"Making the Desert Bloom": The Rio Grande Project (Teaching with Historic Places) (U.S. National Park Service) (2023)

Reclamation documented its work in annual reports published between 1902 and 1932. The following history consists of quotations taken from those reports:


Soon after the passage of the reclamation act, investigations relative to the utilization of the Rio Grande for irrigation were undertaken by the Reclamation Service. One of the chief areas irrigable from the Rio Grande was found to be the Mesilla Valley, portions of which have been watered for many years by canals. The flow of the river in the Mesilla Valley is so fluctuating in its character that sufficient water for irrigation cannot be furnished any large tract without regulation in storage reservoirs.

Pending settlement of conflicting [water] rights involved in the development of the Rio Grande project as a whole, petitions were received in 1904 from residents of Mesilla Valley requesting the construction of a permanent dam to divert water from the river into the existing canals in the valley. After a careful examination by engineers of the service, the construction of a dam and about 6 miles of canal was recommended as being a commendable development that would ultimately become an integral part of the Rio Grande project and that would meantime be of great advantage to agriculture in the Mesilla Valley. On December 2, 1905, the construction of this unit, now known as the Leasburg District, was authorized by the Secretary of the Interior and $200,000 set aside from the reclamation fund to defray the necessary expenditures.


[Construction of Elephant Butte Dam and its reservoir could not begin until the Reclamation Act was extended to Texas in 1906, and until the United States and Mexico signed a treaty regulating distribution of the waters of the Rio Grande in 1907.]

Work [on the Leasburg Division] was completed on February 14, 1908. During the season of 1908, the farmers received a constant and ample supply of water and had about 17,000 acres in successful cultivation. The permanency of the new diversion dam built by the Reclamation Service and the assurance of water when the river flows has given new courage to the resident farmers and has induced others to purchase farms.


A survey party completed a topographical and land-ownership survey of the proposed site for the Elephant Butte Reservoir in December 1907.

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Between May 1909, and July 1910, all work on the dam was suspended on account of the failure of negotiations for the purchase of the necessary lands for reservoir purposes and railroad right of way at reasonable prices. [The Reclamation Service ultimately purchased the land under the Federal government’s right of eminent domain and] the camp reopened in July 1910.


All of the work up to November 1912 has been preliminary to actual construction of the dam itself. This work includes the construction of a railroad about 10½ miles long from the Santa Fe Railroad to the site of the dam, a bridge across the river, telephone lines, permanent office buildings, dwellings, a pump house and well, hospital, mercantile store, and warehouses, mess houses, the assembling of machinery and equipment, and the commencement of the construction of a concrete flume to carry the waters of the river past the site of the dam during excavation and construction of foundations.


The river was diverted from the Elephant Butte dam site on November 6, 1912. Excavation started on November 8, working three shifts, and has continued without delay. Actual construction of the Elephant Butte Dam began on June 3, 1913. The main structures of the Elephant Butte Dam were completed in June 1916, at an approximate cost of $5,000,000, but the first stored water was held during the winter of 1914-15 and supplied to water users for irrigation during the season of 1915. By June 1916, the number of men working on the dam was down to 172 [from a high of over 1,000].

Preparations were begun in December 1913, to extend irrigation to the lower part of the Mesilla Valley through the construction of the Mesilla Diversion Dam and the East and West Side Canals. The East Side Canal was completed in September 1915; the West Side Canal was completed in November. The first water was diverted through Mesilla Dam November 5, 1915.

Pending the completion of the Elephant Butte Dam very little increase in the irrigated area is expected, and no enlargement of the cultivated district has been noted [in 1913]. An abundance of water in the Elephant Butte Reservoir [in 1915], insuring a sufficient irrigation supply, has caused a number of property owners [in the Mesilla Valley] who heretofore have allowed their lands to lie idle to clear the land and put it in cultivation. Some of the large holdings are being subdivided and sold in comparatively small tracts.

During the year 1915, the Elephant Butte Water Users' Association [established] an office at Las Cruces, N. Mex., for the cooperative selling of lands in the New Mexico portion of the project. Lands [were] listed for sale and considerable project information distributed through this office. The results obtained were not deemed satisfactory, however, and [at the end of 1916] the work was discontinued and the bureau abolished.

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Irrigation had been practiced for a great many years in the Rio Grande Valley [but the necessity for drainage did not arise until the water stored in the Elephant Butte Reservoir became available and the quantity of water being applied to valley land increased]. Investigations [made in 1918] showed that approximately 66 per cent of the area in the Mesilla Valley was waterlogged.

[The drainage system Reclamation developed to correct the problem] consisted of 350 miles of deep, open drains. The plan called for the construction of 13 long main drains in the Mesilla Valley. The drains discharged into the river. By April 1916, sufficient right of way had been purchased to warrant putting a steam drag-line machine to work on the drains.

[In 1918, as in previous years,] the project lands were seriously affected by the rise of ground water, due to the overirrigation of cultivated lands and the lack of proper drainage works. Little attempt was made to interest outside settlers because of the condition of the lands. [By 1919], the results of drainage work accomplished were of such satisfactory extent as to give encouragement to settlement, particularly in the Mesilla Valley. A large number of land sales and transfers were effected, and although no attempt was made to interest outside settlers in the settlement of lands, because of their condition, quite a number of newcomers, who had previously been interested in project development, made purchases of tracts where protected by drains. A very small area of new land was placed in cultivation.


