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People in a European town used to bless themselves as they passed a certain spot at a wall. They couldn’t give any explanation why they did this, other than their elders used to do it. One day, workers were cleaning the wall. As they scraped, they found a mural of Mary and the child Jesus. People understood the reason. It is amazing to me how meaning and the purpose of an action can stay hidden in the pages of history.

The history of the arid American West is essentially tied to water and its availability. Early settlers diverted water from nearby streams and rivers, but demand quickly outstripped supply. There was fertile land in the West but the problem was to get water to the land in order to grow food to be able to support a family. It was a challenge that our young country had to face to reclaim the Western States. The federal government and the Western States had been trying to promote development of arid lands in Wyoming and the other Western States but the response was little because of water accessibility.

Carey’s wisdomJoseph Carey, a senator from Wyoming, had come up with a bill that had enough support to be passed by Congress in 1894. The bill was named Carey Act. The act would give each Western state 1 million acres of federal land and the ability to have a permit to use river water to irrigate.

This action of our young government encouraged the people to settle in the West and irrigate the arid lands to build farms and build their homes. As for Wyoming, the Carey projects showed up all over.

One of the Carey projects in our area was built by William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his partner Nate Salsbury, in which they filed a water right permit in 1899 to develop 120,000 acres of the Shoshone Valley, 50 miles east of Cody.

The next step was to store the water and deliver it to the arid land. The lack of money led westerners to seek federal government construction of irrigation works throughout the West.

Theodore Roosevelt supported the reclamation movement because of his personal experience in the West, and because he believed it would permit “homemaking,” a key argument to the bill that Sen. Francis Newlands introduced to the United State Congress.

It was approved and appropriated a $50 million dollar loan to 14 Western States to build irrigation projects for dams and irrigation canals. Users of water on the projects would pay the loan back.

Reclamation visionThe Reclamation Act was signed by President Roosevelt on June 17, 1902, authorizing construction of irrigation projects in 14 western states and two territories (Arizona and New Mexico). Congress added Texas in 1906.

The vision of settling the west, building homes and growing crops has come true. The Reclamation Projects has made the desert bloom.

Farmers have been growing alfalfa hay, barley, dry beans, sugar beets, oats, fruits and vegetables and many more crops on these irrigation projects and the income from these crops have been paying back the original government loans for the dam construction.

Irrigated agriculture’s product contribution to international trade and exports is more than $10 billion annually and there is 34 million acres under irrigation system.

Western states like California, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Nebraska and my beloved state of Wyoming are part of 1902 Reclamation Act.

Shoshone Irrigation Project is one of the oldest and largest projects in my state the water flows from Buffalo Bill Dam through our towns of Cody, Powell, Deaver and irrigates nearly 92 thousand acres. The irrigated agriculture has become an integral to our country’s high standard of living and quality of life. Irrigated agriculture’s food products make a significant difference to our well being and should not be taken for granted by federal decision makers.

I am calling on Congress to scrape the pages of history and look for the hidden picture of lush green fields of crops that we are blessed with. Before making any decision on the upcoming farm bill and foreign trade policies, understand wisdom of 1902, and consider the benefit of water and agriculture promotion in Western States.

Klodette Stroh farms near Powell, Wyo., and is commissioner of the Shoshone Water District.