Watering the Land:
The Turbulent History of the Carlsbad Irrigation District
NPS Logo

The United States Reclamation Service Arrives in Carlsbad

While the early history of irrigation promotion and development in the Pecos Valley is largely a story of private enthusiasm and entrepreneurship, Federal officials concerned with reclamation also showed an early awareness of the region and its assumed agricultural potential. This governmental interest stemmed from a nationwide movement during the 1870s and 1880s to develop "scientific" methods of coping with the lack of agricultural water in the arid West.

The idea of the "Great American Desert" was implanted in the nation's collective mind by the middle years of the nineteenth century. Most travelogues and descriptive narratives of the period advanced the concept that much of the West was simply too arid to grow viable crops without irrigation. That notion was particularly descriptive of much of the American Southwest. [1] In the case of New Mexico, the apparent lack of surface and ground water seemed to completely preclude the possibility of successful agricultural settlement in much of the territory. Any publicity of such conditions, naturally, was anathema to the growing numbers of residents in the territory, and an increasing spirit of boosterism worked to rebuke the notion that much of New Mexico was useless land. The Southwest's boosters gladly accepted the popular notion that rainfall would increase once the land was settled, and that the technologies of wells and river reclamation projects would be able to provide any supplemental water that might be needed. These fallacious beliefs proved strong enough to encourage settlement without proof of their accuracy. [2]

By the 1860s, the Federal government had begun an active involvement in the issue of how western lands should be managed. In part, this involvement attempted to respond to the region's broad, unanswered questions of water availability. The Preemption Act of 1841 and Homestead Act of the 1862 established the framework for the transfer of individual western tracts to small farmers, and the following years saw more specific legislative efforts directed specifically at management of arid lands. The Desert Land Act of 1877 was a significant development, marking the beginning of the development of Federal land policy geared to the management of arid western lands. The act provided an initial process for the transfer of arid agricultural lands to individual farmers who agreed to place the land under irrigation. In retrospect, many historians found the act to be an inappropriate response which complicated and compounded existing management difficulties, and at least one knowledgeable contemporary observer shared that view. That observer was John Wesley Powell, the noted western explorer. Throughout the late 1860s and 1870s, Powell was a major advocate for the reform of government policy towards western lands. His perceptive statements noted the certainty of disaster when the inevitable droughts struck new farmers in the western deserts, and he proposed a more restrained settlement policy based on small-scale collective irrigation projects. Powell's lobbying and advocacy ultimately persuaded the United States Congress to attach a reclamation provision to its appropriations bill of October 2, 1888. This legislation directed the U.S. Geological Survey to begin a field survey of "the arid region of the United States," intended to identify locations suitable for future reclamation projects and to withdraw them from private appropriation. In theory, this would allow an orderly Federal development of such areas without interference from land speculators and those planning inappropriate uses. [3]

In the Pecos Valley, the field survey thus mandated was performed in early 1889 by R.S. Tarr of the Geological Survey. Tarr's brief narrative (termed a "Hydrographic Survey") marked the first published Federal attempt to evaluate the agricultural and reclamation potential of the valley. His document included brief descriptions of the region's water resources, as well as reports on present and proposed agricultural and irrigation efforts. Despite observing a variety of small active irrigation projects developed by both Hispanic and Anglo-American settlers, Tarr emphasized that "No attempt at scientific application" of the valley's water had yet been made. [4]

Tarr's reconnaissance report included a cursory description and evaluation of the incipient activities of the Pecos Irrigation and Investment Company. He noted that the company had "the most extensive scheme on foot in the Pecos Valley." After reporting on the group's grandiose plans for the Hondo area (near Roswell), he complained that the planned fee schedule for water rights seemed excessive, and speculated, "that much of the land taken up under the ditch will become the property of the company through failure to pay the taxes; and it is possible that the company looks at the matter in the same light." The company's Southern Canal (the future Avalon Dam project) was also briefly described, although he noted that "the plans concerning this canal are not yet matured, and the work of construction has not been commenced. The dam site is said to be good, the river being a succession of rapids, falling 50 feet in 6 miles." [5]

