Daniel Webster once observed, "When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization." And so, many believe, it was with the western United States. For when Brigham Young led his followers across the Wasatch Mountains in 1846 and determined to settle and farm the valley of the Great Salt Lake, the ostracized believers in search of a home soon raised the curtain on irrigation of desert lands by building a dam across City Creek at a site not far from where the Mormon Temple stands today in downtown Salt Lake City. Similar actions were to spread throughout the Colorado River Basin states. The basin itself is country that boasts the highest peaks, the largest mountain ranges, the widest plateaus, the deepest canyons and the lowest deserts in America. It also is the most sparsely settled area of its size. Yet the waters that drain its 246,000 square miles serve nearly 30 million people and irrigate more than 1.8 million acres of land -- producing some 15 percent of the nation's crops and about 13 percent of its livestock to the tune of more than $1.5 billion a year in agricultural benefits. Once the Mormons had settled and attacked the desert with unswerving determination, it was not many years before millions of acres were under rrigation, both in Utah and surrounding states.

In December 1867, a former Confederate soldier named Jack Swilling set his sites on the Salt River Valley in Arizona Territory. With some 18 to 20 miners, he built a weir dam out into the Salt River (which downstream joins the Gila and flows on into the Colorado), re-dug what had been a prehistoric Indian canal and planted several hundred acres in corn, barley and wheat. They formed the Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company, a cooperative association. The homesteads of these irrigation pioneers grew into the settlement of Phoenix and over the ensuing years, additional canals and diversion dams on the Salt gave rise to the communities of Tempe, Mesa, Glendale, Peoria and Scottsdale.

It was the 1860s when the cattle boom hit the Upper Basin of the Colorado River. Though one can find cattle grazing from the headwaters of the river to the Gulf of California, it is most closely associated with the high country. In 1857, the Army was sent to Utah to impress upon the recently settled Mormons that the federal government was still in charge. Close behind was William Carter whose job was to supply the troops. He settled at Fort Bridger in the Green River Basin and in 1868 imported the first shipment of Texas longhorns. Within a few years a New Mexico cattleman drove 900 steers in to Brown's Park from southern Colorado. In the 1870s, two governors are said to have invested in the cattle business and took the lead in promoting its development. The boom crested in the mid-1880s when there were 1.5 million head of cattle in Wyoming. A harsh winter in 1886-87 cut the numbers dramatically.

In the southwest, the story was much the same. The first large herds had come into the valleys south of today's Tucson in the 1700s, courtesy of the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries who had settled there. At one point some 1 million cattle and 8 million sheep roamed the southern Arizona countryside. As the 1880s began winding down, many felt the ranges were becoming overcrowded. Nearly 1.5 million head of cattle roamed the territory. Two back-to-back dry years proved to be disastrous. By the spring of 1893, from one-half to three-quarters of the herds were lost in Arizona. In both areas the cattle were to return in more moderate numbers.

In the 1860s through the 1880s hundreds of private irrigation companies were set up to water the desert lands. Most of them operated in very dry regions where agriculture without irrigation is akin to trying to catch the wind in a net, yet otherwise the climate is well suited for growing crops. With the exception of the projects initiated by Mormon communities, almost none of these private attempts survived beyond 10 years though the federal government, after the Civil War, undertook programs encouraging the settlement of arid, uninhabited lands.



But not all private companies were unsuccessful. The Imperial Valley in southeastern California was the target of the first large-scale, private irrigation project to make use of the Colorado itself. Attempts to carry water from the Colorado River had begun in the mid-1800s with a physician named Dr. Oliver Meredith Wozencraft, a forty-niner, a man of great imagination. He developed a plan to bring water from the river to irrigate the Colorado desert basin to the west. A delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he induced the Legislature to pass a bill giving him all state rights to some 1,600 square miles of "valueless and horrible desert" in consideration of promises of reclamation. Three years later when his bill was presented to Congress proposing "the introduction of a wholesome supply of fresh water to the Colorado desert," the House Committee on Public Lands initially showed enthusiastic support. If it hadn't been for a California humorist named J. Ross Brown, Wozencraft would have had water flowing west before 1875. Brown, unfortunately observed, "I can see no great obstacle to success except the porous nature of the sand. By removing the sand from the desert, success would be insured at once." When the bill came up for hearing in 1862, with laughter still resounding in the ears of all present, it was unceremoniously shelved.

