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The National Reclamation Act

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Irrigation has been crucial to North Dakota’s development. On this date in 1907 it was announced that western governors would gather for the National Irrigation Congress in Sacramento, California. Governors of sixteen western states and territories under the National Reclamation Act were expected to attend. The Federal Government was engaged in many reclamation projects throughout the west, and the National Irrigation Congress was an opportunity for the governors to have input into those projects.

The Great Plains suffered from both too much and too little water. On one hand, the rivers were wild and untamed, often overflowing their banks. Father Pierre Jean DeSmet noted that unnerving storms during his four sea voyages “did not inspire so much terror in me as the navigation of the somber, treacherous and muddy Missouri."

On the other hand, there was often too little water. In his poem “Dakota Land,” Carl Sandburg described the ordeals that faced people who tried to coax crops out of a land “where nothing grows for man to eat.” He undoubtedly reflected the worry of farmers when he wrote, “As on the fiery soil I stand, I look across the plains and wonder why it never rains.”

The first irrigation projects were initiated by individual settlers, but pressure grew for the Federal government to take a hand. In 1900, strong support for irrigation resulted in pro-irrigation planks being included in the political platforms of both Republicans and Democrats. Eastern and Midwestern concerns objected to spending so much money in the relatively unsettled west, but Congress finally passed the Reclamation Act on June 17, 1902 after Western representatives filibustered a river and harbors bill that would benefit Easterners.

Irrigation projects were characterized as “reclamation” because they would “reclaim land for agricultural activities.” President Theodore Roosevelt was a big supporter of the projects because of his experience in North Dakota. He believed they would encourage settlement and farming, helping provide food for the entire nation.

Though resentments remain over the loss of land and even entire communities, the projects initiated by the Bureau of Reclamation continue to provide both irrigation and recreation. The Garrison Dam Diversion Project irrigates over one million acres. The Buford-Trenton Project supplies water to over ten thousand acres. Recreation areas include Devils Lake State Park and Jamestown Reservoir.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Bismarck Daily Tribune. “Governors to Gather at Irrigation Congress.” Bismarck ND. 6/14/ 1907. Page 6.
Bureau of Reclamation. “Missouri Basin.”,1940%2C%20678%20farms%20had%20located%20on%20the%20project. Accessed 5/14/2022.
Bureau of Reclamation. “A Very Brief History.” Accessed 6/14/2022
Bureau of Reclamation. “Projects and Facilities.” Accessed 5/14/2022.
Bureau of Reclamation. “North Dakota Recreation.” Accessed 5/14/2022.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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