If you’ve lived in or travelled through the American West, chances are you’ve glimpsed land under jurisdiction of the Bureau of Reclamation. Well, not so much land as water. “Reclamation” (as it’s known by people who care enough to nickname it) is a powerful federal agency that reshaped the arid West beginning in the first two-thirds of the 20th century mostly by building dams. Really big dams.
Today, Reclamation’s vast management responsibilities include operating 337 reservoirs that store enough water to provide more than 245 million American four-person families with their water needs for an entire year. While it actually supplies “only” 31 million people each year, Reclamation also delivers irrigation water to one out of five western farmers. That water quenches 10 million acres of farmland and helps produce 60% of the nation’s vegetables and a quarter of its fresh fruit.
In addition to growing more than half of the veggies on Americans’ dinner plates, the water that Reclamation manages churns a whole lot of turbines – enough to make the Federal agency the second-largest supplier of hydropower-produced energy in the country.
From its 1902 origins as a bureau within the U.S. Geological Survey, Reclamation was always about western water. The agency’s very name exemplifies the extemporaneous attitude about water. While homesteading and railroads tamed the Wild West a couple of generations after the gold rush, the realities of the American climate continued unchecked: Much of the country west of the 100th meridian remained arid and parched in the summer; additionally, cold, wet winters set the stage for near catastrophic flooding each spring as snow-packed mountains from Montana to New Mexico melted into massive rivers that tore towards the ocean.
Harnessing water had always been integral to western settlement, but Reclamation, which had become its own agency housed in the Department of Interior in 1907, took dam building to an entirely new level. Not all of Reclamation’s early projects proved successful, but when the Great Depression hit and F.D.R launched the New Deal, the Bureau of Reclamation became a shining star of American ingenuity and engineering prowess.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, Reclamation reached higher and higher, literally and figuratively. Reclamation tamed many of the West’s great rivers: the Colorado, the Salt, the Columbia, the Snake and the Sacramento. Its dams and its water-controlling feats are considered engineering marvels. Even if you’ve never travelled east of the Mississippi, you’ve likely heard of at least one of Reclamation’s dams: Grand Coulee, Hoover, American Falls, Hungry Horse, Flaming Gorge.
In addition to providing homes and farmers with water and transforming barely livable swaths of the West into verdant orchards, vegetable fields and salt-of-the-earth communities, dams make “lakes.”
Reclamation’s portfolio includes 187 developed recreation sites spread across 6.5 million acres of land and water. All told, these areas host 90 million visits annually. Reclamation itself manages only 31 of these sites; 100 of them are managed by federal partners, like the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service, and the remaining 60 or so are managed by private parties. Many of the sites have received additional designations due to their exceptional qualities: Twelve of them are National Recreation Areas, and another 11 are National Fish and Wildlife Areas.
If you like big lakes and developed campgrounds set amidst sprawling western landscapes, then you should definitely plan a trip to one of Reclamation’s 550 campgrounds, back your boat down one of its 450 boat ramps, and explore some of its 5,500 miles of coastline. Some the West’s most popular and iconic recreation locations are products of Reclamation’s handiwork: Arizona’s Lake Mead and Lake Powell, California’s Lake Shasta and Lake Trinity, Flaming Gorge in Wyoming/Utah and Lake Roosevelt in Washington.
But not all of Reclamation’s sites are motor boating hotspots. Many of the Fish and Wildlife Refuges offer solitude and ample space for quiet exploration. Lake Powell, part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, offers multi-day paddling excursions set among towering sandstone cliff walls and isolated backwaters.
Of course, building dams has steep environmental costs. Glen Canyon Dam, which drowned a canyon that rivaled the Grand Canyon, proved especially egregious to environmentalists. Over the decades, the water that Reclamation pooled in giant reservoirs grew more and more valuable – not just for hydro power and agriculture, but for fish, wildlife and purposes outside of the bureau’s mission. The bureau even recently partnered with the National Park Service on the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
Reclamation’s most famous commissioner, Floyd Dominy, was a unique and polarizing figure in the history of the West. He joined Reclamation in 1946 and rose to serve as its commissioner from 1959 to 1969. He championed and oversaw the building of Glen Canyon Dam and its attendant Lake Powell. In an interview with High Country News in 2000, Dominy mused, “I was in the federal government for 37 years, in water and land development, but I expect the Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of the most wonderful lake in the world, Lake Powell, is my crowning jewel.”
The battle over Glen Canyon Dam is one of the more interesting sagas in the American environmental movement and includes David Brower, one of the Sierra Club’s most well-known directors. As part of its ambitious Colorado River Storage Project, Reclamation proposed to build dams at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument and at Glen Canyon. The Echo Park dam would have drowned one of America’s most scenic canyons, and Brower mounted an effective campaign against the dam’s construction. With Echo Park off the table, Reclamation moved upstream and built the Flaming Gorge Dam while also proposing a taller dam at Glen Canyon, downstream of the Echo Dam site. Only when Brower toured the canyon (after Glen Canyon Dam was already under construction), did he realize the incredible beauty of Glen Canyon and the loss it represented.
Major John Wesley Powell had named Glen Canyon during his exploration the Colorado River system. The Colorado ran gently through the canyon, and Powell (and Brower a century or so later) marveled at the natural glens, side canyons, amphitheaters, arches and other natural features and highlighted the “glens” in his choice of the canyon’s name. The Sierra Club mounted an ambitious campaign, highlighting the loss of Glen Canyon to generate public opposition to two other dams Reclamation was proposing for the Grand Canyon itself. They were successful, and today floaters can paddle more than 200 miles of free-flowing Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
It’s hard to imagine the West today without Reclamation’s massive projects. And whether you agree with Dominy that Lake Powell is the “most wonderful lake in the world” or with Brower that drowning Glen Canyon was the biggest failure of the American environmental movement, Reclamation’s impact on the West is undeniable.
Access to “BoR” sites depends on the managing agency. If the site lies in a national park, you’ll have to pay the park entrance fee. If it is on national forest lands, you may (or may not) be charged an entrance fee. Regardless of who manages the site, you’ll likely be charged to camp for the night or slide your boat into the water. The best way to find out is to call the managing office and ask. Of course, with an $80 America the Beautiful Pass you’ll be able to access just about any public land site. Discounted passes are available for fourth graders, senior citizens, active duty military, and people with disabilities. This pass is good for national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and grasslands, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands, as well as Bureau of Land Management sites.
We all want to visit and enjoy these beautiful spaces that offer reprieve from the day-to-day grind. We have a duty to do so responsibly. By following the Leave No Trace ethic and making memories not tracks, we can ensure these gorgeous environments will be available for future generations.
Consult these articles for additional information on U.S. public lands: