Watering the Land:
The Turbulent History of the Carlsbad Irrigation District
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The 1930s: Modernization and Expansion

The Carlsbad Project entered the 1930s weary from a quarter century of infighting and political bickering. The resentments various individuals and groups held against one another had become more and more pronounced over the years, and showed little sign of abating. The project suffered from an obvious and long-standing need for expansion and improvement, but a decade of planning and lobbying had failed to produce locally-desired results. By 1932, Carlsbad's difficulties were being compounded by the worsening nationwide agricultural market. That year, the project's average crop value dropped below $20 per acre — the lowest point since the project's earliest days. In 1933 the district reported a sixty percent delinquency rate on farm mortgages. [1]

By the early 1930s, it was obvious that water users and the Bureau of Reclamation were tired of one another, and that it was only a matter of time before the Carlsbad Project was turned over to local control. This concept had been outlined by Federal administrators for years with varying degrees of seriousness and specificity, and by the 1920s the transfer of most government irrigation projects to local control was an accepted part of Federal reclamation policy. A 1923 government study of its western reclamation systems had noted:

The Reclamation Service has retained the full management of all but two of the projects. This has not been satisfactory. The project management and the Washington office have become targets for criticism. The water users have come to look upon themselves as wards of the Government, a specially favored class with special claims upon Governmental bounty. The Extension Act provides that the operation and maintenance of the project may be turned over to the water user. This should be done at the earliest possible date. [2]

The report went on to specifically list a number of Reclamation Service projects that should be turned over to the local users. The Carlsbad Project was not among those so listed, even though its history displayed a quintessential portrayal of the problems outlined in the report. [3]

The joint failure of the Reclamation Service and the water users to agree upon and fund a project to increase the Carlsbad Project's water supply was probably the single largest factor encouraging a shift from Federal to private control. By early 1932 the decision to proceed with the transfer had, in essence, been finalized by both Bureau of Reclamation and water users' leaders. All that remained was to perform the mechanics of the transaction. This required that the old water users association be replaced with anew Carlsbad Irrigation District, which would have the legal authority to acquire the government physical plant, issue bonds for further improvements, and assess landowners for the costs of the system's operation.

The water users association scheduled an election for June 20, 1932, at which the project landowners would vote on the irrigation district's formation. The issue generated significant local interest, since it was assumed that approval of the irrigation district implied an impending local takeover of the reclamation system. When the votes were tallied, the irrigation district had been approved by a large majority, but the slate of irrigation district directors proposed by the water users association was soundly defeated by an opposition ticket organized by the project's farmers. Observing the election for the Bureau of Reclamation, Foster reported that "As near as I can judge at this time the campaign of the winning side was based on opposition to the water users taking over the operation of the project." [4] Of the ten candidates Foster reported as being on the ballot, the man who received the fewest number of votes was Francis G. Tracy. [5]

In spite of Foster's evaluation of the prevailing local sentiment, the new irrigation district and Bureau of Reclamation ostensibly planned to proceed with the transfer to local control. The district's first operating contract with the Bureau provided for a five-year transition period, with the district assuming full control of the project on January 1, 1938. (For unknown reasons, however, this scheduled transfer failed to take place.) The contract also provided for a downward readjustment of the landowners' fee payment schedules in accordance with 1926 Federal reclamation legislation. This legislation relieved farmers in Bureau of Reclamation projects from repayment of certain related Federal expenditures — signifying at least a partial confirmation of the board of cost review's statements of the previous decade. [6]

Local circumstances began to improve significantly soon after the irrigation district's formation, although the district could claim little credit for most of the changes. Instead, the nationwide economic policies of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal directly or indirectly brought about the most dramatic local events, including both a general improvement in the local agricultural economy and the construction of many of the reclamation improvements local residents had pleaded for and dreamed about for decades.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) launched a major building program at the Carlsbad Project in 1934. One of the first involved the construction of a 2,000-foot-long extension to the east embankment of Lake McMillan. Workers hand-laid some 9,400 cubic yards of rock on the downstream slope of the dam. — Lon Johnson, February 1990.

Most of these physical improvements can be directly traced to the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC program placed camps of young men at locations across the country to undertake various public works projects; each camp was under the jurisdiction of a specific state or Federal agency. The Bureau of Reclamation was among the agencies allowed the benefit of CCC crews, and the Bureau's Carlsbad Project was destined to be among the first and most substantial beneficiaries of this nearly-free labor source. CCC camp #BR-3 was established north of Carlsbad in August 1934, and the camp's workers immediately began the first of a long series of varied improvements on the Project's physical plant. [7]

Many of the CCC crews' assignments consisted of general maintenance and repair work, but more significant projects were also undertaken throughout the camp's tenure. The program's first major local project, during 1934 and 1935, involved the construction of a 2,000-foot extension to the east embankment at Lake McMillan. As with the reservoir's original east embankment, the extension was designed to remove small areas from the reservoir which were causing substantial water loss due to seepage. The project involved the placement of some 43,000 cubic yards of earth and 9,400 cubic yards of rock at the site by hand. [8]

CCC crews also added compacted earth to the McMillan Dam's upstream slope and then faced the dam with three feet of riprap. — National Archives, Washington D.C.; 1937.

