New History of Wyoming


Chapter 13: Water and Irrigation


        In the interest of furthering Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, Congress passed the original Homestead Act in 1862, but because of the acreage limitation of 160 acres, the act had little practical application in the arid West. A further impediment to homesteading was the division of land into townships and sections, in accordance with the 1785 Land Ordinance. The law made no allowances for the natural environment. In fertile relatively flat areas of the Midwest, the land division had no particular impact on development. Regardless of proximity to rivers or streams, homesteaders could farm in areas where precipitation was the primary source of water for crops. Not so in much of the West where success in any form of agriculture required proximity to watercourses.

        Passage of the Timber Culture Act demonstrated that Westerners valued tree-planting, particularly on the Great Plains. The effect on drier areas of the West, however, was minimal.

        At the urging of Westerners, Congress passed the Desert Land Act in 1878 as a means of encouraging settlement in desert areas--places where irrigation was essential in order to grow crops. “Desert” in the definition of the act does not mean places like the Sahara. It simply meant areas where precipitation was insufficient for crop agriculture).  The act required that homesteaders “bring water to the land” within three years in order to perfect a homestead claim on the 640-acre section allowed in the act.

        As passage of the various land acts indicated, land in the American West was readily available for homesteading, but these lands often were in places where water was essential for agriculture, but no water was to be had.

        Private ventures to develop water resources for irrigation had mixed results in the 19th century. Mexican farmers who planted gardens to supply Fort Laramie with vegetables pioneered irrigation in Wyoming.  These simple ditches running from primitive catch-dams along the Laramie River are generally considered part of the first irrigation project in Wyoming.

        Mormon colonies built some of the more successful privately-financed irrigation projects in Wyoming. Most of these were for irrigating only subsistence crops, not for commercial agriculture. Through cooperative construction, with no labor costs, the colonies constructed a series of ditches and laterals to bring water from the Big Horn River and its tributaries to the dry lands of the northern Big Horn Basin. Other projects required extensive financial investment to pay for labor.

        Westerners realized that substantial outlays would be necessary in order to develop the precious water resources of the region. Consequently, Westerners interested in irrigation met in what were called irrigation congresses, with the goal of informing the public and lobbying Congress for a federal role in bringing water to dry lands of the West. Senators Francis E. Warren and Joseph M. Carey, in association with experts such as Dr. Elwood Mead, Wyoming’s state engineer, developed a plan for a greater federal role in water development. Congress passed the Carey Act in 1894. Under its terms, each Western state would be eligible to acquire up to one million acres in public land from the federal government for free as long as the state would promise to put the proceeds from the land into construction of water projects. In essence, the plan called for a federal land subsidy not unlike the subsidy given by the federal government to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific in order to build the transcontinental railroad. Few states took full advantage of the Carey Act’s terms. In most states, the most desirable public lands, in the proximity of rivers and streams, were already homesteaded. Consequently, Wyoming was the state taking the greatest advantage of the Carey Act. 

        George T. Beck, William F. Cody, and a number of investors formed the Shoshone Irrigation Company in the early 1890s with the goal of irrigating thousands of acres of land next to the Stinkingwater (later Shoshone) River in the northwest part of the Big Horn Basin.  Cody, already successful as the world’s most famous showman with his Wild West Show, provided the promotional cachet. The company laid out the town named for the old scout--Cody, Wyoming--and set about selling lots and agricultural tracts while the expensive waterworks were being planned. Raising investment capital proved more difficult than the promoters initially realized. Few investors wished to put money into a project where the rate of return seemed nominal and the wait appeared to be measured in years rather than quarters.

          Cody’s company was not the only one attempting to make profits from developing irrigation lands. Joseph M. Carey himself helped organize an irrigation company to develop land around what would become Wheatland, Wyoming. Unlike Cody’s project, Carey’s gained some measure of success. At least, the promoters did not lose money.

        Ultimately, the trouble came, not entirely from over-ambitious proposals boosted by promoters, but from the arid lands themselves. Few areas in Wyoming were suitable for agricultural crops. Without irrigation, it was assumed the land would be good only for grazing until the early 1900s. The State and University of Wyoming teamed up to develop crops suitable for planting in arid areas. Crop scientists like Dr. V. T. Cooke and Burt Buffum advocated deep-plowing and other agricultural innovations. Dry-farming techniques, along with unusually wet years in the early 1900s, encouraged homesteading in the counties along the eastern edge of the state. Agronomists, however, recognized that dry farming never would work well on most of Wyoming’s arid lands, particularly once drier weather cycles returned. Irrigation would be the only dependable solution, according to most experts. 

