The 100th meridian bisects North Dakota and Texas and the four states between them. As settlers moved west during the 19th century and crossed this imaginary line they moved from the humid east to the arid west. Wherever they settled, adequate water supplies were necessary but not always available. Wells they dug were not always reliable.
In the east, they had been accustomed to perennial streams assuring year around water supplies but many of the western streams were ephemeral, in other words, they might be dry during parts of each year if rainfall or snowmelt was inadequate.
Nevada, arguably the most arid state in the nation, achieved statehood in 1864. Because of its lack of water, it was the least populated state through the rest of the 19th century. However as the 20th century approached, Francis Newlands, a U. S. Representative and later Senator from Nevada, had a dream.
He dreamed of making the desert bloom and his dream was realized when Congress passed the Reclamation Act of 1902. This act established the Reclamation Service within the U. S. Geological Survey (Survey). In 1907, it became independent from the Survey and was renamed the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau).
The early mission of the Bureau was to evaluate rivers and lands in the 17 states west of the 100th meridian for sites for the construction of dams and the attendant development of irrigation projects that would, indeed, make the desert bloom. A later equally important use of the dams was the generation of hydroelectric power.
And build dams the Bureau did, in some cases in areas where the Law of Unintended Consequences ultimately reared its head.
However, in 1928, the Bureau scored what probably was its greatest triumph with the Congressional authorization of the Boulder Canyon Project in the Colorado River Basin. Bureau engineers designed a concrete anti-gravity dam 660 feet high. Hoover Dam was built between 1932 and 1935 by a consortium of private companies under the supervision of the Bureau. Over 5,000 persons were involved and approximately 100 lost their lives during construction.
At the time, this was the greatest engineering project the world had ever seen, and it elevated the Bureau to one of the most prominent engineering organizations in the world.
After the astonishing success of Hoover Dam, the number of Bureau water facilities grew substantially eventually by around 1980 amounting to 340 projects. In the 1960’s the Commissioner of the Bureau, Floyd Dominy, was one of the most powerful people in Washington, DC.
However, by 1980, just about every river in the west that could be dammed had been dammed. In the Bureau’s own words, “The arid West essentially has been reclaimed.” The Bureau began to shift from an organization dedicated to construction to an organization dedicated to the operation and maintenance of existing facilities.
Presently the Bureau is the largest wholesaler of water in the country. It provides water to about 31 million people and irrigation water for about 10 million acres of farmland in the western states. It also is a major supplier of hydropower.
By and large, the Bureau has been extremely successful but as often happens, not everything came up roses for the Bureau during its long years of dam building.
In my next column, I’ll write about a few of its more controversial projects.
Some of the material in this column is derived from the history of the Bureau as published by Wikipedia.