. The agency increasingly turned to ambitious new projects. These new projects would encompass entire river basins. They would use the water to do more than just irrigate crops. Massive dams would control floods and supply water to growing cities for non-agricultural use. The dams’ power plants would generate electricity to help cities and industries grow. The Boulder Canyon Project, approved in 1928 with Hoover Dam as its centerpiece, was the model for these multipurpose projects. For the first time, money from the U.S. Treasury helped cover construction costs. Much of the hydroelectric power generated at Hoover Dam was to be used for non-irrigation purposes. The Boulder Canyon Project was the first of a number of huge new projects.

Today Reclamation is the nation’s largest supplier of water and the second largest producer of electricity in the western United States. It operates more than 600 dams and 58 power plants, and still delivers water to approximately 10 million acres of farmland, serving 140,000 farmers on 188 irrigation projects.

Questions for Reading 2
1. What were the key provisions of the Reclamation Act? What populations were primarily served, and for what purpose? What were some of the principles that came to guide Reclamation’s projects?

2. Do you think it was fair to make the water users repay the cost of construction? Do you think your opinion would be different if you were a farmer living on a Reclamation project versus if you were not a project farmer? Reclamation originally provided water to any one land owner to use to irrigate no more than 160 acres. The repayment requirement and the 160-acre limit were eventually relaxed. Why do you think those changes were made?

3. How many Reclamation projects had been approved by 1906? Can you think of problems that might arise from having so many projects underway at the same time? Can you think of why it might be very expensive to construct a new dam in a remote location, in the mountains far from towns?

4. What were some of the problems that affected the success of the early Reclamation projects? What factors contributed to their failure, according to the 1924 Annual Report? Does that analysis make sense to you? What changes were made in response to the Fact Finders’ investigation?

5. How did Reclamation’s mission change beginning in the late 1920s? What factors influenced this change? Were different populations served, and for different purposes, because of the change in mission?

Reading 2 is based on the “Brief History of the Bureau of Reclamation,” found on the Bureau of Reclamation History Program’s website, (accessed March 13, 2012); and on William D. Rowley’s, The Bureau of Reclamation: Origins and Growth to 1945 (Denver, CO: Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2006).

1 Men who had “borne arms against the U.S. government” could not file claims.
2 The 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 Reclamation Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

3 Twenty-third Annual Report of the Bureau of Reclamation (Washington, DC: General Printing Office, 1924), pp. 1-2.

Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The Rio Grande Project

Reclamation documented its work in annual reports published between 1902 and 1932. The following history consists of quotations taken from those reports:

Soon after the passage of the reclamation act, investigations relative to the utilization of the Rio Grande for irrigation were undertaken by the Reclamation Service. One of the chief areas irrigable from the Rio Grande was found to be the Mesilla Valley, portions of which have been watered for many years by canals. The flow of the river in the Mesilla Valley is so fluctuating in its character that sufficient water for irrigation cannot be furnished any large tract without regulation in storage reservoirs.

Pending settlement of conflicting [water] rights involved in the development of the Rio Grande project as a whole, petitions were received in 1904 from residents of Mesilla Valley requesting the construction of a permanent dam to divert water from the river into the existing canals in the valley. After a careful examination by engineers of the service, the construction of a dam and about 6 miles of canal was recommended as being a commendable development that would ultimately become an integral part of the Rio Grande project and that would meantime be of great advantage to agriculture in the Mesilla Valley. On December 2, 1905, the construction of this unit, now known as the Leasburg District, was authorized by the Secretary of the Interior and $200,000 set aside from the reclamation fund to defray the necessary expenditures.

[Construction of Elephant Butte Dam and its reservoir could not begin until the Reclamation Act was extended to Texas in 1906, and until the United States and Mexico signed a treaty regulating distribution of the waters of the Rio Grande in 1907.]

Work [on the Leasburg Division] was completed on February 14, 1908. During the season of 1908, the farmers received a constant and ample supply of water and had about 17,000 acres in successful cultivation. The permanency of the new diversion dam built by the Reclamation Service and the assurance of water when the river flows has given new courage to the resident farmers and has induced others to purchase farms.

