The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1980, Volume 26, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Water for the West: The Bureau of Reclamation, 1902-1977. By Michael C. Robinson. Chicago: Public Works Historical Society, 1979. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Drawings. 116 pages. No price given.

Reviewed by Lawrence B. Lee, Professor of History, San Jose State University, author of Reclaiming the American West: An Historiography and Guide (1979).

This volume is an impressive example of institutional history. In many respects it is far superior to the only other popular history of the Reclamation Bureau, William Warne’s The Bureau of Reclamation (1972). Robinson’s credentials help to explain his exceptionally fine contribution to reclamation history, a relatively new and specialized field of conservation historiography. He has won his spurs as editor and author associated with the newly formed (1976) Public Works Historical Society. He was an associate editor of the notable History of Public Works in the United States, 1776-1976. He has authored essays marking the 70th anniversary of the Bureau of Reclamation and continues in his writings to celebrate the distinguished engineers who have made American public works history. His career offers a role model in public history which should be emulated by current hard-pressed History Ph.D. candidates.

Especially praiseworthy is the revisionism implicit in the author’s treatment of what he calls the “Irrigation Age, 1902-1927.” Starting with the 1930 dissertation of Dorothy Lampen on the “Economic and Social Aspects of Federal Reclamation,” historians have noted in passing the excellence of Reclamation Service engineering accomplishments but then have blasted the service for its “mishandling” of agricultural settlement and repayment policies. Those historians were not equipped as is Robinson to describe and give full measure to the public works achievements of the Service in this era. A signal achievement of this work is its surprisingly detailed description of construction methods—some curiously antiquated—and innovative designs incorporated in the storage and diversionary dams, tunnels and canals that gave the Service engineers a world-wide reputation. The diverse responsibilities of project managers, the encouragement of settler cooperation, the pioneering utilization of hydroelectric power are a part of reclamation history that needs to be brought to light. Again, in the “Multiple-Purpose Era, 1928-1952” there is detailed exposition of engineering triumphs in building and managing the Boulder Canyon Project, the Columbia Basin Project, the Colorado-Big Thompson and the Central Valley Project in California. The study is equally effective in relating organizational structure and administrative changes from the days of Frederick Newell to the present, with an accounting made of directors and commissioners’ leadership roles.

During the time of troubles for the Bureau (1953-1977), the author’s mood becomes slightly querulous as he ponders how little credit its critics give the Bureau for bringing water and industrial civilization to the arid West. Nevertheless, he recounts every service and environmental safeguard which has been advanced to meet the challenge of the environmentalists. Some examples listed are the irrigation management project and desalinization of Colorado River discharges for Mexican use, and the reassessment of construction safeguards in light of the Teton Dam disaster (1976).

Throughout, Robinson displays an admirable command of the sources and draws the more important ones to his readers’ attention in a selected bibliography. The photos derived from federal reclamation archives are a delight and offer an historical prism supplementing the writing. The style is attractive and the text authoritative so that the book can serve as a ready reference source on federal reclamation history. What is missing is an exposition of the underlying political forces that have motivated the Bureau of Reclamation’s history. Thus the professional engineers’ struggle for dominance against the New Deal social reformers is only hinted at in the attack upon Commissioner Michael Straus. The competition between the Bureau, the Corps of Engineers and the California Water Project as the underlying factor behind subsidized water and administrative circumvention of the 160 acre excess lands law in the C.V.P. is not treated. In conclusion, the author does not come to grips with the Bureau’s future activities, where expansion may be ruled out and where the Bureau may be relegated to a water management function.