Irrigation in the United States

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Source: 49th CONGRESS, SENATE 49th CONGRESS,2d Session SENATE MIS DOC. No.15.


A Report Prepared by Richard J. Hinton,
Under the direction of the

Government Printing Office

In response to Senate resolution of August 4, 1886, a report on irrigation.

December 17, 1886. Referred to the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, and ordered to be printed.


United States Department of Agriculture

Commissioner's Office
Washington, D. C., December 15, 1886


I have the honor to transmit herewith, in accordance with a resolution of the Senate of August 4, 1886, certain information on the subject of irrigation which has been gathered and prepared for publication by this Department.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Norman J. Colman,
Commissioner of Agriculture.

Hon. John Sherman,
President pro tempore of the United States Senate

The following table (mud from the Colorado having been collected) exhibits a comparative analysis of the mud of these rivers:

Colorado Rio Grande Nile
Hygroscopic Water 3.27 1.800 ---
Chemically bound water, soluble in hydrochloric acid 1.14 3.122 ---
Potash 0.103 0.284 0.106
Soda, with trace of lithia 0.074 0.064 0.022
Lime --- 1.479 1.725
Carbonate of lime 12.50 5.190 ---
Magnesia 0.69 0.080 0.046
Oxide of iron --- 8.640 8.804
Alumina 2.26 1.908 8.804
Phospheric acid 0.146 0.092 0.148
Sulphuric acid Trace. Trace. Trace
Oxide of maganese Trace. --- ---
Insoluble in hydrochloric acid 78.1 82.56 ---

As to the extent to which the Colorado River could be rendered available for irrigation, it has been appropriately remarked by geologists that the country bordering on the Colorado is the most conspicuous example in the world of over-drainage; for nowhere else do we find a stream that for hundreds of miles cuts its way 500 to 600 feet deep through solid rock. The Colorado, supplies by streams from the mountains and therefore desert region, in which the only changes are those resulting from the direct action of the atmosphere, so that no appreciable debris of any kind is furnished to fill up the excavations continued through millions of years, and only limited by an approximation of the level of the river bed to that of the waters of the Gulf of California. Lieutenant Wheeler estimates the area of land drained by the Colorado River and its tributaries to aggregate 242,065 square miles, mostly still owned by the Government.

The Salt River Valley is 25 miles in length by about 14 in width. With its estimated quarter of a million acres of rich, alluvial soil, capable of producing 25 to 50 bushels of grain to the acre, it ought easily to support 50,000 inhabitants, if there were a sufficiency of irrigating ditches and artesian wells to fully utilize its natural capabilities.

Near Phoenix an old canal, 8 miles in length by 20 feet in width, has been discovered, which has recently been cleared out and utilized. The remains of this and many others, together with numerous mounds whose surfaces are covered with fragments of pottery, prove that a race skilled in husbandry, irrigation, and manufactures many years age appreciated the fertility of this valley, but left behind them no other records than their work.

The valley of the Gila, though cultivated along most of its course, is not available for semi-tropical productions in its upper part on account of October frosts. The White Mountain Indian Reservation (San Carlos) interferes with a continuous white settlement above Florence, as the lands of the Pimas and Maricopasa do below it. These latter Indians have cultivated wheat, corn, pumpkins, melons, &c., for centuries, and have always been self-supporting, as well as the Papagoes, farther south, who, however, depend principally on stock.

From Yuma eastward the valley is extremely fertile.

At Oatman's Flat a large area is now being reclaimed.

The Gila bottom merges imperceptibly into the foothills, and has an average breadth of from 5 to 10 miles. It is soil principally alluvial and will produce two crops yearly. Irrigation is easily effected. The river averages 600 feet in width, and 3 to 6 feet in depth when there is no rainfall and no water from the mountains. The banks along the whole of this tract are so low and sloping as to afford unusual facilities for the construction of ditches. Excellent crops of wheat, barley, and vegetables are grown. In the vicinity of Florence is an extensive tract of rich bottom and second mesa or table-land, which are now grown the cereals, alfalfa, the sugar cane, and vegetables and fruits generally including orange and lemon trees. Fruit culture in the Gila Valley is extensive. Cottonwood, ash, and locust are abundant. Further up the valley the Pueblo Viejo has, with its tributary valley of Ash Creek and others, at least 100,000 acres of good farming land.

On the uplands and farther up the valley itself, near the line of New Mexico, the daily variations in temperature are much less and the frosts begin later. Still further up its course, within the borders of New Mexico, the Gila River has upon it margins much good agricultural land. The bottom lands generally are quite rich in potassa and phosphoric acid.

>The valley of the Francisco River, a tributary of the Gila, near the line of New Mexico, is good for grazing and timber, and has in general a rich soil. The San Pedro River is a tributary of the Gila, its mouth being between Florence and San Carlos, and its source in the Huachuca Mountains, near the Mexican line. There is good land, good timber, and excellent range for stock. Considerable valley land is now under cultivation, and irrigation is generally required.