A survey party completed a topographical and land-ownership survey of the proposed site for the Elephant Butte Reservoir in December 1907.

Between May 1909, and July 1910, all work on the dam was suspended on account of the failure of negotiations for the purchase of the necessary lands for reservoir purposes and railroad right of way at reasonable prices. [The Reclamation Service ultimately purchased the land under the Federal government’s right of eminent domain and] the camp reopened in July 1910.

All of the work up to November 1912 has been preliminary to actual construction of the dam itself. This work includes the construction of a railroad about 10½ miles long from the Santa Fe Railroad to the site of the dam, a bridge across the river, telephone lines, permanent office buildings, dwellings, a pump house and well, hospital, mercantile store, and warehouses, mess houses, the assembling of machinery and equipment, and the commencement of the construction of a concrete flume to carry the waters of the river past the site of the dam during excavation and construction of foundations.

The river was diverted from the Elephant Butte dam site on November 6, 1912. Excavation started on November 8, working three shifts, and has continued without delay. Actual construction of the Elephant Butte Dam began on June 3, 1913. The main structures of the Elephant Butte Dam were completed in June 1916, at an approximate cost of $5,000,000, but the first stored water was held during the winter of 1914-15 and supplied to water users for irrigation during the season of 1915. By June 1916, the number of men working on the dam was down to 172 [from a high of over 1,000].

Preparations were begun in December 1913, to extend irrigation to the lower part of the Mesilla Valley through the construction of the Mesilla Diversion Dam and the East and West Side Canals. The East Side Canal was completed in September 1915; the West Side Canal was completed in November. The first water was diverted through Mesilla Dam November 5, 1915.

Pending the completion of the Elephant Butte Dam very little increase in the irrigated area is expected, and no enlargement of the cultivated district has been noted [in 1913]. An abundance of water in the Elephant Butte Reservoir [in 1915], insuring a sufficient irrigation supply, has caused a number of property owners [in the Mesilla Valley] who heretofore have allowed their lands to lie idle to clear the land and put it in cultivation. Some of the large holdings are being subdivided and sold in comparatively small tracts.

During the year 1915, the Elephant Butte Water Users' Association [established] an office at Las Cruces, N. Mex., for the cooperative selling of lands in the New Mexico portion of the project. Lands [were] listed for sale and considerable project information distributed through this office. The results obtained were not deemed satisfactory, however, and [at the end of 1916] the work was discontinued and the bureau abolished.

Irrigation had been practiced for a great many years in the Rio Grande Valley [but the necessity for drainage did not arise until the water stored in the Elephant Butte Reservoir became available and the quantity of water being applied to valley land increased]. Investigations [made in 1918] showed that approximately 66 per cent of the area in the Mesilla Valley was waterlogged.

[The drainage system Reclamation developed to correct the problem] consisted of 350 miles of deep, open drains. The plan called for the construction of 13 long main drains in the Mesilla Valley. The drains discharged into the river. By April 1916, sufficient right of way had been purchased to warrant putting a steam drag-line machine to work on the drains.

[In 1918, as in previous years,] the project lands were seriously affected by the rise of ground water, due to the overirrigation of cultivated lands and the lack of proper drainage works. Little attempt was made to interest outside settlers because of the condition of the lands. [By 1919], the results of drainage work accomplished were of such satisfactory extent as to give encouragement to settlement, particularly in the Mesilla Valley. A large number of land sales and transfers were effected, and although no attempt was made to interest outside settlers in the settlement of lands, because of their condition, quite a number of newcomers, who had previously been interested in project development, made purchases of tracts where protected by drains. A very small area of new land was placed in cultivation.

By the end of June [1921], a total of 211.8 miles of open drain had been constructed. The visible results were much in evidence to one familiar with the conditions in 1917. Surface ponds in depressions and old river beds had entirely disappeared from the drained areas; orchards which were dying off had revived and showed a healthy growth; and fields which were becoming white with alkali and too salty to even allow seed to germinate were sufficiently leached out in one season to produce a good crop the next.

