The reservoir of the Buffalo Bill Dam.

Project Overview: Water Reclamation in the American West from 1900 to 1940

Much of the American West is naturally arid. Despite this, the region is home to tens of millions of people. In my paper “Water Reclamation in the American West from 1900 to 1940,” written for my Art and Craft of Innovative History course during the fall 2019 semester, I synthesize three major works exploring how a seemingly unlikely region for substantial settlement and agriculture managed to overcome its environmental challenges in the earlier part of the twentieth century. These works include:

  • Donald C. Jackson’s Building the Ultimate Dam: John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the West. This work sheds light on the merits and successes of private water reclamation efforts, especially in California, through the work of John S. Eastwood.
  • Donald J. Pisani’s Water and American Government: The Reclamation Bureau, National Water Policy, and the West, 1902-1935. This book explores the complex interplays between the Bureau of Reclamation and water policy at large.
  • William D. Rowley’s The Bureau of Reclamation: Origins and Growth to 1945, volume I. This work serves as the official history of the Bureau of Reclamation, containing very detailed descriptions of all of its inner workings.

By synthesizing these works into one essay, I found the following:

  • The push for water control had its ideological backbones in the Progressive ideal, agrarian reactions to a changing U.S., the trajectory of white settlement, and partisan political competition for the West
  • Economic and political centralization that characterized the early twentieth century meant that water conservation was closely tied to the rise of corporate capitalism, federal bureaucracy, and larger, more mechanized farming.
  • While the private sector provided efficient dams, economic motivations led it to both rely on and be in conflict with the Bureau of Reclamation, and the wonder and sense of security provoked by enormous dams hindered the proliferation of more efficient and cost-effective designs, particularly in the New Deal Era.