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Francis G. Newlands, photograph by J. E. Purdy, ca. 1903

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Francis G. Newlands, photograph by J. E. Purdy, ca. 1903

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