When the McMillan embankment was completed in late 1935, the CCC crews moved to Avalon Dam, beginning one of the program's largest projects at Carlsbad. Earlier, a Federal board of engineers had recommended that the Bureau of Reclamation "increase the safety factor of all the constructed works against momentary flood flows." [9] Much of this concern was directed at Avalon, which needed the strength to withstand the effects of a possible failure at McMillan. Consequently, it was decided to use CCC labor to raise the dam's height by six feet. This was accomplished by adding a rubble masonry wall resting on the concrete corewall, and simultaneously raising the dam's earthen and rockfill portions. The channel at Spillway No. 2 was also widened and strengthened. Although the rebuilt Avalon was substantially stronger and more massive, it did not have a significantly increased storage capacity. As such, it was only a partial fulfillment of the project's engineering dreams of the decade before. [10]

Following the completion of the Avalon project, the CCC crews turned their attention to the further rebuilding of McMillan Dam. McMillan had been seriously threatened by Pecos River flooding during May and June, 1937, when its water level reportedly reached "an unprecedented level." [11] The high water caused leakage cracks to develop, and Federal observers feared that the entire dam might be endangered. A party of engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation's Denver office inspected McMillan soon after the flood and recommended immediate reconstruction of the dam. The planned improvements included the addition of compacted earth fill to the dam's upstream slope, widening its crest from 16 feet to 25 feet. The fill was topped with 3 feet of rock riprap. Additional work at McMillan included pouring a concrete apron below the dam's headgates and clearing the channel below the headgates. The McMillan reconstruction project began in November 1937, and the CCC crews completed most of the improvements by the following spring. [12]

CCC workers increased the overall height of Avalon Dam six feet by constructing a rubble masonry wall atop the concrete corewall. — Lon Johnson, February 1990.

The Roosevelt administration's strong commitment to public works projects allowed the achievement of a major Carlsbad Project goal: the long-proposed Fort Sumner storage dam. Plans for the new structure, to be named "Alamogordo" after a nearby Pecos tributary, were finalized by 1935. The dam's incipient construction was seen as a tremendous boost to the Carlsbad Project, but the proposal was viewed with substantial trepidation by residents of west Texas, who envisioned Alamogordo usurping that state's share of the Pecos water supply. In turn, eastern New Mexico water users once again expressed concern over the planned Red Bluff Project on the Pecos River in Texas. These two upcoming projects served as a reminder of the need for a formal interstate water compact for the Pecos basin. (Despite years of discussion, the Pecos River Compact of 1925 had still not been accepted by all concerned, and was not viewed with complete favor by either Texas or New Mexico.) A solution to the states' concerns was outlined in the so-called Alamogordo Agreement, which was signed on August 2, 1935. The Alamogordo Agreement specified that New Mexico would irrigate no more than 76,000 acres of the Pecos River Basin, and that Texas would continue to receive the surplus floodwaters it had gotten in the past. Approval of the agreement by interested parties in both Texas and New Mexico allowed construction to proceed on both the Alamogordo and Red Bluff Projects, even though the document was never formally ratified by state legislative bodies. [13]

Beginning in 1938, CCC workers began lining portions of the canal network with concrete or rock. Main Canal, December 13, 1939. — Carlsbad Irrigation District, Carlsbad, New Mexico.

The final approval for Alamogordo's construction came soon after the signing of the Alamogordo Agreement. The dam was formally authorized in late 1935 as a work relief project, aided by a $1,000,000 appropriation under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. The dam's primary funding, however, came from a $2,500,000 authorization approved by the Carlsbad Irrigation District shareholders in 1934. Bids for Alamogordo's construction were opened on December 21, 1935, and the contract was awarded to Hallett Construction Company of Crosby, Minnesota. Work on the dam began on March 5, 1936. Construction proceeded at a rapid pace, with as many as 900 men employed at the height of the project. Although the dam was not formally completed until 1938, enough work had been finished by mid-1937 to allow Alamogordo to begin storing reserve water for the Carlsbad Project. This allowed McMillan to be largely drained, facilitating the CCC's repair work there. [14]

