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Working for the Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) (Part 1)

The USBR’s motto is “Managing Water in the West”. The USBR was established in 1902 and is best known for their dams, power plants, and canals that are dispersed throughout 17 western states. Over 600 dams and reservoirs have been constructed by the USBR since its inception including the iconic Hoover Dam [1] on the Colorado River and the Grand Coulee [2] on the Columbia River. These projects later led to homesteading and promoted economic development in the West.


Hoover Dam [3]

Hoover Dam

The Bureau is within the Department of Interior. There are 5,107 employed in this agency in a cross section of diverse career fields according to OPM’s FEDSCOPE March 2015 database. Engineers comprise the largest occupational group with a total of 1100 employed.

The largest occupations within the USBR follow:


The USBR’s  mission is to assist in meeting the increasing water demands of the West while protecting the environment and the public’s investment in these structures. We place great emphasis on fulfilling our water delivery obligations, water conservation, water recycling, and reuse, and developing partnerships with our customers, states, and Native American Tribes [4], and in finding ways to bring together the variety of interests to address the competing needs for our limited water.

Additionally, they are the largest wholesaler of water in the country. Reclamation brings water to more that 31 million people, and provides one out of every five Western famers (140,000) with irrigation water for 10 millions acres of farmland that produces 60% of this nation’s vegetables and 25% of its fruits and nuts.

USBR is also the second largest producer of hydroelectric power [5] in the United States. 53 power plants annually provide more than 40 billion kilowatt hours generating nearly a billion dollars in power revenues and produce enough electricity to serve 3.5 million homes.


The Bureau of Reclamation was started due to the need for a stable water supply in the semi-arid American West.

Demand for water increased and settlers wanted to store “wasted” runoff from rains and snows for later use to make water more plentiful in drier seasons. Additionally, this stored runoff would limit damage from flooding that occurred along rivers and streams. Both private and state run water projects were done in earnest but often failed due to limited financial resources.

Congress passed the Reclamation Act of June 17, 1902. This Act required that water users repay construction costs from which they received benefits. The United States Reclamation Service began as part of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The name Reclamation stuck because the purpose was to reclaim arid lands (by irrigation) to make them suitable for settlement. The new Reclamation Service studied potential water development projects in western states and began development-using revenue from sale of Federal lands as the initial source of the funding.

In 1907, the Reclamation Service was separated from the USGS and became an independent bureau within the Department of the Interior. In its inception, reclamation projects were single-purpose projects that were designed to store and deliver irrigation water. Additional benefits included flood control, municipal water, hydropower, and fish and wildlife habitat became secondary to irrigation. The federal government did the construction of these single use projects. Farmers had a repayment agreement at the beginning of each project in a form of an interest-free loan.

There was a constant demand to meet the ever-growing changes in the Great Plains. Thus, reclamation multipurpose projects evolved. Private and state sponsored took over irrigation projects. The more costly and complex projects were now being done by the USBR. Costs were than shared by the federal government being responsible for flood control and electric power generation shared in the repayment by an assessment on the electricity that was passed onto the customers.

Similarly, the Great Plains Region organization has repeatedly adapted to meet the changing needs of the American West. Initially Reclamation projects were administered by local offices managing their construction and settlement. The 17 Reclamation states were then divided into regions for administrative support. The nine state Great Plains area was served by three Reclamation regions: the Southwest, Lower Missouri, and the Upper Missouri regions. The last two regions were merged in 1985 to form the Missouri River Basin Region. This allowed for better planning and administration of projects (especially the Pick-Sloan Missouri River Basin Program). In 1988, declining Reclamation budgets and fewer demands for construction activities led to the Southwest Region and the Missouri River Basin merging to create the Great Plains Region. Further organizational refinements included the creation of area offices (Montana, Wyoming, Oklahoma-Texas, Nebraska-Kansas, Dakotas, and Eastern Colorado) to effectively administer Reclamation Activities.

Interesting USBR Facts

The Bureau of Reclamation priorities are to:

The Bureau of Reclamation is:

If you are interested in a career with the Bureau of Reclamation there are opportunities for employment throughout their 6 Western Regions and at their Washington DC Headquarters. Explore employment opportunities at Bureau of Reclamation locations [6] throughout their system.

In this continuing series on the USBR, we will take look at the job occupations of the civil engineer, (GS-0810), and the electrical engineer, GS-0850.


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