Land sales and transfers were particularly active during the winter [of 1919-20]. The successful operation of the drainage system, so far completed, in relieving seepage conditions was the principal cause of increased development. Tracts and farms which previously had been only partially developed, were plowed and leveled and placed in far better condition for cultivation. Although the total area in cultivation shows only a relatively small increase during the year, further development of older farms was carried on by new purchasers, and a general increase in project land values was experienced because of the demand for these lands.

[During 1920] the principal crop raised on the Rio Grande project was alfalfa [a kind of hay], with wheat and corn next. Crops that received increased attention during the year, and promise an important place in the future, are cotton, truck garden [vegetables shipped to local communities by truck], and fruits. The cotton acreage had previously been only a relatively few acres for experimental purposes. During the spring, over 20,000 acres were planted to cotton.

When the project construction began approximately 50 per cent of the area was in cultivation, the land receiving water through a large number of community-operated ditch systems. [In 1921], practically all of these community ditches have been turned over to and are now being operated by the Reclamation Service and have been partially or wholly reconstructed. This transfer of community ditches helped solve the drainage problem by reducing water use and limiting much waste in irrigation.

In 1924, the main features of the irrigation and drainage systems planned for the Rio Grande project [were] completed.

The abounding prosperity of the Rio Grande project in recent years has been due largely to the production of cotton. The value of the cotton crop is estimated at $12 million, which almost equals the cost of building the [dams and other irrigation] works. Alfalfa is next to cotton in acreage. Melons, pears, grapes, small fruits, and vegetables are extensively grown for local and eastern markets. All construction charges on this project have been promptly paid. The water users and civic organizations have been active in securing settlers.

There has been a marked increase [during 1923-1926] in the rate of agricultural settlement and development of the valley lands comprising the Rio Grande project. It is even more gratifying to note the steady healthy growth and permanent character of the farm improvements.

Of the 4,669 farms on the Rio Grande project [in 1927], 2,901 were operated by owners and 1,768 by tenants.

Economic conditions on the project were not so good [in 1930] as in the previous year, although above the average of the past 10 years. The air of progress and prosperity continued. There were practically no delinquencies in payments to the Government. As a result of the economic depression that began in 1929 new improvements, both farm and public, decreased [in 1931].

Practically all of the project is in private ownership and is approximately 95 per cent in cultivation. There were 4,500 irrigated farms [in 1931], of which 3,021 or 67 per cent were operated by owners or managers and 1,479 by tenants. Only a few large tracts are developed in areas of several hundred acres, and, although several farms exceed 160 acres, the typical farm was probably from 60 to 120 acres. As a result of the Depression new improvements, both farm and public decreased. Crop financing was more and more difficult to obtain and there was probably some further increase in mortgages where they could be negotiated. Total bank deposits decreased from $30 million in December 1930, to $17.5 million in December 1931. Notwithstanding the general depression, delinquencies in payment of the project operation and maintenance charges to the Government have been relatively small.

Questions for Reading 3
1. What sort of farming was practiced in the Rio Grande valley before the Federal Project was constructed? Why did the private owners of irrigated farms in the Mesilla Valley ask Reclamation to build a diversion dam for them?

2. When did Reclamation begin investigating the possibility of building an irrigation project on the lower Rio Grande? What were some of the factors that contributed to the length of time it took to complete the essential elements of the Project? How long did it take? Do you think that was a long time, considering these factors? Do you think Reclamation might have been able to avoid some problems if they had been allowed to have Roosevelt’s learning period? (Refer back to Reading 1, if necessary.)

3. Topographic surveys, which identify and map the contours of the land, were among the first steps Reclamation completed when planning irrigation systems. Why do you think that would be important for projects that involved canals that work using gravity?

4. What is the primary feature of the Rio Grande Project? Make a list of all the steps in its construction. Why did Reclamation start with a diversion dam, rather than a storage dam? Do you think this makes sense?

5. How did settlement of the Project proceed? What factors impeded new settlers from buying land? How long did it take before the irrigated area began to expand?