        In the 1890s, at the annual irrigation congresses held throughout the West, experts and promoters gathered to organize efforts to bring irrigation to dry regions.  John Wesley Powell and Dr. Elwood Mead were among the guest speakers at such events. By 1900, most people attending these conferences realized that the Carey Act was simply insufficient to promote investment in water projects. The federal government had the unique capacity to make it work because it had the necessary money to build projects and see them through to completion.

        As a result of persistent lobbying, Congress finally put the federal government directly into the irrigation business with passage of the Newlands Reclamation Act in 1902. Named for a Nevada congressman who was a strong advocate for the measure, the act passed Congress only after proponents compromised with Easterners who opposed the bill. Advocates promised that the projects built with federal funds would be “self-sufficient” and the bill included a provision requiring paybacks from irrigators into a revolving federal reclamation fund. Further, to reconfirm the Jeffersonian ideal of small farmers gaining the advantages from the bill, Congress set several requirements: each farmer in an irrigation district could apply federal water only to 160 acres and he/she had to live on the land being irrigated. Water rights would be granted to individual projects collectively. Specific amounts of water would be sold to "members" who, in theory, were paying back the costs of the project.

         In return for Eastern support, Western legislators supported increased funding for river-dredging, flood control, and harbor improvements--projects to be built mostly in Eastern seaport regions by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps also built dams along the Missouri River primarily to control downstream flooding.

        The new agency was first called the Reclamation Service, but later, the name was changed to the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation. The agency continues to operate today although the dam-building phase in the agency's life has long passed. 

        Throughout the 20th century, the two agencies dealing with water projects--the Bureau of Reclamation in the Western states and the Corps of Engineers elsewhere--dueled for federal appropriations. Each had a bureaucracy to feed and each had substantial numbers of constituents, all lobbying their members of Congress to fund the respective agencies. The agencies competed, not only for tax dollars, but for authority to build on various rivers.

        Several of the Bureau’s earliest projects were in Wyoming. One was Shoshone Dam (now Buffalo Bill Dam) that the Bureau took over from the nearly bankrupt Shoshone Irrigation Company. The first dam in Wyoming built entirely by the Bureau was Pathfinder Dam, named for the “Great Pathfinder,” John C. Fremont.

        Wyomingites always had substantial influence with the Bureau of Reclamation. Dr. Elwood Mead, Wyoming’s first state engineer, served as the commissioner of the bureau in the 1920s. (Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, a USBR project, was named in his honor).  Later, UW graduate and former Gillette teacher Floyd Dominy served as commissioner, running the bureau during its last years of constructing massive dam and irrigation projects in the mid-20th century.

        As years passed, the Bureau constructed a series of dams along the North Platte River in Wyoming (Seminoe, Pathfinder, Alcova, Glendo, Guernsey).  In northeastern Wyoming, the bureau directed construction of Keyhole Reservoir; in southwestern Wyoming, Fontenelle and Flaming Gorge dams; in the northwest, Boysen, Buffalo Bill and Yellowtail Dams.

        While the Bureau of Reclamation’s primary emphasis began with bringing irrigation to arid lands in the West, as time passed, the role changed. The available water supplies and the hydroelectric power generated at many of the huge dams in the West brought about creation of major cities in the West. The electricity generated by dams became a major revenue source for the Bureau and important for development of Western cities. An additional advantage to Westerners and tourists were the recreation areas created behind Bureau dams. Water-skiing, boating and lake fishing all became popular sports in the West, largely thanks to the impounded waters behind Bureau-built dams.

         Over time, the promises of early promoters, at least with respect to revenues gained from selling water to farmers, were not realized. Reclamation districts, made up of farmers receiving water from the projects, never repaid the costs expended to construct the dams and ditches. During drought and depression years, farmers got Congress to extend or even forgive the extensive debts. A congressional study in the early 1980s revealed that the Reclamation projects returned less than three percent of their costs to the federal treasury. Further, as the years went by, the acreage limitations had been relaxed to the point where, in some projects, the water was controlled by only a few huge agricultural corporations. The costs amounted to subsidies to those who eat vegetables and other food.  One could argue that these subsides, along with substantial subsidies for cheap electricity, offset the cost of the projects picked up by the taxpayers.





I.    Constitutional Context (Article 8)

II.   Prior Appropriation v. Riparian doctrine

III.  Attempts to develop irrigation

a.    private ventures

b.    Carey Act (1894)

c.    Newlands Reclamation Act (1902)

IV.   U. S. Bureau of Reclamation: Dam Building

a.    Wyoming projects

b.    Contests with the Corps of Engineers

VI.   Intrastate Rivalries and Water Compacts (Colorado River Compact, the earliest)

VII.  Federal v. State water rights

VIII. Native American water rights