Reclamation Act Essay

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The history of the United States has been one of continual territorial expansion. This expansion has necessitated legislation and infrastructure to bring newly acquired territory into efficient, productive use. The Reclamation Act of 1902, passed during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, was one of the more important examples of the legislation necessary to bring the land of the western United States into productive agricultural use. This land had been settled, but offered insufficient fresh water resources for the agricultural activities settlers wished to practice. Water was drawn from rivers and streams for irrigation, but increasing demand led to calls for government action to create federallevel storage and irrigation projects to supplement and overhaul those local initiatives that had failed for lack of technical know how and money.

The Reclamation Act added to the extensive statelevel investment in physical and transportation infrastructure that was essential for the creation of a stable society. President Roosevelt approved of the concept of “homemaking” that the reclamation activities would enable, since it would help promote the growth of agricultural farmsteads across the western United States, which would have numerous social and economic benefits.

The act led to the formation of the U.S. Reclamation Service within the U.S. Geographical Survey and, for the next few years, studies were launched to identify suitable projects on designated land sites. In the years before 1924, reclamation projects often did as much harm as good as technical problems overwhelmed the Reclamation Service, but these were eventually overcome. The Fact Finders Act of 1924 systematically identified the problems and outlined the measures necessary to rectify them. Subsequent projects included the Hoover Dam of 1928 and, although the record was not one of unalloyed success subsequently, it was much improved. Reclamation continued until the 1980s before being scaled down as it became clear that nearly every practicable water resource had been harnessed.

Reclamation projects provide irrigation water to more than 9,000,000 acres of land and provide water for household and industrial use to around one third of the American West’s population. Additionally, 56 hydropower electricity stations provide power to supplement the total grid. More recently, additional acts have been passed to modify the effects of the Reclamation Act and more attention has been paid to the broader environmental impacts of land reclamation. As new projects are no longer urgently required, the attention of the Reclamation Agency has switched to the maintenance and protection of existing water resources and the lands in which they flow.


  1. Peter L. Bass and Edward M. Kirshner, “Demographic, Economic, and Fiscal Impacts of Alternative Westlands Reclamation Act Enforcement Scenarios,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics (v.60/5, 1978);
  2. Donald C. Jackson, “Engineering in the Progressive Era: A New Look at Frederick Haynes Newell and the S. Reclamation Service,” Technology and Culture (v.34/3, 1993);
  3. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation,

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