By the end of June [1921], a total of 211.8 miles of open drain had been constructed. The visible results were much in evidence to one familiar with the conditions in 1917. Surface ponds in depressions and old river beds had entirely disappeared from the drained areas; orchards which were dying off had revived and showed a healthy growth; and fields which were becoming white with alkali and too salty to even allow seed to germinate were sufficiently leached out in one season to produce a good crop the next.

Land sales and transfers were particularly active during the winter [of 1919-20]. The successful operation of the drainage system, so far completed, in relieving seepage conditions was the principal cause of increased development. Tracts and farms which previously had been only partially developed, were plowed and leveled and placed in far better condition for cultivation. Although the total area in cultivation shows only a relatively small increase during the year, further development of older farms was carried on by new purchasers, and a general increase in project land values was experienced because of the demand for these lands.

[During 1920] the principal crop raised on the Rio Grande project was alfalfa [a kind of hay], with wheat and corn next. Crops that received increased attention during the year, and promise an important place in the future, are cotton, truck garden [vegetables shipped to local communities by truck], and fruits. The cotton acreage had previously been only a relatively few acres for experimental purposes. During the spring, over 20,000 acres were planted to cotton.


When the project construction began approximately 50 per cent of the area was in cultivation, the land receiving water through a large number of community-operated ditch systems. [In 1921], practically all of these community ditches have been turned over to and are now being operated by the Reclamation Service and have been partially or wholly reconstructed. This transfer of community ditches helped solve the drainage problem by reducing water use and limiting much waste in irrigation.

In 1924, the main features of the irrigation and drainage systems planned for the Rio Grande project [were] completed.

The abounding prosperity of the Rio Grande project in recent years has been due largely to the production of cotton. The value of the cotton crop is estimated at $12 million, which almost equals the cost of building the [dams and other irrigation] works. Alfalfa is next to cotton in acreage. Melons, pears, grapes, small fruits, and vegetables are extensively grown for local and eastern markets. All construction charges on this project have been promptly paid. The water users and civic organizations have been active in securing settlers.

There has been a marked increase [during 1923-1926] in the rate of agricultural settlement and development of the valley lands comprising the Rio Grande project. It is even more gratifying to note the steady healthy growth and permanent character of the farm improvements.

Of the 4,669 farms on the Rio Grande project [in 1927], 2,901 were operated by owners and 1,768 by tenants.


Economic conditions on the project were not so good [in 1930] as in the previous year, although above the average of the past 10 years. The air of progress and prosperity continued. There were practically no delinquencies in payments to the Government. As a result of the economic depression that began in 1929 new improvements, both farm and public, decreased [in 1931].

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Practically all of the project is in private ownership and is approximately 95 per cent in cultivation. There were 4,500 irrigated farms [in 1931], of which 3,021 or 67 per cent were operated by owners or managers and 1,479 by tenants. Only a few large tracts are developed in areas of several hundred acres, and, although several farms exceed 160 acres, the typical farm was probably from 60 to 120 acres. As a result of the Depression new improvements, both farm and public decreased. Crop financing was more and more difficult to obtain and there was probably some further increase in mortgages where they could be negotiated. Total bank deposits decreased from $30 million in December 1930, to $17.5 million in December 1931. Notwithstanding the general depression, delinquencies in payment of the project operation and maintenance charges to the Government have been relatively small.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What sort of farming was practiced in the Rio Grande valley before the Federal Project was constructed? Why did the private owners of irrigated farms in the Mesilla Valley ask Reclamation to build a diversion dam for them?

2. When did Reclamation begin investigating the possibility of building an irrigation project on the lower Rio Grande? What were some of the factors that contributed to the length of time it took to complete the essential elements of the Project? How long did it take? Do you think that was a long time, considering these factors? Do you think Reclamation might have been able to avoid some problems if they had been allowed to have Roosevelt’s learning period? (Refer back to Reading 1, if necessary.)

3. Topographic surveys, which identify and map the contours of the land, were among the first steps Reclamation completed when planning irrigation systems. Why do you think that would be important for projects that involved canals that work using gravity?

4. What is the primary feature of the Rio Grande Project? Make a list of all the steps in its construction. Why did Reclamation start with a diversion dam, rather than a storage dam? Do you think this makes sense?

5. How did settlement of the Project proceed? What factors impeded new settlers from buying land? How long did it take before the irrigated area began to expand?

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6. The Reclamation Act required Reclamation to submit a report on its activities to Congress every year. These annual reports are “primary sources,” first-hand accounts written at the time of the events they describe. What advantages would documents like these have to historians? What disadvantages? Can you find any clues that suggest that these reports overstate the successes of the Project and minimize the problems? Documents written at the time by the water users’ associations, by established farmers, by new settlers, or by tenants would also be primary sources. How might they differ from what was presented by Reclamation? How do you think a historian would go about reconciling these different accounts?

Reading 3 is compiled from the 1904 through 1932 Annual Reports of the Reclamation Service/Bureau of Reclamation.


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