The Santa Cruz Valley, through smaller in extent, is equally productive in proportion to its area. It is more compact, and all of it is adapted to semi-tropical fruits, as well as to the vegetables of the temperate zone.

According to information received about 250 miles of main canals have been completed during the past two years , or are under rapid construction. With the tributary feeders and laterals Southern and Central Arizona now has completed, or very nearly so at least, about 700 miles of irrigation works. As this Territory has always been considered on of the most unpromising in the dry and mountain regions of this country, these facts are of a cheering character. The most astonishing reports are made of the fertility of the areas "under water". The physical configuration of Arizona shows it to be, as already stated, an over-drained region. This is in itself sufficient to account for the unquestioned aridity of a large portion of the Territory, but settlement and time are proving there, as well as elsewhere within our mountain area, that the supplies of water, with proper conservation and distribution, will be found more important and available than has generally been considered at all probable. In the narrow and precipitous valleys, of Central Arizona there are natural reservoirs, of which, with comparatively little outlay, valuable storage basins may be created and force obtained to raise the water high enough for reaching extensive portions of the mesa or table-lands adjoining the river valleys. Several of the minor streams are known to sink, and their recovery and use for industrial purposes will be found a task not difficult to engineering skill.

In the southeastern portion of this Territory there are extensive grassy plains or broad intervals known as "cienegas on account of the nearness of water to the surface. The cattleman have taken advantage of this fact. It would seem to argue the existence of subterranean waters. There are two rainy seasons, in the winter and summer months, respectively. In the summer the rains are often violent and torrential in character, disappearing almost as suddenly as they come. In April and May there are often neighborhood showers, seeming to be limited in area, as if the currents in their passage from the Southern Pacific, coming through the Gulf of California, were broken by higher peaks and whirled in circular eddies over the sections visited. They are known by the Mexicans and Indians as "shepherd rains." No artesian wells have yet been sunk, but at several points the Southern Pacific Railroad has obtained water at comparatively moderate depths. The following tabular statements, forwarded by the railroad administration, are a valuable presentation of the results of these endeavors:

They determine claims relative to the use of the water, oversee, either personally or by agents, its distribution, and determine questions of right of way.

They also issue certificates showing the extent of water rights.

A person first taking water from any source of supply, or having the upon, peaceable, and continuous use of the water for seven years, has a primary right therein to the extent of the reasonable use thereof.

Whenever persons having the primary right use the water for a part of the year only, the person appropriating it for the balance of the year acquires a secondary right.

The person appropriating the surplus above the average of seven years also acquires a secondary right.

Water rights may be measured in inches or by fractional parts of the whole supply. Water rights may pertain to the land or may be personal property, as the owner may elect, and a change of place shall not affect the right to use the water; but no change of place shall be made to the injury of another owner without just compensation. Neglect for seven years to use water, or keep in repair the means of conveying it, is regarded as an abandonment of the right.

Water rights are exempt from taxation, except for the purpose of regulating the use of the rights, but the increased value of the land may be regarded in making the assessments.

Surplus water must be returned to the natural channel, and any person wasting it, is liable to have his supply shut off, and to pay damages to any person injured.

Any person using water lawfully appropriated to another, or diverting the flow of water lawfully distributed, or injuring any dam, ditch, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Whenever the supply is not sufficient for all purpose, the use for domestic purposes and for irrigating purposes taken precedence in that order.

Corporations may be formed under general laws for distributing water to their stockholders.


All streams are public and available for irrigation purposes.

All holders of arable land may construct ditches, and have the necessary right of way, paying therefor a just compensation.

No obstruction of irrigation is permitted except for mining purposes.

Foot-paths across fields are prohibited and all animals must be in care of a shepherd in order that no injury may be done to the ditches.

All persons holding land which may be benefited by public ditches shall furnish labor for the ditches in proportion to the amount of their land, whether they cultivate it or not; and failing to do so are subject to a fine.

Land owners and tenants interested shall seek one or more overseers who shall have general supervision of the construction and care of ditches, shall apportion the work to be done, and the amount of water to be allowed to each person, having regard to the kind of crops to be cultivated.

In case of scarcity, users of water take precedence according to the date of their titles.

For neglect of duty, overseers may be fined, and, for the second offense removed from office.

Injury to ditches, or unauthorized use for water, is punished by fine and any injured party may recover damages.

All fines for violations of the irrigation laws are applied to the maintenance of the ditches, bridges.

When a ditch is constructed across a public road, the owners must erect and maintain a substantial bridge, and, for failure to do so are subject to a fine.

Plants on the banks of ditches belong to the owners of the land.

Up: Documents List Previous: Communication from Captain Samuel Adams Relative to the Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Tributaries Next: Letter from the Secretary of Agriculture transmitting, in response to Senate Resolution of December 13, 1890

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