Copyright The Columbia University Press

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The Columbia University Press

reclamation of land

reclamation of land, practice of converting land deemed unproductive into arable land by such methods as irrigation, drainage, flood control, altering the texture and mineral and organic content of soil (see fertilizer), and checking erosion. In the United States, all these methods have been used, but the chief effort has been through irrigation. Under the Reclamation Act of 1902, the Bureau of Reclamation supplies water, subsidized by taxpayers, to farmers on arid lands in 17 western states (see Reclamation, United States Bureau of). The irrigation water has increased production, but at some cost: selenium and salinity poisoning have damaged land once reclaimed, competition has grown between agriculture and municipal interests, and wildlife habitat has been jeopardized. Additional aims of the reclamation program include hydroelectric power generation, recreation, and flood control.

History of Reclamation in the United States

While irrigation schemes were built in the Southwest before the coming of the Spanish, by the Catholic missions in California, and by Mormons in Utah by 1847, moves to gain government help for reclamation schemes began with the Carey Land Act (1894). Focusing on the conservation of natural resources during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, reclamation was advocated for lands ruined by injudicious farming, grazing, and deforestation as well as for lands with little rainfall.

The Reclamation Act of 1902 provided that the federal government should plan and construct irrigation projects using the proceeds of public land sales, and that the water users (usually organized in some type of cooperative) should liquidate the cost and purchase the irrigation works over a period of 10 years. The program was vigorously pushed by Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock. Among the many projects started then were the Truckee-Carson project (see Newlands project) and the Salt River project (see Salt River valley). The 1902 act had an acreage-limitation provision, but it did not halt the process of speculation in lands to be irrigated, which made costs to the actual farmers prohibitive. In 1914 the period of time for the water users to pay for the project was lengthened to 20 years (later raised to 40 years).

Interest in reclamation quickened after terrible droughts in the late 1920s and early 30s, and in the public works program of the New Deal under Franklin D. Roosevelt the reclamation program was linked with projects for flood control and for the development of power. The Bureau of Reclamation began to work alongside the U.S. Army Engineers Corps in building dams and forwarding multipurpose projects. The Flood Control Act of 1944 broadened the powers of the federal government in these matters.

Reclamation has created much new wealth in the United States by turning areas that had formerly been arid into thriving agricultural and industrial communities. However, environmentalists have questioned and even stopped more recent projects, such as the Bureau's 1991 water project on the Colorado River, due to the damage to the environment such dam building has caused. The Columbia River complex has had to limit the amount of water diverted to safeguard spawning salmon, and the Omnibus Water Bill of 1992 limited the bureau to environmentally sound projects. Further, criticism that the bureau's programs have disproportionately aided large, rich farms led, in the 1992 bill, to the restriction of water subsidies to family farms.


See F. Powledge, Water (1982); M. P. Reisner, Cadillac Desert (1986).


Copyright The Columbia University Press

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The Columbia University Press

Reclamation, United States Bureau of

United States Bureau of Reclamation, agency set up in the Dept. of the Interior under the Reclamation Act of 1902. It is charged with promoting regional economies by developing water and related land resources in the West. The original purpose of developing and executing irrigation projects in arid and semiarid regions of the West has been expanded to include developing and executing projects to provide municipal and industrial water supplies, hydroelectric power generation and transmission, water quality improvement, flood control, navigation, and river regulation and control. The bureau is the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the United States and would rank as the ninth largest electric utility on the basis of production capacity.

The Bureau of Reclamation contracts for the project beneficiaries to reimburse the government for the cost of constructing and operating the project. In many instances it chooses the sites for dams to be used for power as well as irrigation, and then constructs them. The bureau cooperates other government agencies in distributing the power developed. Among such projects are the Bonneville Dam (with an enormous power project) and Grand Coulee Dam, together with a host of related activities on the Columbia, the Snake, and their tributaries (see Columbia, river); the Central Valley Project in California; the Colorado–Big Thompson Project; and the Missouri River Basin Project.