But the idea did not die. Beginning in 1891, a series of attempts by a fly-by-night promoter and an enthusiastic young engineer, later joined by a grizzled, old surveyor, a wealthy civil engineer and irrigation expert and one or two others led to the formation of the California Development Company. By 1901 water was making its way through a canal which they had named the Alamo into what by this time regally had been dubbed the Imperial Valley.

Within a few years, another private colonization plan was under way just upriver at Palo Verde, an effort which opened up nearly 70,000 acres. The Palo Verde Land and Water Company purchased the estate of Thomas Blythe and became the parent company of the Mutual Water Company which, along with districts created for specialized purposes, eventually evolved into one organization -- today's Palo Verde Irrigation District. Blythe had in 1877 made the first filing on Colorado River water in California when he recorded a request for 190,000 miners inches for "agricultural, mining, manufacturing, domestic and commercial purposes." He had acquired some 40,000 acres and spent $82,000 building a canal from the river before any irrigation was accomplished. A series of mishaps, followed by Blythe's death in 1883 and the freezing of his assets by creditors had marked the temporary end of agricultural development in the valley.

With the lack of success of the majority of private efforts, gradually, according to government-written history, a movement began that stressed federal reclamation as a means of settling the West and strengthening the "family farm." Preserving that family farm was widely believed to be one of the objectives of Congress in passing the Reclamation Act of 1902 and its later amendments and extensions. One of the things the act did was to provide for the construction of water storage and distribution facilities in the westernmost states -- dams, canals, tunnels, reservoirs -- with the recipients later to reimburse the government for the costs.

Swiftly there followed a series of reclamation projects: 110,000 acres made available for irrigation in Arizona, followed by another 213,000 acres there; first 55,000 acres in Colorado, soon another 97,000; 55,000 acres in Utah. These early projects illustrated clearly the potential of the Colorado River.

Bigger projects followed in both the Upper and Lower Basins. Major dams impounded water on the Colorado and conveyance systems provided irrigation to acreage once only turned green in day dreams. Today more than 1.75 million acres of land are irrigated with water from the Colorado River.


On April 20, 1886, the editor of Phoenix's Arizona Gazette wrote "The proposition to divert the waters of the Colorado River so as to bring the great desert under cultivation is chimerical.... The great expense attending the consummation of such a project -- experiment, we would say -- is entirely excess of any benefits that may safely be expected." More than 100 years later, many farmlands depend on Colorado River water to thrive.

To the newly appointed officials of the U.S. Reclamation Service in 1902, Arizona's Salt River Valley seemed an ideal location for a pioneer reclamation project. Favorable geological formations at the proposed dam site, the large double-winged valley to contain the reservoir and fertile farmlands would assure the repayment of the government loan. All these factors suggested a highly successful project to which Reclamation could point as a strong example of its purpose. Its completion in 1911 assured the valley of its first reliable year-round water supply.

Today nearly 900,000 acres of land are harvested each year in the state of Arizona -- an income from all crops, livestock and products of close to $1.8 billion, with crops having a slight edge over livestock and products in income earned. To take the contribution a step further, an agricultural publication estimated that "farms, ranches and dependent agribusinesses had a total impact of $6.3 billion in total output or $2.7 billion in value added per year during the three years between 1988 and 1990. They also accounted for 94,300 full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs."

Cotton lint, cottonseed, hay, wheat, barley, corn, sorghum, potatoes, lettuce, onions, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, miscellaneous vegetables, honeydews, cantaloupes, watermelons, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, tangerines, grapes -- they're all among the crops grown.

