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National Reclamation Act of 1902

National Reclamation Act of 1902

Kyle A. Loring

On June 17, 1902, Congress enacted the National Reclamation Act (P.L. 57-161, 32 Stat. 388), also known as the Newland Act, to "[a]ppopriat[e] the receipts from the sale and disposal of public lands in certain States and Territories to the construction of irrigation works for the reclamation of arid lands." With this act, Congress intended to harness the intermittent precipitation in seventeen western states and use it to encourage individual families to settle in the West by converting arid federal land into agriculturally productive land. The act created a Reclamation Service with the technical expertise to construct monumental water projects to irrigate the West, and established a Reclamation Fund to finance these expensive ventures. A century later, with every major river but the Yellowstone dammed, the Bureau of Reclamation has been forced to shift its focus from massive construction projects to the operation and maintenance of these facilities.


In 1888, Francis G. Newlands arrived in Nevada and began to advocate for an irrigation system that would divert water from the Truckee and Carson Rivers to local family farms. Newlands suggested that his proposal could be funded through the sale of federal lands. When Nevada elected him to the House of Representatives, he worked with Frederick Newell, the chief hydrographer of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), to pursue this idea on a national scale.

During this period, demand for water from expanding western farms began to exceed the supply from intermittent precipitation, and farmers sought to capture rain and snow runoff as an alternative source for water. When their private and state-sponsored irrigation programs failed due to inadequate funding and technical expertise, these farmers pressed the federal government for aid. Because the federal government had already become involved itself in other local infrastructure subsidies for roads, river navigation, harbors, canals, and railroads, both Republican and Democratic candidates believed they could convince Congress to aid irrigation programs, and so campaigned on pro-irrigation platforms. Notwithstanding eastern and midwestern opposition, Congress passed the Reclamation Act when western legislators filibustered and delayed votes on eastern rivers and harbors projects.


As initially promulgated by Congress, the Reclamation Act encouraged western settlement by selling federal lands to individual farmers and then supplying them with inexpensive water, for which the farmers would repay the government. These payments and the proceeds from land sales would be placed in a Reclamation Fund to finance the construction of the water projects. In addition, water sales were to be limited to those individuals farming one hundred and sixty or fewer acres and residing on the land. By the start of the twenty-first century, however, the acreage limitation had been relaxed and the residency requirement had been abolished completely.

The Reclamation Act created the United States Reclamation Service as the agency to implement Congress's mandate, and the Reclamation Fund as the financial mechanism that would finance the program. The Reclamation Service investigated potential water projects in each of the seventeen western states with federal lands. The Reclamation Service later became the independent Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) within the Department of the Interior.

Congress created the Reclamation Fund on the premise that fees collected from water purchased from reclamation projects would create a self-sustaining endeavor, repaying construction and operation costs. The projects' immense construction costs soon proved the premise unrealistic. For example, earlier self-supporting projects created by local initiatives had cost less than twenty dollars an acre. The federal reclamation projects, by contrast, cost an average of eighty-five dollars an acre. Thus, the farmers' share of the federal expenses proved too great a sum for their repayment.


Congress responded to farmers' inability to pay water costs first with extended repayment periods, and then a decreased obligation to repay the funds. In 1926, Congress passed the Omnibus Adjustment Act to extend the terms of repayment from ten annual installments to forty annual payments. Then, when Congress realized that farmers still could not repay the project costs, it passed the Reclamation Project Act of 1939 that conditioned repayment only on a farmer's "ability to pay."

This lack of repayment by farmers forced Congress to look elsewhere to fund the reclamation projects. In June 1910 Congress advanced $20 million from general treasury funds and $5 million in March 1931 for these projects. After that time, appropriations for individual projects drew funding from both the Reclamation Fund and the general treasury fund. Additional funding sources included receipts from the Mineral Leasing Act, proceeds from the lease and sale of products from withdrawn lands, and money from the sale of surplus lands.

During its heyday, the BOR erected such impressive public works as Hoover Dam, Shasta Dam, and Grand Coulee Dam, each the largest concrete structure in the world at the time of its construction. These dams provided benefits including electricity production, irrigation, water storage, flood control, and public recreation in the form of fishing, water skiing, and swimming. In raising these monuments to human ingenuity, however, BOR subtly shifted its mission from constructing dams for society's benefit to merely constructing dams. Led primarily by BOR efforts, 75,000 public and private dams were built in the United States during the twentieth century. President William J. Clinton's secretary of the interior, Bruce Babbitt, in assessing this figure, recognized that BOR had gone too far, noting that it amounted to an average of one dam a day, including weekends, built since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Since the 1970s, the dam-building fervor has slowed dramatically. The last major authorization for a project occurred in the late 1960s. Since then, the combined effects of the Administrative Procedure Act (1946) and the National Environmental Policy Act (1969) have forced federal agencies to justify economically and environmentally their major projects. With cost over-runs of completed water projects exceeding estimates by at least 50 percent, and with major disruption as well as destruction of riparian ecosystems, such justifications have not been easily found. One study has even pointed to dam construction as a major factor in the degradation of aquatic habitats, with 67 percent of freshwater mussels, 64 percent of crayfish, 36 percent of fish, and 20 percent of dragonfly species extinct, imperiled, or vulnerable as a result.

Even though the Reclamation Act has led to unintended adverse economic and environmental impacts, it continues to serve as the basis for the operation and maintenance of current facilities. Indicating awareness that some of its projects no longer serve useful purposes, a congressional committee in 1994 even discussed the demolition of Glen Canyon Dam. Thus, the BOR's mission may realign itself with Congress's initial goals for the agency, that of constructing water projects where necessary to best serve all interests involved.

See also: National Environmental Policy Act; Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.


"The Bureau of Reclamation: A Brief History." Bureau of Reclamation. <>.

Center for Columbia River History. "Reclamation Act/Newlands Act of 1902." <>.

Collier, Michael, et al. "Dams and Rivers: A Primer on the Downstream Effects of Dams." U.S.G.S. Circular 1126 (1996).

Devine, Robert S. "The Trouble with Dams." Atlantic Monthly 276, no. 2 (1995): 6474.

Fernley Nevada Chamber of Commerce. "The National Reclamation Act of 1902: The Newlands Irrigation Project." <>.

Klein, Christine A. "On Dams and Democracy," Oregon Law Review 78, no. 3 (1999): 64193.

McCully, Patrick. Silenced Rivers, the Ecology and Politics of Large Dams. London: Zed Books, 1996.

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