Tarr concluded with a bit of speculation on the valley's potential for reclamation development. He pronounced the question to be "an engineering problem of such magnitude that I fear to make even a suggestion," noting that "In the middle and lower Pecos the river bed is of changing sand and seems to offer no means of permanently securing a dam." [6] The soil itself appeared well-suited for agriculture, however, and Tarr seemed confident that local farming would succeed — provided that an appropriate reclamation technology could be developed for the region. To Tarr, what that technology would be seemed to be very much an unresolved question. [7]

The specific governmental response to Tarr's narrative is unclear, although the 1888 legislation succeeded in thoroughly clouding the status of the West's arid lands. Vast tracts of lands were withdrawn from settlement in response to the act, and the validity of the many private land entries in the affected areas was called into question. The situation inevitably led to a long, acrimonious congressional debate over the efficacy of the 1888 law and Powell's philosophies in general. Much of the fuel for the polemic was provided by the ongoing activities of the Pecos Irrigation and Improvement Company. The company's congressional supporters, aided in part by an unhappy letter from Hagerman, portrayed the act of 1888 as conspiring to disenfranchise thousands of newly-arrived Pecos homesteaders, as well as to render useless the company's $700,000 investment in its physical plant. Similar situations existed in other western states, and landowners and developers from throughout the region managed to convince much of Congress that Powell's legislation was too impractical and far-reaching, destined to unfairly halt the West's rapid growth. Consequently, most key provisions of the 1888 arid lands legislation were rescinded in 1890. The 1890 legislation marked a major defeat for Powell and his progressive philosophies of planned reclamation, and saw the Federal government abandon most of its efforts to plan western reclamation and irrigation programs. [8] In New Mexico, the Pecos Irrigation and Improvement Company continued its substantial reclamation developments with only minimal government attention. The only significant local action by Federal authorities was approving the withdrawal from public entry of the irrigation company's three Eddy County reservoir sites in 1897.

The Federal government's laissez-faire attitude towards western irrigation during the 1890s allowed land promoters throughout the West to proceed apace with planning grandiose corporate reclamation projects. Enthusiasm for such programs continued to rise throughout the decade, encouraged both by the developers themselves and by the strong advocacy of some scientists and other professionals interested in the subject. Supporters of western irrigated agriculture advertised their cause through annual "Irrigation Congresses," beginning in 1891. A new journal entitled Irrigation Age also helped disseminate information on the emerging technology. [9]

Not surprisingly, the number of reclamation ventures actually constructed in the West fell significantly short of the number envisioned over the years. Of the private irrigation companies that did begin construction, most managed to achieve only a fraction of their announced goals before failing due to inadequate funding, poor engineering, or an inherent lack of water. In an effort to aid the struggling reclamation movement, Congress in 1894 passed the Carey Act, which allowed each western state to receive title to up to 1,000,000 acres of Federal land — provided that the state could arrange to have the land irrigated, settled, and farmed. Although a variety of Carey Act projects were initiated, most were unsuccessful. The Carey Act was actively pursued in Wyoming, successfully in projects such as Wheatland Reservoir and unsuccessfully in efforts such as the Buffalo Bill Dam project near Cody. Even in Wyoming, however, the state only managed to patent 11,321 acres of Carey Act land. Other western states saw even less economic benefit from the act. The act saw almost no use in New Mexico, in part because it did not apply to territorial governments until 1909. [10]

As the inherent problems with the private irrigation companies and the Carey Act experiments became more and more evident, Congress continued debate on the reclamation issue. Despite the recognized inadequacies of nineteenth-century American water policy, it was not until Theodore Roosevelt's assumption of the presidency in 1901 that Federal involvement in reclamation became a reality. In a significant shift from earlier Federal policy, Roosevelt strongly advocated the establishment of a Federal program of reservoir construction. The framework for such an endeavor was codified in the Reclamation or Newlands Act of June 17, 1902 (32 Stat. 388). This statute created a United States Reclamation Service (initially operating under the U.S. Geological Survey), charged with the construction and maintenance of reservoirs and irrigation systems in sixteen western states and territories. Funding for Reclamation Service projects was to come from a revolving "Reclamation Fund," containing the proceeds from Federal western lands sales. Farmland in these project areas would be made available to individuals under the terms of the Homestead Act; this limited an individual's irrigated holdings within a project to 160 acres. Project landowners were required to reimburse the Reclamation Fund for the project's construction costs, as well as ongoing operating and maintenance expenses. Construction costs were to be repaid over a ten-year period, interest-free. [11]