In Arizona, about 25 percent of the state's water is provided by the Colorado River. Of that 25 percent, about 80 percent is used for agriculture. So there is little doubt that the Colorado has a major impact on the state's economy. The river's water is put to use directly along the river on the Arizona side, primarily in Yuma and LaPaz counties and to a lesser extent, Mohave County. In central and southern Arizona it must be moved through an aqueduct system to Maricopa and Pinal counties and, to a lesser extent, Pima County.

The most prominent Arizona state leader in the development of a Colorado River water supply was U.S. Senator Carl Hayden, who set a record for congressional service: 15 years in the House followed by 42 in the Senate. His last term ended the year following the authorization of the Central Arizona Project in 1968.


The Golden State, with the largest number of acres under irrigation of any of the seven basin states, provides Colorado River water to nurture agriculture primarily to three southeastern California agencies. The largest user is the Imperial Valley. Since 1942, the valley has received its water through the 82-mile long All-American Canal which carries it west from Imperial Dam on the river to irrigate its nearly 500,000 acres. The availability of this water and a considerate climate make the valley one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, producing nearly $1 billion in crops annually. Roughly one out of every three jobs in the valley is related to agriculture.

There are more than 1 million total acres within Imperial Irrigation District boundaries, and of these 407,000-plus acres are used for field crops, nearly 96,000 for vegetable crops and more than 20,000 for permanent crops. With some 90 different crops having been grown in one recent year, the top 10 carry particular significance. In order of millions of dollars in value, they included cattle, alfalfa, carrots, lettuce sugar beets, wheat cantaloupes, Sudan grass, onions and asparagus.

The Imperial Valley enjoys a year-round climate characterized by a temperate fall, winter and spring and a harsh summer. Humidity often combines with the valley's normal high temperatures to produce a moist, tropical atmosphere that frequently seems hotter than the thermometer suggests. The sun shines, on the average, more in the Imperial Valley that anywhere else in the United States. The 79-year-average rainfall is 2.92 inches.

The history of this valley boasts one of the most tenacious young fighters in this country's modern-day legislative arena. Opposition to the Boulder Canyon Project bill came from many sides. This legislation, among other things, authorized Hoover Dam and the All-American Canal as well as gave Arizona, California and Nevada the go ahead to enter into a compact to divide use of the Lower Basin waters. Congressman Phil Swing, newly elected in 1920 from the Imperial Valley, introduced the bill, a daring and controversial project, and it took him the next four Congresses of continuous activity to see it be signed into law.

The second largest user for agricultural purposes of California's share of the Colorado River is the Palo Verde Valley and Palo Verde Mesa. The irrigation district that serves them occupies about 190 square miles of territory in Riverside and Imperial counties. That's some 121,000 acres and close to 110,000 of them are put to agricultural use.

The Colorado River, which is the boundary between Arizona and California, forms the eastern and southern boundaries of the Palo Verde Irrigation District. Like Imperial, the valley, with its long, hot growing season, is ideal for agriculture. Crops are grown and harvested year-round, sometimes with the same acre of land producing two or more crops in one year. And the mild winters, with a minimum of frost, permit the growing of many crops not suitable for production in other areas.

Principal crops are alfalfa, cotton, citrus, cantaloupes, honeydews, wheat, lettuce and onions. In recent years, the annual value of crops produced within the area has ranged from $60 million to $158 million, excluding livestock. Some 25,000 to 35,000 head of sheep have been fed annually in the valley.

