Friday, August 18, 2017

Desert Land (Carey) Act Signed to Encourage Irrigation in the West [otd 8/18]

On August 18, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the Desert Land Act of 1894, better known as the Carey Act. Sponsored by Wyoming Senator Joseph M. Carey, the Act was meant to improve the success rate for the settlement of the public lands. The law specifically addressed the millions upon millions of acres in the western states that required irrigation for productive farming – the so-called “arid lands.”
Joseph M. Carey.
Wyoming State Archives.

Individuals and irrigation cooperatives had already exploited most of the land that could be watered with smaller systems of canals and impoundments. Many larger projects funded by farmer cooperatives or hopeful investment firms had failed, and discouraged further risk-taking on that scale.

The Act authorized the Federal Land Office to transfer up to a million acres of arid public lands to individual states that established approved reclamation programs. States would cover expenses by charging fees and selling the land at nominal prices, with the real incentive being the expected increase in tax revenue.

Acceptable state programs would be able to certify acreage as meeting the requirements of the Act, inspect and approve irrigation projects executed by private investment firms, and oversee the ultimate transfer of properly-irrigated 160-acre plots to individual settlers.

Development companies proposed, designed, and built suitable irrigation projects. They profited by selling water to the settlers, at rates determined in negotiations with the state reclamation office. The development company did not “own” the land itself – technically. However, these firms could place liens on the land and the associated water rights to protect their capital investments … so the effect was basically the same.

Settlers usually paid a flat entry fee ($1 in Idaho) and an almost trivial cost per acre. Owners had to then dig a feeder ditch to connect with the nearest main canal. Once water became available, they followed a schedule for bringing a set minimum of their holdings into cultivation. In three years, if they met all criteria – including construction of a “habitable dwelling” on the property – they received title to the land.

Of course, developers seldom waited out the years it might take before cumulative water sales covered their large initial investments. Once settlers held much of the land, an operating canal company or joint water district bought the system and the collective water rights from the developer.
Milner Dam, 1905. One of the first Carey Act projects in Idaho.
Library of Congress.

The Idaho legislature quickly established the position of State Engineer and tried to assemble the administrative infrastructure to support Carey Act projects. A few years passed before the state refined the process, but then interest picked up substantially. Thus, in the first ten years after passage of the Act, Idaho developers started just 10 or 11 projects. Then, in 1905-1907, they added 14 new ones.

The emergence of so many new projects led Congress to add another million acres to Idaho’s allotment in May 1908. Two days after that authorization, they added yet another millions acres, while also increasing Wyoming’s allotment by a million.

With that much land available, development exploded: In 1908 through 1910, developers initiated forty new Carey Act project in Idaho. No other state approaches Idaho in the exploitation of the Carey Act and later related legislation. By one reckoning, 60% of all U.S. acreage irrigated by Carey Act projects is in Idaho.
References: [French], [Hawley]
“Canals & Irrigation,” Digital Atlas of Idaho, Idaho State University.
The Cary Act in Idaho, Idaho State Historical Society (2004).
 “Carey Act of of August 18, 1894 (28 Stat. 422),” Code of Federal Regulations, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (2012).

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