The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, popularly known as BuRec, is not much heard of east of the Hundredth Meridian, but in the 16 mainland states to the west it plays a central role in managing water supplies. In fact, BuRec is the largest single wholesale supplier of water in the nation, supplying water to about 30 million people and 10 million acres of irrigated cropland, land that provides about 60 percent of the nation’s vegetable output. It is also the second-largest supplier of hydroelectric power in the country, with 53 power plants producing more than 40 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. (For a sense of scale, the average American household uses about 11,000 kWh per year.)
In 1902, when agriculture was expanding in the desert country of the West, Interior Secretary Ethan Allen Hitchcock pushed the National Reclamation Act, which established an agency whose chief role was to broker the sale of federal lands in order to bankroll water supplies. Headed by a mining engineer and hydrologist named Frederick Haynes Newell, the agency was ambitious from the start, commencing 30 projects in its first few years, including a containment dam named for President Theodore Roosevelt on the Salt River outside Phoenix, Arizona. Roosevelt had provided the inspiration for the agency, after all, telling Congress in 1901, “Vast areas of public land can be made available for homestead settlement, but only by reservoirs and mainline canals impracticable for private enterprise. These irrigation works should be built by the national government. The lands reclaimed by them should be reserved by the government for actual settlers, and the cost of construction should be, so far as is possible, repaid by the land reclaimed.”
The states of the American West rushed to lay claim to federal funds and subsidies promised them through the Act. Not surprisingly, California, then as now the most politically powerful state in the region, took the largest share, but every state got plenty of projects. Some have entered history as the largest or most significant of their kind: Hoover Dam, for instance, authorized in 1928, contained the waters of the Colorado River below the Grand Canyon with what was the largest concrete dam in the world, while the Grand Coulee Dam was among the world’s highest concrete gravity dams at the time of its completion in 1942.
Now, throughout the West, BuRec administers and operates 492 dams and 338 reservoirs. Dam-building has fallen out of favor since the grand age that stretched from the 1920s to the 1950s, but the only major failing of any BuRec construction was the collapse of the earthen Teton Dam as the lake behind it was being filled in 1976. The dam now lies in ruins, and while from time to time there is talk of rebuilding, more than 40 years has passed since the calamity, with no movement by the federal government to reauthorize the project.
Despite its relatively unblemished safety record, the Bureau of Reclamation has come under criticism from one quarter or another. Fiscal watchdogs have observed that while irrigation and dam projects are supposed to pay for themselves in user fees, the agency has seldom bothered to balance the books. Many such projects have been put in place in marginal areas where only low-value crops can be grown. One former commissioner, Daniel P. Beard, argues that the structure of BuRec fees offers only disincentives for anyone seeking to conserve water, leading to what he characterized in his 2015 book Deadbeat Dams as “monumental waste.” Noting that water that costs $100 to deliver sells to irrigators for $2, Beard has gone so far as to advocate dismantling the entire agency as an anachronism in a time of long-term drought and scarcity.
Last year, the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior found evidence to support all those criticisms, noting that in the delta of the San Francisco Bay, with a network of interlocking water projects, BuRec did not completely disclose its costs, subsidized water contractors under the table, and “converted $50 million in Federal funds from reimbursable to nonreimbursable without documentation.” The Inspector General has pressed for greater transparency in agency dealings. The case has not yet been fully resolved.
Meanwhile, BuRec continues in its role as the principal actor in providing public-domain water to private clients. Its scheduled allocation for FY 2019 is $1.05 billion, a slight reduction from the $1.1 billion budget of FY 2018. BuRec has also teamed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at several junctures, having formed, in 2005, the Institute for Water Resources to study ways to improve management of our most precious natural resource.
That said, the agency faces an uncertain future in at least one respect. In March 2018, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke proposed relocating BuRec headquarters to Colorado, nearer to its Western theater of operations, as part of a plan for the overall Interior Department to reorganize on regional lines. (Under this plan, the nation would be divided into 13 divisions, each with a regional director charged with better coordinating the department’s agencies to cut bureaucratic obstacles and save costs.) A number of locations are being considered, including Grand Junction, Denver, Albuquerque, Boise and Salt Lake City. A final site has yet to be announced.