6. The Reclamation Act required Reclamation to submit a report on its activities to Congress every year. These annual reports are “primary sources,” first-hand accounts written at the time of the events they describe. What advantages would documents like these have to historians? What disadvantages? Can you find any clues that suggest that these reports overstate the successes of the Project and minimize the problems? Documents written at the time by the water users’ associations, by established farmers, by new settlers, or by tenants would also be primary sources. How might they differ from what was presented by Reclamation? How do you think a historian would go about reconciling these different accounts?

Reading 3 is compiled from the 1904 through 1932 Annual Reports of the Reclamation Service/Bureau of Reclamation.

Visual Evidence

Photo 1: Elephant Butte Dam Under Construction, 1915

Elephant Butte Dam Under Construction, 1915. (National Archives and Records Administration; photographer identified as R. G.)

(National Archives and Records Administration; photographer identified as R. G.)

Questions for Photo 1
1. Look carefully at Photo 1. Find the two groups of tall triangular towers on either side of the river. These were the anchors for three cable systems used to transport concrete and other construction materials and equipment across the river and down to the dam site. Can you find items suspended from the cables? Why do you think Reclamation used this kind of system? How would they have moved materials down to the dam site if they hadn’t used the cable system?

2. See if you can find the two construction camps. The lower camp was along the river at the left edge of the photo. The upper camp was between the dam and Elephant Butte (the mountain in the background). What kinds of buildings were located there (refer to Reading 3, if necessary)? Note the “batch plant” used to make the concrete for the dam, visible near the end of the dam at the right side of the photo. Why do you think Reclamation had to build camps like these?

3. The reservoir behind the dam is already filling with water, even though the dam is not yet complete. Can you find the outlet where water is flowing out at the base of the dam? Why do you think Reclamation engineers allowed that water to continue to flow down the river?

4. Elephant Butte Dam is a concrete gravity dam 301 feet high and 1,674 feet long. According to the Fourteenth Annual Report, published in 1915, Elephant Butte was the “largest structure yet undertaken by the Reclamation Service.” 7 Does it look small in the photograph? Sometimes the only way to get a sense of how big something really is is to compare it to something you know. A football field is 360 feet long. How many fields long and high is the dam? The dam contains 618,785 cubic yards of concrete. How big is a cubic yard? Can you calculate how many cubic yards would fit into your classroom? How many classrooms would you have to stack up to be as big as the dam?

7 Fourteenth Annual Report of the Reclamation Service, 1914-1915 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1915), p. 10.

Visual Evidence

Photo 2: Leasburg Diversion Dam, 1908

Leasburg Diversion Dam, 1908. (National Archives and Records Administration; photographer identified as R. G.)

(National Archives and Records Administration; photographer identified as R. G.)

Questions for Photo 2

1. Find the dam, which stretches from Peñasco Rock, in the center of the photo where the man is standing, across to the far shore of the river. Leasburg Dam is a diversion dam, 600 feet long and 9 feet high. The definition of "diversion" is "an instance of turning something aside from its course." What do you think that might mean when used in reference to a dam? Elephant Butte is a storage dam, 1,674 feet long and 301 feet high. Compare this photo with Photo 1. How do the dams appear to be different? Why do you think that is the case?

2. Look at the concrete structure in the lower right hand corner of the image. This is the "headworks" or "intake" of the Leasburg Canal; you can see the canal flowing toward you. What is causing the water to flow in this direction?

3. You can't see them, but there are metal gates in all of the openings in the headworks. These gates were operated by hand using the mechanisms you can see on top of the headworks—each mechanism looks like a pole sticking up out of a tall, narrow spool. What do you think would happen when the gates were open? Why do you think it might be sometimes necessary to close the gates?

4. According to the Ninth Annual Report of the Reclamation Service, the top of the diversion dam is 3,921 feet above sea level. The floor of the canal intake structure is 3,913.5 feet above sea level. Reclamation engineers had to have precise measurements of elevations above sea level, because they had to know exactly how the parts of their irrigation systems related to each other. Water naturally only flows downhill. What do you think would happen if the engineers ignored that basic law of hydraulics when they were designing canals?

