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THE U. S. RECLAMATIONS
The Reclamation Service is a civil engineering organization of the federal government in the Department of the Interior. Its functions are to examine, survey, construct and maintain irrigation works for the storage, diversion, and distribution of water for the reclamation of arid and semiarid lands in the western part of the United States.
The arid regions of the United States, as generally designated, include about two-fifths of its entire area, extending from about the middle of the continent westerly nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There are no sharply marked lines or divisions between the arid and the humid areas, but there is, especially near the center of the United States, a broad intermediate belt, neither distinctly arid nor distinctly humid, which is called the subhumid or semiarid region. This belt extends over North Dakota, South Dakota, western Nebraska, and western Kansas into Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas. In years of excessive moisture the subhumid region sometimes creeps up toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, while during dry years the greater part of the plains region west of the Missouri becomes semiarid.
Water is available to irrigate only a small portion of the total area of the arid regions. Estimates vary as to the size of the area which can be irrigated. In the first annual report
of the Reclamation Service it is stated that "under the most complete system of irrigation possible it is probable that not over five per cent of the arable land can be irrigated in any one of the western states."
For, a full understanding of the origin and development of the Reclamation Service and of the laws under which it operates, some account is necessary of the conditions surrounding early private reclamation enterprises in this country, and of the previous policy of the national government toward reclamation of the public lands. This account falls under the following heads :
1. Irrigation development prior to 1880. 2. Legislation relative to private irrigation works on the
public lands, 1866-1901, 3. Reclamation of the public lands by the states, 1894 to
Irrigation Development Prior to 1880. Irrigation of arid lands of the West dates back far before the historic period. Remains of irrigation canals and distributing systems are found, notably in Arizona and adjacent states, in proximity to the ruins of the habitations built by the Pueblo or town-dwelling Indians. The Spanish conquerors coming northerly from Mexico enlarged the works of the natives or built new canals to bring water to the fields surrounding their settlements. The first English speaking people to adopt the art were the small party of Mormon pioneers who, in the summer of 1847, settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley. Their systematic reclamation of the surrounding areas served as an object lesson for larger undertakings.
In the decade 1870-1880, the practice of irrigation in this country was greatly advanced by the success of several coöperative colonization enterprises in northeastern Colorado. Of these the first and best known was the Union Colony at Greeley, the organizers of which were familiar with the methods employed in Utah. So successful were these colonies that they
were said to have "made of northeastern Colorado one of the most vigorous agricultural districts of the country.”
There are no reliable statistics as to the extent of early irrigation development, but the available information indicates that from a few thousand acres in 1850 there was steady increase to approximately 50,000 acres in 1860, and possibly 200,000 acres in 1870, followed by rapid development, so that approximately 1,000,000 acres produced hay and cultivated
crops in 1880.
Legislation Relative to Private Irrigation Works on the Public Lands, 1866-1901. The peculiar conditions of water supply existing in the arid region had early given rise to special legislation in all of the states and territories in that region regulating the rights of private enterprises to the use of water. In 1866, the first legislation relative to water rights on the public lands was enacted by Congress. By act of July 26, 1866 (sec. 9, 14 Stat. L., 253),” rights to the use of water on the public lands vested under local laws and customs were confirmed. Although the enactment of this provision was due primarily to the needs of the hydraulic mining industry, its language was drawn to embrace also the use of water for "agricultural, manufacturing, or other purposes.
Positive action in the direction of securing irrigation of the arid lands for agricultural purposes was first taken in 1875. By an act of March 3, 1875 (18 Stat. L., 497), provision was made for the disposition of the arid lands, termed by the act "desert lands," of Lassen County, California, to entrymen who would irrigate them.
Two years later, by the so-called "desert land law" (act of March 3, 1877, 19 Stat. L., 377), this policy was extended to
*Widtsoe, Principles of Irrigation Practice, p. 461. 2 Now section 2339, Revised Statutes.
8 By section 17 of the act of July 9, 1870 (16 Stat. L., 218), now section 2340, Revised Statutes, all patents, preëmptions and homesteads allowed were made subject to such vested and allowed water rights.