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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.

1 Wictionary website, accessed 1/30/2011.



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