The new Reclamation Service, needing to establish a perception of efficacy, quickly began work on a number of western projects. In New Mexico, the Hondo Project was approved within months of the Reclamation Service's establishment. This project included a diversion and storage dam on the Rio Hondo, a Pecos tributary west of Roswell, and an associated canal network. The location had been the site of earlier, aborted reclamation attempts by the Pecos Irrigation and Improvement Company and others. The Hondo Project was the first Federal reclamation effort in New Mexico Territory, and it proved to be a rapid and unquestioned failure. An inadequate water supply and a highly porous reservoir floor made the lake virtually impossible to fill, and the $375,000 undertaking was largely abandoned after 1907. It proved to be an inauspicious beginning for the Reclamation Service in New Mexico. [12]

The 1905 Fiasco

In the meantime, however, the Reclamation Service continued to review other possible New Mexico projects. The massive Elephant Butte Project on the Rio Grande was underway by mid-decade. In 1904, the lower Pecos Valley became a prime candidate for Federal intervention. In the years since Tarr's 1889 field survey, the Pecos Irrigation and Improvement Company had developed a substantial network of reclamation facilities to the north and south of the town of Carlsbad. The company's holdings included Avalon and McMillan Dams and Reservoirs, some 63 miles of primary canals and over 500 miles of laterals. The irrigation company's physical plant irrigated approximately 14,000 acres in the Carlsbad region. On October 1 and 2, 1904, however, a major flash flood along the Pecos River largely destroyed Avalon Dam and damaged much of the canal system; this made the company's irrigation network inoperable and threatened the farmers dependent on it with rapid ruin.

Within days of the disaster, both the irrigation company and the farmers it served began searching for a solution that would allow the system to be rebuilt. It quickly became evident to both groups that Reclamation Service intervention was the only solution to the dilemma. The landowners immediately formed the "Pecos Water Users Association" to serve as an advocacy group. On October 8, the association wrote the Pecos Irrigation Company, "to ascertain from you at the earliest possible moment, what may be the disposition of your company respecting the immediate reconstruction of the damaged portion of your system." [13] The letter also requested that the company provide a full valuation of its local holdings, "in the event of your company being unable or unwilling to make the repairs above mentioned, we may as speedily as possible arrive at a basis of value for presentation to the proper authorities at Washington in the hope of obtaining their assistance in the reconstruction of our system of water supply." [14] The company responded three days later with a letter declaring it to be "heartily in accord with the proposition to sell the property of that company to the United States Government," and it promised to rapidly establish a sales price. [15]

The irrigation company was near bankruptcy by 1904, and there is little doubt that it was more than eager to sell its holdings to the Federal government. Before the month was out, Francis Tracy, the irrigation company's general manager, had written Frederick H. Newell, the Reclamation Service's Chief Engineer, requesting that the government take over the company's physical plant "at once." The plea for Federal intervention was carried still further by company investors, who persuaded U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to write the Secretary of the Interior on the company's behalf. Tracy, in an attempt to appear conciliatory, also formally withdrew the irrigation company's protests against the upcoming Hondo Project. [16]

Meanwhile, the Reclamation Service dispatched W.M. Reed, a U.S. Geological Survey Engineer at the Hondo Project in New Mexico, to Carlsbad to study the flood damage. Reed possessed a unique familiarity with the Carlsbad area, having worked for the irrigation company from 1889 to 1900; he had served as its chief engineer from 1898 to 1900. [17] Reed reached Carlsbad by foot on October 6 (floodwaters had severed the rail line), surveyed the situation, and was immediately met by a committee from the local Commercial Club. The committee members bombarded Reed with tales of the potentially disastrous consequences of the loss of the irrigation system, and informed him that local sentiment strongly favored government intervention in the matter. It was locally realized that the company would be unable or unwilling to finance the system's needed repairs, and the committee felt that the Reclamation Service was the irrigators' only hope. Reed was generally sympathetic to the committee's plea, terming the situation "almost a public calamity," and immediately contacted Newell. [18] In response, Newell cited the large number of other Reclamation Service projects that were already underway in the West, and proclaimed:

