Travel: Exploring western water development


National Park Service creates online itinerary for historic water projects

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Water has been a defining force in the American West for eons, first shaping landscapes like the Grand Canyon, then shaping the lives of residents, from the Anasazi to modern-day settlers and developers who live and play in region.

The biggest transformation came in the early 20th century, with industrious and ambitious development schemes that resulted in a network of dams  reservoirs, and canals built that provide water for irrigation and hydropower generation.

This wholesale manipulation of water in the arid landscape spurred settlement, farming, and economic stability — though it’s still not clear whether this water-dependent culture is sustainable for the long-term.

And somewhat ironically, the massive federal water projects had the most benefit in some states and areas where anti-federal sentiment now thrives. It was the progressive leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt that spurred passage of the Reclamation Act, which was envisioned as a way to transform arid land into productive farms that would support families and bring economic stability to the West.

That, in turn, would create new markets and extend prosperity to the nation. Many people, including Roosevelt, regarded the West’s rivers as an untapped resource that was literally running to waste. Why not harness this “wild” water to meet humanity’s needs? Read more about the history of the Reclamation Act at this NPS web page.

To help tourists and residents learn about the history of some of the regions major water projects, the National Park Service has created an online travel itinerary.

The itinerary, loaded with essays, images, information, and maps, is available at

Each of the 25 historic dams in the itinerary is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which is maintained by the National Park Service. The dams represent the complexities and challenges of building water projects and the significant role the Bureau of Reclamation played in shaping life in the West.

Bureau of Reclamation projects, today as in the past, have a sweeping impact on irrigation and municipal and industrial water supplies, hydroelectric power, navigation, flood control, and recreational opportunity.

The National Park Service’s Heritage Education Services and its Intermountain Region Heritage Partnerships Program produced this itinerary in partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers. This itinerary is the 54th in the online Discover Our Shared Heritage travel itinerary series. The series supports historic preservation, promotes public awareness of history, and encourages visits to historic places throughout the country.


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