Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Turning Water into Communities - the Newlands Reclamation Act

On June 17, 1902, the United States Congress passed the Newlands Reclamation Act, dedicating the nation to a system of dams, irrigation canals and hydroelectric power plants in the arid states of the West. Under T.R.’s leadership, the work of the Reclamation Service was to function as a revolving fund, with the farms and landowners benefiting from the increased land value and productive capabilities repaying the initial investment of the public treasury. When I was but an infant in the study of politics and public policy, I used to think that “Newlands” referenced the land, in the manner that “new, irrigable lands” were being created out of dry and dusty lands. The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.

The chief work done on behalf of its passage within the Congress was done by the bill’s sponsor, Representative, later Senator, Francis G. Newlands, of Reno, Nevada. When Newlands was a member of the House of Representatives, he was Nevada’s only member, elected at-large. Newlands, a Democrat, is also remembered in history as the sponsor of the Newlands Resolution, which, when adopted by Congress on July 4 and signed by President McKinley on July 7, 1898, formalized the annexation of Hawaii as a territory of the United States. When Congress passed the annexation legislation, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, commanding officer of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry and formerly Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was still engaged in the siege of Santiago, Cuba. By the time the Newlands Reclamation Act was passed, T.R. had become our President, and he wasted no time in getting the national conservation movement on its legs.

To celebrate the anniversary of the Newlands Reclamation Act, the T.R. Tour visited the Snake River’s Minidoka Dam in Idaho, an earthen and concrete structure begun in 1904 and completed in 1906. Like dozens of other Reclamation Act projects in the western states, the Minidoka Dam changed the landscape and the demographics of the surrounding territory. The damming of the Snake River creates a lake of some 11,000 surface acres, an environment conducive to the enjoyment of many birds, human beings and other various forms of wildlife. The dam also produced the region’s first high volume, reliable electricity. The lake was eventually named Lake Walcott, in honor of Charles Doolittle Walcott, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey from 1894 to 1907 and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute from 1907 until his death in 1927.

Typical of the multiple benefits often realized from Rooseveltian undertakings, the lake and its environs were soon identified as an important location for wildlife, and on February 25, 1909, in the last week of his administration, Roosevelt named Minidoka a national bird reservation. Today, Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge includes over 20,000 acres of land and water where the ducks, geese, and mule deer which dominate the reserve are often joined by diverse birds and mammals who thrive not only on the water and surrounding wetlands, but also on the hundreds of shade trees that were planted at the initial camp for construction workers and later when the Civilian Conservation Corps camped and worked in the reserve as well.

In his autobiography published in 1913, T.R. wrote:

“While I had lived in the West I had come to realize the vital need of irrigation to the country, and I had been both amused and irritated by the attitude of Eastern men who obtained from Congress grants of National money to develop harbors and yet fought the use of the Nation’s power to develop the irrigation of the West. Major John Wesley Powell, the explorer of the Grand Canyon, and director of the Geological Survey, was the first man who fought for irrigation, and he lived to see the Reclamation Act passed and construction actually begun. Mr. F.H. Newell, the present Director of the Reclamation Service, began his work as an assistant hydraulic engineer under Major Powell; and unlike Powell, he appreciated the need of saving the forests and the soil, as well as the need of irrigation. Between Powell and Newell came, as Director of the Geological Survey, Charles D. Walcott, who after the Reclamation Act was passed, by his force, pertinacity, and tact, succeeded in putting the act into effect in the best possible manner. Senator Francis G. Newlands, of Nevada, fought hard for the cause of reclamation in Congress.”

T.R. goes on to give the greatest share of credit to Gifford Pinchot, and I’ll save that excerpt for another time, as Pinchot has been and will be a major part of the T.R. Tour.

Today, suffice it to say that the American people have much to be thankful for when it comes to acknowledging the Newlands Reclamation Act, the men and women who fought for its passage and the able public servants who have built and maintained the system of rivers, lakes and dams which water our produce and power the economies of the West. Today the United States Bureau of Reclamation operates 479 dams and 348 reservoirs with total water storage capacity of 245 million acre-feet. On those dams, the Bureau of Reclamation operates fifty-eight hydro-electric power plants, producing 44 BILLION kilowatt hours of electricity each year. Some ten million acres of farmland are irrigated by Bureau of Reclamation systems, with some sixty percent of our nation’s vegetables and twenty-five percent of our fruit and nut crop receiving Bureau of Reclamation water. Perhaps more importantly, 145,000 farmers are served by Bureau of Reclamation water.

As we travelled the Snake River Valley, I was struck by the myriad of flowing canals and ditches. On this eighty-five degree day, most of the fields within view were either spraying water across their fields or preparing behemoth irrigation systems for employment. As I passed one huge quarter mile long irrigation crawler, I noticed a sight that reminded me of the family farms back in DeKalb County, Illinois. High on a truck bed was a farmer, tools in hand, working on a nozzle. Serving as the “ground man” or “gopher” below was the farm wife, obvious by her diligence and patience, the backbone of the American farm.

I do think T.R. would look fondly on their hard work and their beautiful farm, and he would have something good to say about the men and women of the Bureau of Reclamation who make it all possible.

2 comments:

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PhloydPink said...

In your article you state:
"Today the United States Bureau of Reclamation operates 479 dams and 348 reservoirs with total water storage capacity of 245 million acre-feet. On those dams, the Bureau of Reclamation operates fifty-eight hydro-electric power plants, producing 44 BILLION kilowatt hours of electricity each year. Some ten million acres of farmland are irrigated by Bureau of Reclamation systems, with some sixty percent of our nation’s vegetables and twenty-five percent of our fruit and nut crop receiving Bureau of Reclamation water. Perhaps more importantly, 145,000 farmers are served by Bureau of Reclamation water."

I am hoping that you can provide me with a source for these statistics?

Thanks.