Without water, life cannot exist. In the western United States, access to water is always a key component in matters of survival – of crops, of livestock, and of people. This was particularly true in the early days of settling the west, a fact well-documented by TR in his letters home while he was on his first trip to Dakota Territory. He wrote to his wife Alice about the scarcity of water on the prairie and of the brackish nature of the water there was. Perhaps his experiences there encouraged him to push so hard for the passage of the Newlands Reclamation Act when he became president. It was on this day in 1902 that he signed the bill into law.
The Newlands Reclamation Act, also called the U.S. Reclamation Act, authorized the federal government to commission water diversion, retention and transmission projects in arid lands, particularly in the far west. Roosevelt believed that the land should be usable and settled by farming families and that the water in western rivers, if not being used to help people, was wasted.
The Theodore Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River in Arizona was one of the first projects authorized by the Reclamation Service following the passage of the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. Construction began in 1903 and Theodore Roosevelt dedicated the dam on March 8, 1911.
Roosevelt felt strongly about the welfare of the west, and indicated the importance he placed on helping it flourish in his 1902 message to Congress at the beginning of the second legislative session of the Fifty-seventh Congress. The bill had already been signed into law and the irrigation projects were in the planning stages.
“The sound and steady development of the West depends upon the building up of homes therein,” he wrote. “One hundred and sixty acres of fairly rich and well-watered soil, or a much smaller amount of irrigated land, may keep a family in plenty, whereas no one could get a living out of one hundred and sixty acres of dry pasture land capable of supporting at the outside only one head of cattle to every ten acres.”
The Reclamation Act irrigated the west through a series of dams on waterways, and is considered second in significance only to the Homestead Act of 1862. While the Homestead Act allowed farmers to claim land for agriculture, the Reclamation Act allowed them access to irrigation. In many cases, this irrigation was the only thing that made cultivating the land possible.
Sixteen arid and semi-arid states were included in the original bill: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Texas was added to Reclamation states in 1906.
Once the bill was signed into law, the newly-formed Reclamation Service (later renamed the Bureau of Reclamation), under the Roosevelt administration, moved quickly to put water reclamation projects into place. Within a year, five projects were authorized. Just five and one-half years later, in 1907, 24 projects had been authorized.
One such project is the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District, which provides irrigation water from the Yellowstone River to residents along the parched North Dakota/Montana border. The dam and miles of canals are one of the sites on the Theodore Roosevelt Center’s TR Trail, an initiative that encourages travelers to explore significant sites related to TR in North Dakota. To read more about this project and other TR Trail sites, visit http://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/Theodore-Roosevelt-Trail/TR-Trail-Pages/Theodore-Roosevelt-in-North-Dakota/TR-in-North-Dakota/Lower-Yellowstone-Irrigation-Project.aspx