Visual Evidence

Illustration 1a: The Mesilla Valley Just Below the Leasburg Diversion Dam Today: northern portion

The Mesilla Valley Just Below the Leasburg Diversion Dam Today: northern portion. (Elephant Butte Irrigation District [Doña Ana County, New Mexico] National Register Nomination)

(Elephant Butte Irrigation District [Doña Ana County, New Mexico] National Register Nomination)

Illustration 1b: The Mesilla Valley Just Below the Leasburg Diversion Dam Today: southern portion

(Elephant Butte Irrigation District [Doña Ana County, New Mexico] National Register Nomination)

(Elephant Butte Irrigation District [Doña Ana County, New Mexico] National Register Nomination)

The U.S. Geological Survey map from which this detail was taken is part of the National Register nomination for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. The two sections overlap somewhat and the northern section is wider than the southern one. They can be combined by aligning them on the Rio Grande and the Leasburg Canal.

Questions for Illustrations 1a and 1b
1. Find the Leasburg Diversion Dam at the top of the illustration. This section of the canal map shows the oldest part of the Rio Grande Project. How long did it take to complete this part of the Project (refer to Reading 3, if necessary)? The illustration shows the Mesilla Valley between the Leasburg Diversion Dam and the town of Leasburg, which is about 12 miles north of Las Cruces. Find this area on Map 2. How much of the whole Rio Grande Project does this illustration represent?

2. This illustration is a topographic map, much like the ones that Reclamation created when they were planning the Rio Grande Project. Topographic maps use contour lines to represent the shape of the earth's surface. This map uses brown lines to represent elevation in feet. The darker brown lines are marked with a number that represents the elevation above sea level. See if you can find the darker brown lines marked "4000" on either side of the river. Trace these lines with a pencil. They mark where the ground starts to rise and generally represent the boundaries of the valley floor. How would you describe the location of the Leasburg Canal in relationship to that contour line? Why do you think the canal was located there?

3. How many laterals (marked "LAT") can you find? Where do they start? Where do they end? Find the Selden Drain. Where does it begin? Where does it end? How can you tell?

4. This map does not show the smaller drains or laterals. The smaller laterals carry the water to the individual fields that cover the valley floor. Find the areas marked with small green dots. This symbol represents orchards. What kinds of trees are likely to be found here (refer to Reading 3, if necessary).

Visual Evidence

Photo 3: Out-take Connecting the Leasburg Canal with the Doña Ana Lateral, 1908

Out-take Connecting the Leasburg Canal with the Doña Ana Lateral, 1908. (National Archives and Records Administration; Walter J. Lubken, photographer.)

(National Archives and Records Administration; Walter J. Lubken, photographer.)

Questions for Photo 3
1. Examine the photo, which shows water being diverted from the Leasburg Canal on the left into the Doña Ana Lateral on the right through a connecting channel called an "out-take." Find the tall poles set in horizontal circular wheels. These control gates open to allow water to flow from the canal to the lateral. Note the concrete structure in the Leasburg Canal that looks something like a bridge; it's called a "check structure." Compare the surface elevation of the water in the canal above the check structure with the lateral's water surface elevation. Why is the water level in the canal higher than the level in the lateral? Explain your answer. How do you think the check contributes to maintaining the correct elevational relationship between the two?

2. Notice the high earthen embankments along the outside edges of both the canal and the lateral. Does it look like the countryside is higher or lower than the top of the water in the canal and lateral? Is it higher or lower than the top of the embankments? What purpose do you think the embankments serve?

3. Notice that neither the canal nor the lateral appears to have a lining. Canals could be "earthen" (unlined), or lined with various materials such as rock, concrete, etc. What purpose do you think lining would serve? Why would it only be used sometimes? Do you think cost might affect the decision to line a canal or not? Examine the out-take and the check. What material appears to have been used to construct these features and why do you think it was used there and nowhere else? Reclamation eventually lined most of its canals with concrete and replaced wooden structures with concrete ones. Why do you think they did that?

