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Front Page » June 5, 2003 » Local News » BOR Adapts to Changing Times During Agency's 100-year His...
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BOR Adapts to Changing Times During Agency's 100-year History

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Staff reporter

The over spray from a fountain at CEU is the only regular water this lawn has seen in a long time. Water is the life blood of the West and when it is in short supply, it quickly shows. The Bureau of Reclamation was formed in regards to water and storage problems in the Western United States.

The United States Bureau of Reclamation recently announced that the federal agency will culminate its centennial year by hosting open houses across the West. In Utah, the BOR office in Provo will present a celebration June 6 called "A Century of Water for the West."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is the largest federal agency involved with water in the West, administering 348 reservoirs and delivering 10 trillion gallons per year to the agriculture industry.

The bureau was formed in 1902 and originated from the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS).

During the Theodore Roosevelt administration, BOR known as the United States Reclamation Service. By 1907, the agency gained bureau status when it was removed from the control of the USGS and was given its present name in 1923.

The formation of the bureau was influenced by the progressive movement that swept the country. The federal government was expanding its involvement in many aspects of American life. It was the time of the creation of the national park systems and passage of anti-trust leglislation.

The eastern, southern and midwestern states had been insensitive to the West's problems, particularly when it came to water.

Most people residing in the eastern and midwestern parts of the country could not fathom a dry landscape or a problem with water. The regions boasted numerous natural lakes as well as abundant rainfall and had grown a crop of politicians as well as voters did not understand the West's need to not only utilize runoff, but build reservoirs for the long term.

For years, the West struggled with building private reservoirs and water resources. In the beginning, settlers had used the river and stream flows with little regard to who also needed water at lower locations.

When the supplies from the melting snow in the mountains ran out in mid-summer or in drought years, upstreamers suffered by losing crops and often livelihoods.

However, the downstreamers generally had even a worse time trying to cope with the lack of water.

Vast areas in the West that had good sunshine and prime soil could not be developed because the third most important aspect was missing; water. Private, municipal and local government projects to create sources of water frequently failed, partly due to lack of funds to develop the resources properly.

In the days before federal regulations and government involvement in water management, dam failures, lost water supplies and devastation downstream were relatively common.

Growing political power in the West, in combination with industrial development, began to put pressure on the federal government to create agencies to deal with the water problems. In many cases, easterners and mid-westerners resisted the movements to spend federal dollars on western water projects.

However, supporters of federal involvement reasoned that the national government had supported public infrastructure projects in the rest of the country that were as unique as water development was to the West.

The U.S. Congress had already become involved in developing the harbors and canals in the East.

Federal lawmakers had spent money on developing river navigation and roads in the mid-western as well as the southern regions of the U.S.

The railroads east of the Mississippi and midwestern agriculture had received significant assistance from the national government in terms of land and money.

Therefore, supporters of western water projects viewed the ideas about development in the same light. Afterall, helping the West with water management was no different in principle than what the federal government had done in other parts of the nation.

The issue came to a head in 1901 when western congressmen killed a bill which would have supported river and harbor projects set for the other two-thirds of the country.

In 1902, the U.S. Congress passed the Reclamation Act and the federal water plans began to be formulated.

People frequently wonder why the federal agency is called the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

At the turn of the 19th century, reclamation was the word used for irrigation because the thought was that dry lands would be reclaimed for human use with water for irrigation. The idea persisted despite the fact that, technically, the lands had never supported the types of crops favorable for human consumption.

Growth was also another key word in the reclamation supporters arsenal.

The supporters claimed that, by supplying water to the previously uninhabited areas, a process of "homemaking" would take place, in the form of creating farms for American families.

Roosevelt, a strong member of the progressive wing of the Republican Party, supported the idea of reclamation.

Initially, the funding to conduct the studies and develop the bureau's projects in the West came from the sale of federal lands within the states in question.

States without substantial federal lands could not qualify for the BOR reclamation developments. Consequently, Texas was left out of the mix initially.

But Texas needed the water supplies provided by BOR development projects and the U.S. Congress passed a special act in 1906 which included the Lone Star State in the federal government's western reclamation process.

The initial years of projects in 30 states were not as successful as the supporters had hoped.

Although the projects were to be initially funded by the sale of federal lands, users of the water were to repay the government with money placed into a kind of rotating fund. The revenues would be earmarked to fund later water projects.

Unfortunately, the costs for many of the developments that resulted from having water was higher than expected and many users had a difficult time reimbursing the government.

In addition soil studies in some areas did not pan out and farms failed.

Many farmers who moved in knew little about how to use the water, coming from places where water just came out of the sky on a regular basis.

Alkali problems in many areas destroyed land. The list of problems was long.

In 1924, a scathing report on the bureau brought many the failures to light, and many processes and procedures were changed.

In 1928, the U.S. Congress approved the Hoover Dam project. Hoover was the first of numerous dam projects and the run was on to have BOR fund construction up through the 1960s.

In the later part of the 20th century, development began to change, and in fact the bureau itself issued a statement that since the major rivers had been harnessed (for both water and power) their construction job was done.

The bureau then moved into a new era. This era would be one of maintaining and managing the facilities that already were in place at the time.

But part of the change in the bureau came from an outside movement in the 1960s.

This particular movement was noted as being one which was even stronger and with broader support than it's original progressives had been.

This would be the environmental movement and according to its supporters, the movement changed the business of water reclamation for many years to come.

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