Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Reclamation Service\'s Tahoe Fiasco - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4
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The Reclamation Service's Tahoe Fiasco - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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The Reclamation Service's Tahoe Fiasco
“Conflict over Conservation: The Reclamation Service and the Tahoe Contract.” The Western Historical Quarterly 10(April 1979):167–190.
The San Francisco Examiner headline of June 29, 1909 summarizes an act of a bizarre government conservation project: SECRET DEAL WITH U.S. PUTS TAHOE IN SYNDICATE'S CLUTCHES. Theodore Roosevelt's Newlands Reclamation Act (1902) gave birth to the first federal desert reclamation project in 1905, the Truckee-Carson project. The goal was to supply irrigation for farmers to reclaim some 400,000 acres of desert in Western Nevada for crops. The hope was that the Federal Reclamation Service would stimulate the flagging economy and dwindling population of Nevada following the end of the Comstock silver boom of the 1870s. But in 1908 drought hit Nevada and government engineers learned that Washington's first publicized irrigation project was imperiled by an insecure water supply. Few farmers would risk settling in a desert. In order to save face, and control the waters of Lake Tahoe for a water reservoir, “The Reclamation Service accepted a one-sided contract with an eastern power syndicate,” (Stone and Webster Company) which owned the outlet dam. The private company would divert water from Tahoe to save the Service's irrigation project.
The Reclamation Service's proposed lucrative contract with a private company “violated the spirit of national conservation policies and threatened the scenic beauty of the lake itself.” The Truckee-Carson project and this contract expose the poor public planning of the Reclamation Service, as well as the “relationship between resource agencies during the Progressive Era.” It also invalidates the view that federal reclamation fits Samuel P. Hays thesis in Conservatism and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890–1920 (New York, 1969). According to Hays, government resource planners sought to be “above politics,” to promote a technocratic “rational” and “efficient” use of natural resources. But the Nevada Reclamation experience and the Tahoe contract reveal no such disinterested experts rationally coordinating “regional resource planning.” The poor performance of the Reclamation Service ran afoul of: states-rights claims by California Governor Hiram Johnson; Lake Tahoe property owners, who feared harm to the lake's environment; and fostered the appearance of corruption through a one-sided contract that “would add $500,000 yearly to the power company's profits.” Added to this barrage of criticism was the opposition of the Department of Agriculture Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot and his National Conservation Association.
Finally in 1911, the Eastern power company grew “weary” and withdrew from the contract that was intended to save face for the Reclamation Service. In 1913 the Reclamation Service's spokesman, Newell, justified the agency's fiasco at Lake Tahoe in terms of a basic Progressive credo: “the greatest good for the greatest number.” The reasons for the Service's failure were many: poor administration, poor planning, and overbureaucratization. The service engineers could build first-rate dams, but gave little thought to overall conservation questions. Too much trust was placed in centralized planning and management by narrow, elitist technocrats.