We should, I think, finish our operations near Roswell before getting involved in another locality. All of these matters require time and careful consideration; it is impossible for the Department to take action rapidly as in the case of a corporation, as details must be referred to many persons. I cannot, therefore, encourage the idea of taking up work at Carlsbad immediately. . . [19]

Nevertheless, the water users association intensified its entreaties to the Reclamation Service. The Pecos Irrigation Company notified the water users that it would sell its irrigation system for $350,000, provided that "reasonable assurance will be given by the Government that the property will be taken over at an early date." [20] Armed with this information, the water users met on November 8 and prepared a resolution pleading for the Reclamation Service's assistance in reconstruction. The water users' resolution emotionally related the necessity of the irrigation system and noted the disastrous consequences to local farmers which were inevitable without the Reclamation Service's aid:

The people who occupy these small farms. . . have built them over the past twelve years, planting orchards, alfalfa fields, building roads, school houses and churches, with the firm faith that the result of their industry would be a means of sustenance to themselves and a heritage for their children. Without the aid of your department, they are confronted with ruin — complete, and immediate. [21]

The water users emphasized that their situation was an emergency demanding immediate attention, and asked Newell to appoint "a Board of Engineers to examine the conditions now existing in this portion of the Pecos Valley. . . to the end that the reservoirs, canals, flume, water rights and franchises now owned by the Pecos Irrigation Company, may be taken over by the U.S. Government under the Reclamation Act." [22] The resolution's message was reinforced by a delegation of ten Carlsbad citizens who traveled to a November "Irrigation Congress" at El Paso to meet with Reclamation Service officials. [23]

The Reclamation Service responded to the water users' pleas by authorizing B.M. Hall (a U.S.G.S. engineer based in El Paso) to undertake an investigation of the costs of rehabilitating the Pecos facilities. By early December, Reclamation Service engineers had established a temporary encampment near Avalon Dam and had begun an evaluation of the local situation. In a preliminary, handwritten report dated December 15, Hall and Reed stated that the system could be temporarily repaired for the 1905 growing season at a cost of $20,000. It was reported that the water users association had "practically begged" for the Reclamation Service to design and supervise the repairs. The actual labor would be performed under the aegis of the irrigation company. Hall and Reed were highly sympathetic to the water users' dilemma. Their report concluded, "We believe the Reclamation Service can do no greater public good at the present, than to encourage and aid these struggling people in every way that may be possible." [24]

The response from Washington (dated December 21) was now somewhat more encouraging. Hall was instructed to permanently relocate to Carlsbad and begin design work for the temporary repairs. While he supervised the repair work, he was also to continue his evaluation of the local system's long-term needs. An eventual Federal takeover of the Pecos physical plant was now termed "very desirable," although the Reclamation Service privately considered the Pecos Irrigation Company's proposed sale price to be "absurdly high." [25] Federal acquisition of the Pecos properties began to seem increasingly possible, although a period of negotiation and uncertainty still appeared inevitable.

While the Reclamation Service's planning and survey activities continued at Avalon during December 1904, additional plans were being finalized to temporarily repair the irrigation system for the 1905 growing season. Financing these repairs became a primary concern and obstacle. Since the physical plant remained under the irrigation company's ownership any repairs would need to be performed by them. The company, however, had neither the financial resources nor the credit standing required to finance the work. It fell, then, to the members of the water users association to secure the necessary funds. The water users inaugurated a subscription drive, and by early January 1905 were able to loan the $20,000 needed for the repairs to the irrigation company. Newell was immediately notified of the fund-raising success, and on January 12, 1905 he formally approved the Reclamation Service's supervisory and design role in the upcoming project. Newell designated Hall as the Reclamation Service's local supervisory representative. [26] By this time, however, Reclamation Service engineers had already completed substantial engineering work and construction was underway.

