Elephant Butte Dam under construction, photograph, February 27, 1914
Workers labored around the clock to construct Elephant Butte Dam between 1910 and 1916. One of the Bureau of Reclamation’s early projects, it diverts water from the Rio Grande to irrigate approximately 178,000 acres of south-central New Mexico and western Texas. It has been the subject of water-rights disputes between the two states and between the United States and Mexico.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Reclaiming the West with Water
Some progressives sought to transform the arid West into productive farmland by harnessing rivers for irrigation. The Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, named for its champion, Representative Francis G. Newlands of Nevada, was a pioneering environmental law that defined the federal role in western water distribution. The act created the U.S. Reclamation Service, later renamed the Bureau of Reclamation. Elephant Butte Dam, New Mexico, one of its early projects, was the world’s largest irrigation reservoir on its completion in 1916 and the first major effort to control the Rio Grande.
The Government itself must make these waters available; no one else can; for no one else has the capacity to do it.
Representative Francis G. Newlands of Nevada, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, June 13, 1902