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Bureau Of Reclamation (And Its Relationship To The Army Corps Of Engineers)

Bureau Of Reclamation

The United States Bureau of Reclamation(USBR), and formerly the United States Reclamation Service, is a federal agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees water resource management, specifically as it applies to the oversight and operation of the diversion, delivery, and storage projects that it has built throughout the western United States for irrigation, water supply, and attendant hydroelectric power generation. Currently the USBR is the largest wholesaler of water in the country, bringing water to more than 31 million people, and providing one in five Western farmers with irrigation water for 10 million acres of farmland, which produce 60% of the nation's vegetables and 25% of its fruits and nuts. The USBR is also the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the western United States.

On June 17, 1902, in accordance with the Reclamation Act, Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock established the U.S. Reclamation Service within the U.S. Geological Survey(USGS). The new Reclamation Service studied potential water development projects in each western state with federal lands—revenue from sale of federal lands was the initial source of the program's funding. Because Texas had no federal lands, it did not become a Reclamation state until 1906, when Congress passed a law including it in the provisions of the Reclamation Act.


From 1902 to 1907, Reclamation began about 30 projects in Western states. Then, in 1907, the Secretary of the Interior separated the Reclamation Service from the USGS and created an independent bureau within the Department of the Interior. Frederick Haynes Newell was appointed the first director of the new bureau. Beginning with the third person to take over the direction of Reclamation in 1923, David W. Davis, the title was changed from Director to Commissioner. In the early years, many projects encountered problems: lands or soils included in projects were unsuitable for irrigation; land speculation sometimes resulted in poor settlement patterns; proposed repayment schedules could not be met by irrigators who had high land-preparation and facilities-construction costs; settlers were inexperienced in irrigation farming; water logging of irrigable lands required expensive drainage projects; and projects were built in areas which could only grow low-value crops.

In 1923 the agency was renamed the "Bureau of Reclamation". In 1924, however, in the face of increasing settler unrest and financial woes, the "Fact Finder's Report" spotlighted major problematic issues; the Fact Finders Act in late 1924 sought to resolve some of these problems. In 1928 Congress authorized the Boulder Canyon (Hoover Dam) Project, and large appropriations began, for the first time, to flow to Reclamation from the general funds of the United States. The authorization came only after a hard-fought debate about the pros and cons of public power versus private power.

The heyday of Reclamation construction of water facilities occurred during the Depression and the 35 years after World War II. From 1941 to 1947, Civilian Public Service labor was used to carry on projects otherwise interrupted by the war effort. The last major authorization for construction projects occurred in the late 1960s, while a parallel evolution and development of the American environmental movement began to result in strong opposition to water development projects. Even the 1976 failure of Teton Dam as it filled for the first time did not diminish Reclamation's strong international reputation in water development circles.

However, this first and only failure of a major Reclamation Bureau dam led to subsequent strengthening of its dam-safety program to avoid similar problems. Even so, the failure of Teton Dam, the environmental movement, and the announcement of President Carter's "hit list" on water projects profoundly affected the direction of Reclamation's programs and activities.

Reclamation operates about 180 projects in the 17 western states. The total Reclamation investment for completed project facilities in September 1992 was about $11 billion. Reclamation projects provide agricultural, household, and industrial water to about one‑third of the population of the American West. About 5% of the land area of the West is irrigated, and Reclamation provides water to about one-fifth of that area, some 9,120,000 acres in 1992. Reclamation is a major American generator of electricity. As of 2007, Reclamation had 58 power plants on‑line and generated 125,000 GJ of electricity.

From 1988 to 1994, Reclamation underwent major reorganization as construction on projects authorized in the 1960s and earlier drew to an end. Reclamation wrote that "The arid West essentially has been reclaimed. The major rivers have been harnessed and facilities are in place or are being completed to meet the most pressing current water demands and those of the immediate future".

Emphasis in Reclamation programs shifted from construction to operation and maintenance of existing facilities. Reclamation's redefined official mission is to "manage, develop, and protect water and related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public". In redirecting its programs and responsibilities, Reclamation substantially reduced its staff levels and budgets but remains a significant federal agency in the West.


Reclamation commissioners that have had a strong impact and molding of the Bureau have included Elwood Mead, Michael W. Straus, and Floyd Dominy, with the latter two being public-power boosters who ran the Bureau during its heyday. Mead guided the bureau during the development, planning, and construction of the Hoover Dam, the United States' first multiple-purpose dam. John W. Keys, the 16th Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation who served from July 2001 to April 2006, was killed two years after his retirement on May 30, 2008, when the airplane he was piloting crashed in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. On June 26, 2017, President Donald Trump nominated Brenda Burman to serve as the Commissioner of the United States Bureau of Reclamation. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on November 16, 2017. Burman is the first woman to ever lead the Bureau of Reclamation. David Murillo was serving as the acting commissioner of the bureau. Burman resigned on January 20th after the inauguration of the Biden Administration. The current Commissioner is Camille Calimlim Touton, the first Filipino American to head the agency. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on November 4, 2021.