Visual Evidence

Photo 4: Irrigated Cantaloupe Fields, 1930

Irrigated Cantaloupe Fields, 1930, (National Archives and Records Administration; photographer unknown)

(National Archives and Records Administration; photographer unknown)

Questions for Photo 4

1. This photo shows the two smallest water delivery elements making up the Rio Grande Project irrigation system. Find the irrigation ditch running across the bottom of the image. These ditches carry water from laterals and sub-laterals (smaller ditches that take water from laterals) to individual fields. The ditch is elevated above the level of the field it serves. Why do you think that would be the case?

2. Notice the visible water in the furrows running perpendicular to the ditch. These carry water to the individual plants in the fields. Notice the high earthen embankments on either side of the irrigation ditch. Farmers had to find their own ways to get water from the ditch into their fields. One method had laborers use hoes to cut openings in the embankment to allow the water to flow into the fields. Another method permanently embedded short pieces of hose or pipe in the embankment to allow water to flow to each furrow. How much work would each of these methods involve in a farm field the size of the one shown in the photo? Can you think of any other ways to do this?

Visual Evidence

Photo 5: Dragline at Work, 1918

Crane moving dirt. (National Archives and Records Administration; photographer unknown)

(National Archives and Records Administration; Photographer Unknown.)

Construction techniques and technology changed rapidly during the years the Rio Grande Project was under construction. Reclamation was quick to take advantage of these changes. Because it was working on so many projects, it may actually have encouraged innovation by providing a market for the new technologies.

Questions for Photo 5
1. Look carefully at this photo. How would you describe the piece of equipment shown? How big is it (use the man standing between the tracks for comparison)? What kind of work does it appear to be doing?

2. The machine shown here is a dragline, which is an excavator used to dig surfaces that lie below the level at which the machine sits. It consists of a large bucket suspended from a long metal boom by a heavy wire hoist rope that raises and lowers the bucket. The operator uses a second wire rope, the dragrope, and chains to manipulate the bucket. The hoist rope and the dragrope are attached to wheels and drums operated by a large motor mounted behind the cab of the dragline—the heavy motor also stabilizes the dragline machine by acting as a counterweight to the boom, the bucket, and its contents. The cab and boom are mounted on a platform that can swivel, and the whole mechanism is on a chassis with wheels or tracks so it can move along the work site. Can you find these features in the photo? What advantage do you think a machine like this would have in excavating canals? What disadvantages?

3. In a typical cycle of excavation, the operator positions the dragline's bucket above the material to be excavated. He then lowers the bucket, pulls the dragrope to drag the bucket along the surface of the material, and then lifts the full bucket by using the hoist rope. The operator then swings the boom and the bucket to the place where the material is to be dumped and releases the dragrope, causing the bucket to tilt and empty. How much skill do you think it would take to operate a dragline? Do you think it might be dangerous to work around one of these machines? Why or why not? Do you think one of them ever tipped over? Imagine the noise and the smell of fumes coming from the motor, and the squeal from all the moving parts.

4. Reclamation put its first dragline to work on the Rio Grande Project in April 1916. Four gasoline-powered draglines were delivered in mid-1917. Reclamation ordered four more in the following summer. By 1919, there were 15 draglines at work on the Project. Why do you think Reclamation invested what must have been a substantial amount of money to purchase so many machines?

5. During the early years of the Rio Grande Project, most of the canals were excavated using metal "Fresno" scrapers pulled by teams of horses or mules. The cost of excavation by contractors using teams of horses averaged 26 cents per cubic yard during the 1918-19 fiscal year. Two years later, excavation done by Reclamation employees using government draglines cost an average of 7.6 cents per cubic yard.8 What do you think might have accounted for this difference?

8 Eighteenth Annual Report of the Reclamation Service, 1918-1919 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919), p. 265; Twentieth Annual Report of the Reclamation Service, 1920-1921 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921), p. 274.

Putting It All Together

By studying “Making the Desert Bloom”: The Rio Grande Project, students have learned how the Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande irrigation project transformed thousands of acres of arid land along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and Texas. This complex, interrelated system of storage and diversion dams, reservoirs, canals, and drains was a great achievement for Reclamation’s engineers, although the results were not always what the planners expected. The following activities will help the students build on what they have learned.