The Pecos Irrigation Company's plea for Federal assistance was rewarded in 1905, when the U. S. Reclamation Service decided to establish a temporary construction camp at the Avalon Dam site. More permanent structures, including this stone gatekeeper's house, soon followed. — Carlsbad Irrigation District, Carlsbad, New Mexico; ca. 1910.

Much of the project's design work was performed by E.W. Myers, a Reclamation Service engineer assigned to the effort. Myers initially prepared three alternative proposals for the most complex portion of the undertaking: the repair of the washed-out Avalon Dam. His first two proposals involved closing the dam's breach with either an earthen or timber structure, while the third alternative specified the construction of a small, entirely new diversion dam just upstream from the failed dam. The latter plan, while possessing some design advantages, would have required extending the canal system upstream, as well. Myers' final design for the new dam was heavily influenced by the project's financial constraints, and his more complex and technically sophisticated proposals were rejected by the irrigation company as being too expensive. The design finally adopted specified an earthen dam erected atop a rock-filled timber-crib foundation. A wooden spillway was integrated into the primary dam, placed at the height needed to divert a five-foot head of water into the existing Main Canal. The total structure was to be 714 feet long, up to 29.7 feet high, and 8 feet wide at the crest. It was to contain 27,332 cubic yards of earth. [27]

Work crews and equipment began arriving at the site on January 3, 1905 and construction commenced immediately. Most of the project's laborers were locally-hired Hispanics; additionally, local farmers hauled earth with their personal teams and wagons, earning both cash payments and credits on past and future water rents. Project foremen were irrigation company employees, leaving only the design supervision to Reclamation Service personnel. Reclamation Service engineers complained at length about the quality of the labor force, noting that workers were continually "laying off from work for a day or week whenever it suited them." This caused recurring shortages of either manual laborers or teams and drivers, reducing the project's efficiency. [28]

Crews constructed an access road to the site during the first week, and later built a timber bridge across the river. This allowed earth moving to begin. Meanwhile, a series of second hand 12-inch by 12-inch timber piles was driven in the dam abutments; crossmembers attached to these piles formed cribs which were filled with earth and stone. The spillway was also constructed of timber; it was 100 feet long, featuring a 17-bent timber trestle as framing with a stone fill and wood surfacing. Unusually high water repeatedly hampered construction of the spillway, and on April 24th a flood washed out seven of the newly-installed bents and their cribbing. Reclamation Service engineers blamed irrigation company officials for the recurring water damage, since the company had refused to drain McMillan Reservoir to protect against downstream flooding. The company had reportedly feared a shortage of irrigation water if McMillan was drained, and did not anticipate the unusually heavy spring 1905 rainfall. [29]

Repair crews, supervised by the Reclamation Service, began arriving at the Avalon construction site in January 1905. — National Archives, Washington D.C.; July 18, 1906.

As work on the dam progressed, other crews began the task of rehabilitating the system's canal network. The primary element of this project was the repair and reinforcement of the Pecos River flume. Concrete masons completed some $8,000 of work on the structure during the spring of 1905.

The repeated flooding at the Avalon site significantly delayed the dam's completion, but the structure was finally closed on the morning of June 2. Workers noticed some settling of the dam earthwork as the reservoir filled but the problem seemed minor and at 8:00 P.M. on June 4 water began flowing into the irrigation canal. Four and one-half hours later, however, a large whirlpool appeared in the reservoir, indicating the presence of a severe leak. The dam failed within minutes. Some 40 feet of the structure quickly washed away, and the rushing water stripped the riverbed down to bedrock.

Weakened by spring flooding, the rehabilitated Avalon Dam failed on June 4, 1906. Within minutes the rushing waters of the Pecos River eroded the earthen/stone dam to bedrock. — National Archives, Washington D. C.; July 16, 1906.