Irrigating more than 78,000 acres in a desert best known as a wintertime oasis complete with swimming pools and golf courses for those able to afford to get away from subzero temperatures is the user of the third largest amount of California's share of the Colorado, Coachella Valley Water District. Also a provider of urban water, Coachella's service area stretches over nearly 640,000 acres. Some 265,000 acre-feet of river water feed the crops that contribute more than $367 million to the economy of the Coachella Valley. Before the water came, this desert was no different that other deserts: hostile. The coming of the railroad was crucial in opening the desert to settlement. The discovery by the railroad of great underground water resources brought a trickle of farmers. Then more farmers dug more wells, punched them deeper with hydraulic rigs, put electrically-powered engines to work and carried the flow of water to the fertile land. But it wasn't until water from the Colorado River made its way through a canal 123 miles long that hopes and dreams were converted into reality, opening nearly 40,000 acres in less than two decades. Water, machines, men and money first turned the desert green and today 100 percent of Coachella's river supply goes to growing the crops that keep it that way. Fruit production leads the list by a wide margin, with table grapes contributing the highest amount to the economy, followed in order by dates, grapefruit, oranges and tangerines, lemons and limes, and watermelon. As a group, vegetables hold a distant second spot producing a considerable list of varieties. Nursery products, which carry the highest value per acre, contribute the third largest amount to the economy, followed by forage crops and miscellaneous field crops. Lesser value crops include cereals and nuts.

Little could early developers have conceived that one day computers would be aiding farmers in applying the exact amount of water necessary to meet plant needs, or that instead of flooding the lands to irrigate, many farmers would be delivering the plant's exact water needs through a hose about the diameter of a pencil.

Next in entitlement to California Colorado River water is the Metropolitan Water District, primarily an urban provider. Less than 10 percent of the water it delivers is used for agricultural purposes, and those deliveries primarily are in Riverside and San Diego counties.

Today, the desert areas in southeast California are the winter salad bowl for the nation. Agricultural production ranks in its top ten producing areas. In addition, these agricultural districts are working with other California users of Colorado River water to conserve where possible and to stretch the state's limited supply.


Colorado has been the home of irrigated farming since the late 1850s when discouraged miners applied their picks and shovels to bottom lands to grow food. By 1890, half the cultivated farmland in the state received irrigation from one source or another. Today, as it is in most western states, the vast majority of the water consumed in the state goes to agriculture -- in this case nearly 90 percent. And this is the same state about which General Zebulon Pike once wrote that when crossing its plains he saw many miles "where not a speck of vegetable matter existed," adding that in time these plains might become "as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa."

There are more than a million acres of agricultural lands in the Colorado River Basin in the state of Colorado. There are another 900,000 acres-plus outside the basin that could be irrigated with transbasin diversions. Thus the Colorado River could help irrigate nearly two-thirds of the entire state's irrigated lands. Major crops in Colorado are corn, hay, wheat, vegetables and fruit. And in one recent year, these and other crops contributed $1.1 billion to the state's economy.


Though, in terms of rainfall, this is the driest state in the nation . . . though it was the home of Francis G. Newlands, author of the National Reclamation Act . . . though it also became the home of Reclamation's first multipurpose project, the Boulder Canyon Project whose grand centerpiece, Hoover Dam, rises a majestic 726 feet above bedrock. . . though Hoover Dam provides irrigation water for 1.25 million acres in the United States and Mexico. . . though tractors plow the dry soil amid swirls of wind-blown dust, Nevada does not use one drop of water from the Colorado River for agriculture. It's true, statewide agriculture accounts for more than 90 percent of state water use, but in southern Nevada where river water provides 85% of the supply and groundwater accounts for 15%, water is used solely for municipal and industrial customers.

New Mexico

The Colorado's largest tributary -- not the longest, but the largest -- is the San Juan River, which travels a circuitous route through three states on its way from its headwaters in the rugged San Juan Mountains of southeastern Colorado near Wolf Creek Pass to the Colorado River just above Lake Powell in Utah. With an annual discharge of some 2.5 million acre-feet, along with its tributaries, which are many and wild, the San Juan irrigates some 100,000 acres in northwestern New Mexico -- about 10 percent of the state's total, nearly 80 percent of the land in the basin. As was the case in so much of the West, many of the ditches that carry the water to the end user in San Juan County were built by Mormon settlers.