The completed dam was an impressive structure, significantly larger than either Avalon or McMillan. It was built with a combination of earth and rockfill, and reached a maximum height of 149 feet. The dam was 1,600 feet long, 1,150 feet wide at its base and 35 feet wide at the crest. The dam featured an open concrete spillway and a primary outlet works with a 69-foot-high intake tower and a 581-foot-long diversion tunnel. The completed dam formed a reservoir some 15 miles long with a capacity of 157,000 acre-feet of water. [15]

The added storage provided by Alamogordo was a substantial blessing to the Carlsbad Project, which had suffered from an inadequate — and worsening — storage capacity for decades. The tremendous rate at which McMillan had filled with silt during its early years had slowed with the natural formation of a brush-filled delta near the dam's inlet, but McMillan's combination of decreasing capacity and increasing leakage had rendered the facility far less useful than was needed. In contrast, Alamogordo's upstream location and larger capacity made it far less susceptible to silting. The dam's location would also help stabilize the river's wildly erratic flows, and lessen the damage caused by its frequent floods. This was first demonstrated in June 1937, when the still unfinished Alamogordo was visited by its first Pecos River flood. The new dam successfully managed the floodwaters and, according to the Bureau of Reclamation:

was credited with averting serious flood losses in the Pecos Valley and Fort Sumner, Roswell and Carlsbad. The flood peak would have practically washed away the entire Fort Sumner Valley and would undoubtedly have caused serious damage to Roswell. . . . It was known the McMillan dam at Carlsbad was in a weakened condition from lower floods and probably would not have withstood the added strain of another flood. [16]

With Alamogordo's completion, it became the primary storage reservoir for the Carlsbad Project. Quantities of water would be released from Alamogordo as needed (from one to five times per year, depending on precipitation). This water would then be held temporarily at McMillan or Avalon for gradual release into the canal system. [17]

Smaller CCC projects included lining the small laterals with rock. — Carlsbad Irrigation District, Carlsbad, New Mexico; 1940.

Meanwhile, Carlsbad's CCC workers continued working on a variety of reclamation projects. The long-standing effort to fully line the Project's main and lateral canals with concrete or rock masonry received much of the CCC's attention from 1938 onward. Numerous other CCC projects were also completed, however, including a suspension footbridge at Avalon, reinforcement of the Pecos River flume, and a new access road and landscaping at Avalon. The CCC also operated a gravel pit and concrete block plant at the Carlsbad Project, and maintained an aggressive rodent control program. The local CCC program received a significant boost in 1938, when a second Bureau of Reclamation CCC camp was authorized for the Carlsbad Project. This second camp, designated BR-82, was originally planned for the Alamogordo site, where a Federally-sponsored recreation project was to be built. However, as a cost-saving measure the new camp was finally erected as an extension of Camp BR-3; a small side camp was established at Alamogordo to allow CCC work to begin there. [18] Camp BR-82 operated until November 1, 1941, and Camp BR-3 closed in May 1942 when it fell victim to the nationwide shutdown of the CCC program brought about by onset of the Second World War. Unquestionably, the CCC's eight years of activity at Carlsbad produced the most significant renovation of the reclamation system since the Reclamation Service's initial efforts in 1906-07.

Wartime restrictions and a local labor shortage reduced the Carlsbad Project's improvement program to a pre-New Deal level. (The labor shortage was also keenly felt by local cotton farmers, who succeeded in having the project's old CCC facilities turned into a prisoner-of-war camp to provide an agricultural labor supply. [19]) Local economic activity rebounded after the war's end, although during 1945 and 1946 the Pecos Valley experienced the most severe period of drought in memory. Even though the project's expanded physical plant was presumably better able to handle such situations, the Bureau's 1946 "Annual Report" noted that the project's farmers were unconvinced:

A general dissatisfaction among project farmers with the Bureau of Reclamation was evident during 1946, their complaint being a water shortage within their storage system which they contend was caused by inadequacy of Alamogordo Dam to serve the Carlsbad Project. Holdings of mass meetings among the project farmers resulted in the adoption of a program by which construction charges would be withheld by them. This resulted in slow collections, and by December 31, 1946, approximately $22,000 remained unpaid on 1945 Construction Charges. [20]

The Bureau of Reclamation eventually responded to such concerns by undertaking yet another improvement project at McMillan Reservoir. Unlike earlier projects, which had generally concentrated on the rehabilitation of the dam itself, the 1940s efforts attempted to address the water loss from McMillan's reservoir pool. Although much of the loss resulted from hard-to-control seepage through the reservoir floor, significant water loss was also attributed to the huge delta of silt that had accumulated at the reservoir's inlet. This area was overgrown with "salt cedar" (actually Tamarisk), which was absorbing great quantities of the reservoir's inflow through transpiration. In an attempt to reduce this problem, the Bureau of Reclamation authorized construction of a new river channel to bypass the salt cedar area. Construction of the 4.24-mile channel began in October 1948, and Reclamation crews completed the project the following April. The salt cedar area was sprayed with herbicide in 1949 in a further attempt to reduce the problem. [21]

A graceful suspension bridge at Avalon Dam was also constructed by CCC crews. — Fred Quivik; February 1990.