In retrospect, Myers suggested the probability that the failure occurred due to the unanticipated porosity of the soil beneath the dam substructure, but he also implied that the earlier flooding at the construction site contributed to the failure. [30] As might be expected, however, Tracy held an opposing view. He professed outrage at the Reclamation Service's squandering of company funds on a structure he considered to have been poorly designed and built. He questioned the engineering competence of Hall and especially of Myers, whom he claimed "had no experience, was stubborn, obtuse, and never planned ahead." Tracy also noted that the fiasco had completely drained the company's fiscal resources, and that a return to receivership was a definite possibility. [31] Tracy's allegations were destined to haunt the Reclamation Service locally in future years, and his anger would soon be a recurring theme in the project's existence.

Regardless of the cause, however, the failure of the temporary dam was a significant blow to the valley's farmers. Although local residents initially contemplated another temporary reconstruction effort, a lack of funds and enthusiasm for the scheme soon made it obvious that the irrigation system was lost for the 1905 season, at least. All reconstruction work on the canal system and the half-repaired flume was halted soon after the flood. The fruitless venture had cost the Pecos Irrigation Company nearly $35,000, and the lack of success doomed the valley's farmers to a dry, disastrous summer.


1. Brief excerpts from these narratives may be found in Clark, Water In New Mexico, 45-46. Chapters 4 and 5 of this volume provide a good overview of early Federal concepts of the arid Southwest.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 56-63. For additional discussion on the legislation and its effects as perceived by Congress, see the Congressional Record — Senate: 51 Congress, 1st Session, 7269-7346.

4. Tarr, "Report Upon a Reconnaissance of the Pecos Valley."

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Clark, Water in New Mexico, 58-62.

9. Smythe, The Conquest of Arid America, 261-274. Smythe was the founder of Irrigation Age and a leader behind the annual Irrigation Congresses.

10. For background information on the Carey Act and on early Wyoming reclamation, see T.A. Larson, History of Wyoming (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 346-365. For information the Act in the context of New Mexico water history, see Clark, Water in New Mexico, 75-76.

11. A brief outline history of the Reclamation Service and the legislation affecting it may be in the introduction to "Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Bureau of Reclamation" (Washington: The National Archives, 1958).

12. Clark, Water in New Mexico, 87.

13. R.S. Benson, et. al. to Francis G. Tracy, October 8, 1904, files of the Pecos River Projects Office, Bureau of Reclamation, Carlsbad, New Mexico.

14. Ibid.

15. F.G. Tracy to R.S. Benson, October 11, 1904, RG 115, Entry 3, Box 443, File 652, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

16. Gardner P. Stanford and Charles S. Kelley to William S. Greene, October 25, 1904; Henry Cabot Lodge to E.A. Hitchcock, October 29, 1904; Francis G. Tracy to E.A. Hitchcock, November 10, 1904, RG 115, Entry 4, Box 1, File 25, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

17. Hagerman, "In the Matter of the Hondo Reservoir."

18. W.M. Reed to Chief Engineer, U.S. Reclamation Service, October 10, 1904, RG 115, Entry 3, Box 443, File 651, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

19. Chief Engineer, U.S. Geological Survey to W.M. Reed, October 10, 1904, ibid.

20. Francis G. Tracy to R.S. Benson, November 8, 1904, RG 115, Entry 3, Box 443, File 652, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

21. Pecos Water Users Association to Frederick H. Newell, November 8, 1904, ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. "The Carlsbad Project History," The Carlsbad Current, June 19, 1914, 1.

24. B.M. Hall and W.M. Reed to the Chief Engineer, U.S. Geological Survey, December 15, 1904, RG 115, Entry 3, Box 443, File 651, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

25. A.P. Davis to B.M. Hall, December 21, 1904, ibid.

26. Pecos Water Users Association and Pecos Irrigation Company to F.H. Newell, January 5, 1905; F.H. Newell to Francis G. Tracy, January 12, 1905, RG 115, Entry 3, Box 443, File 652, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

27. E.W. Myers, "Report to B. M. Hall, Supervising Engineer, on the Design and Construction of the Replacement and Repair Work for the Pecos Irrigation Co. Near Carlsbad, New Mexico," RG 115, Entry 3, Box 443, File 651, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. F.G. Tracy to G.B. Shaw, July 3, 1905, ibid.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008