Activity 1: To Irrigate or Not to Irrigate?
Divide the students in two groups. Ask one group to study the Rio Grande Project, reviewing information in this lesson and using websites listed in Supplementary Resources or other sources they identify themselves. Ask the other group to investigate farming in the area where they live. A local farmer or someone from their state’s agricultural extension service would be a good source for information and might be willing to come speak to the class and answer questions. The group might want to ask what the climate is, how much rain the area receives, what crops are grown. For purposes of comparison, temperatures on the Rio Grande Project range from zero to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, average rainfall is 9.5 inches, and the principal crops are still cotton, alfalfa, vegetables, pecans, and grain.

Do local farmers use irrigation? If they do, what conditions make it necessary? What crops can be grown using irrigation that can’t be grown without it? If they don’t use irrigation, why not? What do the farmers have to pay for? What costs might farmers living on an irrigation project have to pay that they wouldn’t pay if they weren’t living on a project? See if they can find out how much the land in each area costs. If the land is irrigated, what was the cost per acre for farmland prior to irrigation being available, and what was the cost after irrigation was available? Ask each group to make a presentation to the class and then hold a whole class discussion comparing agriculture in the Rio Grande valley and in their own area.

Activity 2: Progressivism and the Reclamation Act
The Reclamation Act, passed in 1902, was one of the first pieces of legislation passed under the Progressive Era administration of President Theodore Roosevelt. Other legislation dating from the same period included the Pure Food and Drug Act (1903), the Meat Inspection Act (1906), the Hepburn Act (1906), and the Antiquities Act (1906). Divide the class into small groups and ask each group to investigate one of these laws. Why was it written (for example, to end an abuse, to fix a problem, to achieve a positive goal, or for all these reasons)? What were its main provisions? Who supported it? Did it apply to the whole country, or just some areas or people? Who got the most benefit from it (for example, farmers, workers, everybody)? Is it still in force? Has it been amended over time? If so, in what ways and why? What long-term effects has it had? Do they think these effects have been generally positive or negative? Did it achieve its stated purposes? Has it had any unintended consequences? Have each group report to the class and then hold a whole class discussion comparing these pieces of legislation to the Reclamation Act. How were they alike? How did they differ?

Activity 3: The Future of the Rio Grande
The water flowing down the Rio Grande has been used and sometimes reused by the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. In many years, there is no water left in the riverbed at all due to diversions along the way. In April 2011, Reclamation issued a report suggesting that global climate change may cause temperatures to rise across the West during the course of the 21st century and annual precipitation may decrease about 2.5 percent by 2050.9 Temperatures in the Rio Grande Basin could increase by 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit. Rainwater run-off in the Colorado and Rio Grande basins may decline. If these predictions are correct, the supply of water available in the Rio Grande will fall.

Divide the class into small groups and ask them to investigate how demand for the river’s water is likely to change. The websites in Supplementary Resources have information on recent changes in the amount of land irrigated in the Rio Grande Project and in other irrigation projects along the river. These data can be used to project possible changes in the need for irrigation water. The Rio Grande also provides municipal water and hydroelectric power to the cities of Albuquerque and Las Cruces, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. Ask students to find how the population in those cities has changed in recent years. If these trends continue, how are the cities’ needs for water and electricity likely to change? Finally, a 1907 treaty requires the United States to supply 60,000 acre-feet of Rio Grande water to Mexico every year. Consider the potential consequences to those people and to international relations if the United States couldn’t continue to fulfill its treaty commitment.

What potential problems are suggested by comparing the projected trends in the supply of water in the river and the needs of its consumers? What might be done to mitigate these problems? The Reclamation report cited above stresses the importance of water conservation. Ask the students to review the irrigation websites in Supplemental Resources. What water conservation techniques do they mention? Is there anything else in these websites that suggests ways to use the Rio Grande’s water more efficiently? What advantages and disadvantages do these alternatives offer? Have the students put what they have learned into an exhibit, website, podcast, or other format that they can share with other classes. Ask them also to consider how climate change could affect the water supply and related resources where they live. What do studies say about the supply for the student’s home area? Is there enough water for the home area to grow and meet needs in the next 50 years? Discuss ways students can use water and other resources more efficiently in their own homes and lives.

