Irrigating the West: Interest Group Lobbying and the Reclamation Act of 1902


After the United States forced Native Americans from their lands in the West during the 1870s and 1880s, a flood of American settlers moved into the region to make their fortune. However, as famed geologist John Wesley Powell noted in the 1870s, a major problem with the settling of the West was low rainfall and a lack of water for agriculture. For Powell and others—farmers, ranchers, land developers, and the railroads—the solution was irrigation, the artificial diversion of water to agricultural land to facilitate crop growth. When many private irrigation efforts failed due to a lack of investment capital in the wake of the Panic of 1893, proponents of Western irrigation looked to the federal government to reclaim Western lands for agriculture. By the late 1890s, interested parties came together to pressure the federal government to become involved in Western irrigation. The culmination of this campaign was the Reclamation Act of 1902, which resulted in the federal government’s involvement in irrigating millions of acres of Western land. The passing of the Reclamation Act demonstrated the power that businesses and interest groups could wield in shaping government policy and government intervention in the economy.

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