Post World War II A Return to Local Control

In 1948, the Carlsbad Project was still being maintained and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, as it had been for the past forty years. Although the Carlsbad Irrigation District had been organized in 1932 for the express purpose of assuming control of the local reclamation system, little movement in that direction had actually taken place. The irrigation district continued to operate in much the manner of its predecessor, the old water users association. The retention of Federal ownership probably indicated a continued irrigation district hesitancy to assume the added responsibilities that a transfer would imply. In October 1948, however, Federal officials abruptly ordered that the Carlsbad Project be transferred to local control effective January 1, 1949. A delegation from the irrigation district immediately visited Washington in an effort to have the decision rescinded.

Meanwhile, the district's attempts to prepare a plan for local operation of the system met with "little or no visible progress." [22] Several months of uncertainty followed during which it was frequently uncertain when, or if, the control of the project would be transferred. A period of negotiations between the Bureau of Reclamation and the irrigation district finally settled on a transfer date of October 1, 1949. (The October 1 date was chosen in order to give the irrigation district operational experience prior to the 1950 irrigation season.) On October 1, operating control of the Carlsbad Project's physical plant, with the exception of Alamogordo Dam, was conveyed to the Carlsbad Irrigation District. [23]

The irrigation district inherited a reclamation system that the Bureau of Reclamation recognized as being "generally in poor operating condition." [24] In an immediate attempt to begin restoration of the system's physical plant, the irrigation district increased the operation and maintenance assessment for 1950 and began a program of repairs. The Bureau of Reclamation happily observed that "it is evident that the district is taking an aggressive attitude toward the improvement of the project's distribution system." [25]

The Carlsbad Project's transfer to local control did not, however, end the Bureau of Reclamation's local involvement. The bureau retained ownership of the physical plant and continued to maintain an office in Carlsbad. The bureau also continued to sponsor field studies of possible solutions to the project's water storage problems. One such report appeared in December, 1950; another study, released in 1957, advanced the idea of storing project water in the underground caverns and cavities that laced the reservoir area. [26] A comprehensive 1960 bureau study, entitled "Reconnaissance Report on the Pecos River Basin, New Mexico-Texas," again recapped the project's "manifold problems" and evaluated possible solutions. [27] Four years later, yet another bureau report considered providing additional irrigation water by tapping the underground reservoir beneath Major Johnson Springs, just below McMillan Dam. [28] As with most of the government's previous studies, however, these research efforts did not immediately spur substantial new construction programs. Instead, McMillan's difficulties were temporarily mitigated by additional rechanneling and salt cedar control projects upstream. [29]


1. Clark, Water in New Mexico, 251.

2. "Reclamation Advisors Report on Needs of Projects and Policy for Future Irrigation," Engineering News-Record 92 (1923): 726-729.

3. Ibid.

4. L.E. Foster to the Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation, June 21, 1932, RG 115, Box 277, Files 1 and 2, National Archives, Denver Branch, Denver, Colorado.

5. Ibid.

6. "Twenty-Sixth Annual Report of Operation and Maintenance, Combined with the Annual Project History for the Calendar Year 1932, Carlsbad Project, Carlsbad, New Mexico."

7. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [19321."

8. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1934]."

9. Ibid., 4.

10. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1935]," 4-6; "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1936]," 11-71.

11. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1937]," 32. Detailed descriptions of the flood and its effects are found in pages 24-31.

12. Ibid.; "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1938]," 20-37.

13. Clark, Water in New Mexico, 229-231.

14. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1934];" "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1936];" "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1937]."

15. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [19361."

16. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1937]," 26-27.

17. The schedule of water releases from Alamogordo and the amount of each release is faithfully recorded in each of the Carlsbad project's "Annual Reports."

18. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1938]."

19. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1944]."

20. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1946]."

21. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History [1949]."

22. Ibid., 5.

23. Ibid.

24. "Carlsbad Project, New Mexico: Project History, 1950-1951."

25. Ibid.

26. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, "Plans for Rehabilitation of the Carlsbad Project and for Water Salvage Measures in the Pecos River Basin, New Mexico," August, 1950; F.C. Walker, et. al. to the Assistant Commissioner and Chief Engineer, Bureau of Reclamation, September 19, 1957, files of the Office of the State Engineer, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

27. A synopsis of the early 1960s federal studies relating to the Carlsbad Project is in Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, "Plan of Development for Brantley Project, New Mexico," Bureau of Reclamation, Region 5, 1967, 12-14.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., 11-12.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008