Regarding The Army Corps Of Engineers

Today, both the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation are focused on water projects throughout the United States, primarily in the construction and operation of dams along America’s rivers. If these two federal agencies are both constructing dams and reservoirs, then what is the difference between Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation?

The Difference Between Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation

Because their dams have resulted in the creation of lakes, state and local governments have worked with both the Corps and Bureau to establish recreation areas. The creation of those recreation areas is why boondockers enjoy some beautiful (and often times free) camping on federal lands.

But originally, the two agencies had different purposes.


The Army Corps of Engineers was officially created in 1802. However, it roots go back to the Revolutionary War. It was on June 16, 1775, when the Continental Congress organized an army of engineers, led by Colonel Richard Gridley, to construct fortifications at Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown. After the war, Congress recognized a need to build the nation’s military bases and fortifications. Finally in 1802, the Army Corps of Engineers was established. But soon after, Congress realized something equally important, facilitating the nation’s interstate commerce. The country needed roads, bridges, and docks. Over the decades, the ACOE went on to create dams and levees to protect cities from periodic flooding. Today the ACOE operates some 700 dams across the United States.

The Bureau of Reclamation was officially created in 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt responded to farmers in western states over the need for improved water distribution. At the time, western states and territories were too arid and dry for the small 160-acre plots of land that the Homesteading Act provided Americans with. The task of the Bureau was to help farmers “reclaim” western lands for cultivation and profit. It’s primary solution was to create a series of dams and aqueducts to deliver water to farmers and water districts throughout the west. Today, the Bureau operates 338 dams across the western states.

Establishment of Fishing Areas and Campgrounds

Before dams had been built on America’s rivers, people had been catching fish and erecting tents along their banks for centuries. When dams were built, both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation studied what effects these dams would have on the environment and neighboring communities. Both agencies agreed to cooperate with state, county, and local governments to make sure residents could still enjoy their fishing and camping activities. Thus was establishment of designated recreational areas.

The Army Corps of Engineers largely oversees the administration and patrols of its own campground and fishing areas. However, the Bureau of Reclamation contracts most of the administration and patrols to city, county, and state governments, although it continues to manage some on its own.

Overlap Between the Two Agencies

As the decades moved on, both agencies found themselves overlapping and competing for projects. Today, both agencies are largely involved in the construction and management of dams, as well as facilitating the watersheds that feed these rivers.

The Bureau of Reclamation largely sees itself as a supplier and wholesaler of water, while the Army Corps of Engineers sees itself as the authority of waterway infrastructure. The Bureau is focused only in the Western states, while the Corps manages projects throughout the entire United States.

The two agencies have built numerous dams along the same rivers over their years of existence. Along the Columbia River, the Corps have built 12 dams in all, while the Bureau has built 2. All 14 of these dams have overlapping purposes, to either control floods, generate electricity, and create water supplies for agriculture and communities. The Bureau would have built all 14 of those dams, except for the fact that the Corps had a hundred years of bureaucratic capital on its side.

In 1902, when the Bureau of Reclamation was established (it had formerly been known as U.S. Reclamation Service), the Army Corps of Engineers could have easily built all of the dams and aquaducts needed to supply farms and homes throughout the West. However, both Congress and Roosevelt needed a system by which the federal government could become a reseller of water. The Bureau is exactly that… it’s a water sales agency.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers does not sell water. It simply builds infrastructure and operates it afterwards. It works in conjunction with federal, state, and local agencies to ensure that dams and electrical generators are working as they should.

In 1984, a proposal from the Reagan Administration arose to merge the Bureau into the Corps. But in the following year, both agencies rejected the idea, claiming that the proposed savings of $50 million a year would not be realized because the two agencies did not have enough overlap. However, many argued that much of the western states were no longer in need of Uncle Sam’s “reclamation” and were fully capable of administering its own water supplies. Moreover, many pointed to the Bureau’s destruction of America’s rivers and streams over a perceived desire to control the sale of water to the nation’s farmers. Eventually, the merger proposal died.

In 2018, a proposal from the Trump Administration arose that would remove all of the Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects (dams and levees) to the Department of Interior and the Department of Transportation. The Department of Interior currently oversees the Bureau of Reclamation. As of this writing, the proposal hasn’t moved anywhere.

What All This Means For Boondockers

For the majority of boondockers out there, it doesn’t mean much at all. This is because both the Corps and the Bureau of have adopted rules that are largely similar to each other so that campers don’t have to worry too much if they’re on Corps land or Bureau land. Overlap between the two agencies has largely gone unnoticed to RVers.

However, the future of these two agencies are in doubt. The recent changes in social and political opinion have many questioning if these dams are still necessary, or if these projects should be transferred to state control. While federal agencies tend to offer more choices for free boondocking, state agencies tend to require entrance fees and camping fees. The growing power of environmentalists are also putting pressure on government agencies to close off camping and RVing on certain public lands.

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