Activity 4: Where Does Your Water Come From?
Most people answer that question by saying “From the faucet.” Perhaps a better question would be “Where does it start?” Ask students to investigate the water system in their community. What is the source for their community water (river, ground water wells, other sources)? Is it obtained locally? If not, how far does it have to travel before it gets to their community? Who provides the water to the community and to their home (a local government, a water utility, a for-profit water company)? How much water is used at their home, and how does usage change through the seasons? How much do their parents pay for the water they use? Does the money go to a department of the local government or elsewhere? What facilities, structures, and systems exist to obtain, store, purify, and deliver the water to consumers? Who built and owns them (Federal, state, or local government; private companies; others)? Who checks the facilities for safety and who is responsible for keeping them in good working condition? What standards exist for drinking water, and who checks to see if community water meets those standards? Are there reservoirs to store the water? If so, where are they? Who built them? Who maintains the dam that creates the reservoir?

Some of these water-related facilities may be historic structures. Some may have been built by a governmental entity, others by private companies. Some may be impressive structures that were sources of great local pride when they were first created. Others may be relatively modest, but still important parts of the water distribution system.

Have students work in groups to research these questions and present what they have learned to the class. Ask them to determine whether any of these facilities are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and, if so, obtain copies of the National Register documentation to use as part of their research. Ask each group to select one of the historic structures and to develop interpretive materials. They may create their choice of an exhibit, a podcast, an online brochure or tour, a short documentary, an article for the local newspaper or historical society newsletter, an on-site tour, or other interpretive product. Select a day when the students can present their findings to the rest of the class, a school assembly, or parents’ open house, or even to a community group. Offer the interpretive materials to organizations such as the local historical society, library, and/or chamber of commerce. If they identify a facility that deserves to be officially recognized for its historic significance, the class may want to initiate the nomination process for local or state designation or for listing in the National Register.

Communities, government agencies, and private companies that own water systems or facilities periodically monitor their condition and safety and prepare maintenance plans to keep them safe. Many have also taken steps to assess whether their water systems could be at risk in the event of natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other emergencies. Ask students how damage to or loss of the water supply would affect their community if it lasted for a day, or a week, or for a longer period. Have the people responsible for the water supply completed a risk assessment study and maintenance checks? If so, what risks or maintenance issues (if any) were identified, and what sort of corrective or protective measures were put in place? If identified needs were not corrected, students may want to consider writing a letter to the responsible entity asking for information about when they are scheduled or the reasons why they have not yet been completed. If timely plans to address identified risks do not exist, the class might consider taking action to call this to the attention of the local or state government or writing a letter to the local newspaper.

9 SECURE Water Act, Section 9503(c)—Reclamation Climate Change and Water, 2011. (Denver, CO: U.S. Department of the Interior, Policy and Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, 2011) (accessed 12/11/2011).

Supplementary Resources

In this lesson, students have learned about how the Bureau of Reclamation transformed the valley of the Rio Grande by creating Elephant Butte Dam and the Rio Grande irrigation project, and about some of the problems they encountered along the way. Those interested in learning more will find much useful information on the internet. Some sources are:

Bureau of Reclamation History
This website includes links to a number of documents, including a short history of Reclamation, a longer, book-length history of the years before 1945, and a study of large Federal dams, including Elephant Butte.

The website of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has a link to a chapter of a book that provides simple explanations of how an irrigation system works, with graphics. Other chapters in the same book, published by the FAO in 1985, cover soils, topography, etc.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Region has developed a website that contains educational materials that use an idealized farm to explain the three basic irrigation methods, how each one works, when it works best, and what the costs and benefits are. The site also includes lesson plans.

The U.S. Geological Survey has created a Water Science for Schools website that answers every question you are likely to have about water, including information about how wet your state is.

Water in the West
This website, maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, discusses irrigation in the Western United States today, including efforts at water conservation.

Last updated: June 25, 2021