The water cuts through the air in overlapping arcs, like birds crossing in mid-flight, pausing a moment at the point of impact before showering the alfalfa below. The whish, whish, whish of the sprinklers breaks the silence of this peaceful landscape as some 61,000 of the acres drink in the life-giving liquid. The remaining 39,000 acres receive flood irrigation. The estimated irrigated output per acre for San Juan County is $350, with alfalfa generating as much as $650 -- an annual contribution to the New Mexico economy of $35 million to $60 million. Alfalfa is the major crop in the region with some 35 percent of the acreage planted; pasture follows in the second position with 23 percent. Corn, small grains and dry beans account for 11 percent, 10 percent and 8 percent respectively. Add to that list sorghum, wheat, barley, cotton, peanuts, sugar beets, potatoes, lettuce, onions, chilies, hay, orchard crops and vineyards and you have a pretty complete picture of the agricultural output of the entire state.


Utah was the site of the first organized irrigation effort in the Colorado basin states in 1847. Utah was the host for the first National Irrigation Congress in 1891. With this kind of record, Utah initiated its own reclamation program in 1905; the Strawberry Valley Project. Completed in 1922, this project taps into the Colorado River Basin through the Wasatch Mountains to irrigate 17,300 acres and provide supplemental water for an additional 27,300. Today 340,000 acres are irrigated with Colorado River water, the major crops being alfalfa, pasture and grains. Utah's agricultural industry is spread throughout the state and ranges from grazing beef, sheep and goats to raising poultry and mink to growing barley, corn and oats, potatoes, onions and tomatoes, apples, cherries, apricots and peaches. Vines that are home to berries of all kinds creep alongside gullies and roads and bees produce honey.

In these days when farming is steadily giving way to homes, industry and other urban development, groundwater management and on-farm conservation play major roles in today's agricultural industry in Utah. Getting maximum production with minimum amounts of water is not only good environmental practice, but increasingly a matter of financial survival.


Widely recognized as a state of many "firsts" -- first to give women the vote, first to have a woman justice of the peace, first woman bailiff, first all-woman jury, first national park, first national forest, first to have a county public library system, first ranger station, first national monument, first woman governor, first American Legion post -- this aptly nicknamed Equality State was even first to claim state ownership of water. Though it probably can't claim first irrigation in the West, its irrigation history did begin back in 1853 when Mormon settlers at Fort Bridger first tried their hand at farming. Buffalo Bill Cody initiated the state's most ambitious irrigation project when he poured the earnings of his Wild West shows into a 60,000-acre irrigation and colonization scheme along the Shoshone River in the Big Horn Basin. With the passage of the National Reclamation Act of 1902, Cody turned the project over to the federal government and in 1904 it became Reclamation's first project in Wyoming.

Today agriculture, along with minerals, recreation and tourism, is one of Wyoming's major industries -- an estimated economic impact of well over $1 billion a year. About 56 percent of Wyoming land -- nearly 35 million acres -- is controlled and operated by 9,300 farms and ranches. The state ranks ninth nationally in land in production and second, at 3,742 acres, in the average size of farms and ranches. Livestock and livestock products lead the way with some 78 percent in providing the state with cash receipts from agriculture. In 1992, cattle and calf marketings accounted for 90 percent of the livestock cash receipts. Sheep and lamb inventories ranked second as did wool production.

The Green River Basin, watered with supplies from that river, the longest of the Colorado's tributaries, mirrors state statistics with livestock production as the primary cash crop. Scant rainfall and a mean annual water balance makes most of the basin agriculturally dependent on such irrigation. Alfalfa, small grains and native grass are the predominate crops in production. Areas not irrigated are generally suited to the grazing of livestock.

Because of climatic and topographic conditions within the basin, wildlife -- big game animals such as moose, elk, deer and antelope in particular -- are dependent on agricultural lands, particularly for winter habitat. Survival of these big game herds is vital to the economy of Wyoming and to the values held dear to its residents. Wyoming agriculture represents an integral link between the well being of its people and its wildlife.