Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)
By Susan Hettinga, Jacob Zarate, Brenda Valdez, Guadalupe Gonzalez, Erika Fuentes and Nemecio Meraz
Every week, area residents go water skiing, fishing and swimming at Elephant Butte Lake. However, nearly 100 years ago a plan for building Elephant Butte Dam had a different purpose: to solve a problem so big that it affected New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.
At the turn of the 20th century, a scarcity of water endangered further development of the Mesilla Valley, El Paso and Juárez areas. So many canals and ditches in the Lower Colorado valley drained off the upper Rio Grande that by the time the river reached the border region, not enough water remained for irrigation purposes. By July, water from spring runoffs had been used and crops in these valleys died. Something had to be done to supply water to these areas.
Image caption: Looking at Elephant Butte from front West side on July 1996. Photo courtesy of Valerie Garnica.
Mesilla Valley citizens formed the Rio Grande Dam and Irrigation Company in 1893 to build a dam near Engle, N.M. They obtained approval through the Secretary of State in 1895 with the stipulation that the project be completed within five years. This company did not guarantee any water rights to Mexico, so the Mexican government appealed to the U.S. government to stop the private firm's plans. Mexico's claim to water from the Rio Grande was based on ancient use of water by early inhabitants.
On November 25, 1896, International Boundary Commissioner Anson Mills and his Mexican counterpart, Don F. Javier Osorno, reported that from 1880 to 1896, Colorado had increased its acreage irrigated from the Rio Grande by 197,000 acres. New Mexico had increased its irrigated land by 3,000 acres, for a total of 200,000 acres. The flow of the river at El Paso had decreased by 200,000 acre-feet per year during this same time period.
Mills and Osorno endorsed the recommendations of the Commission's engineers that called for the United States to build a dam four miles above El Paso. The U. S. would pay all costs of construction; extend the Mexican boundary upstream to the dam site, giving Mexico an additional 98 acres; give Mexico one-half of the water supply; and prevent the construction of any large dam on the Rio Grande north of El Paso.
On May 7, 1897, Acting Attorney General Holmes Conrad filed a petition for an injunction against the private Rio Grande Dam and Irrigation Company. After the case went from a New Mexico district court to the U. S. Supreme Court, on May 3, 1903, the territorial court of New Mexico found that the company had forfeited its rights because it had not completed the project in the allocated five years.
The dam turned into a hot political issue in the Southwest. Westerners wanted the federal government to invest in irrigation projects just like it had in roads, river navigation, harbors, canals and railroads. On June 17, 1902, Congress passed the Reclamation Act, requiring water users to repay construction costs of projects from which they received benefits.
In July 1902, Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock, in accordance with the Reclamation Act, established the United States Reclamation Service within the United States Geological Survey (USGS). This service was to study potential water development projects in each western state with federal lands. On June 12, 1906, authority of the Reclamation Act was extended to Texas, a state with no federal lands.
In November 1904, the National Irrigation Congress held its 13th annual convention in El Paso. Bureau of Reclamation supervising engineer B. M. Hall presented a report in favor of the Elephant Butte Dam near Engle, New Mexico. He concluded that the dam at The Pass would cover 25,000 acres of rich land in the Mesilla Valley. He further concluded that railroad tracks in that area would have to be removed at great expense and the quarrying and manufacturing plants in this area would have to be paid for and removed.
Hall also pointed out that the El Paso reservoir would waste more water by evaporation and overflow than it would use irrigating, unlike the dam at Engle, which would be able to supply water to all of the Mesilla Valley, El Paso and Juárez. Clearly the dam site near Engle, New Mexico, had more advantages.
On May 21, 1906, Mexico and the United States signed a treaty in Washington for the equitable distribution of water from the Rio Grande for irrigation purposes. This treaty allotted Mexico 60,000 acre feet of water annually at the Acequia Madre, also know as the Old Mexican Canal that is above the city of Juárez. In case of drought or serious accident to the irrigation system in the United States, the amount delivered to Mexico would be reduced in proportion to the reduction of the amount delivered to the United States.
The United States would incur all costs of the construction of the dam and the storage, measurement and delivery of the water to the head of the Mexican canal. Mexico agreed that in consideration of this allotment, it would waive all rights to the waters of the Rio Grande between the head of the present canal and Fort Quitman, Texas.
On March 8, 1905, the Elephant Butte Water Users Association of New Mexico became an official group of landowners and water users. Felix Martinez, who had been advocating a water storage project since 1899, organized the El Paso Valley Water Users Association. These organizations were formed to reimburse the federal government for the cost of the dam. Together they entered into a contract with the United States on June 27, 1906, to build a dam at Engle, New Mexico.
The Rio Grande's water flow was so erratic that a diversion dam at Leasburg, New Mexico had to be built first. Extreme flooding during the spring of 1907 led to the dam not being completed until 1908.
Construction stopped in 1909 for three more years. The Victorio Land and Cattle Company wanted $600,000 for the 33,640 acres of its land the reservoir would occupy. The Bureau of Reclamation offered only $65,000. After a series of hearings in New Mexico courts, the government paid $200,000 for the property. Workers poured the first concrete for Elephant Butte Dam on June 3, 1913.
Elephant Butte Dam was finally completed in 1916 at a cost of $5.2 million. The structure stands 301 feet high and 1,674 feet long. It contains 618,785 cubic yards of concrete and can store 2,065,010 acre-feet of water.
Image caption: Artist's Rendition of the Butte at Elephant Butte
The Caballo Dam and Reservoir located 25 miles downstream from Elephant Butte stores water from the larger dam in the winter for use in irrigation during the summer. As irrigation made land more valuable in the Mesilla Valley, new landowners expressed interest in electricity. Following the completion of Caballo dam, funding came in 1937 for the 24,300-kilowatt hydroelectric plant next to Elephant Butte Dam. Service is provided over 490 miles assisted by 11 substations.
Water for irrigation turned thousands of acres of Southern New Mexico and West Texas land into fertile fields of pecans, cotton, chile and other crops. El Paso and Ciudad Juárez now had a stable water supply, encouraging population growth.
Besides providing irrigation water, flood control and electric power, Elephant Butte is the most popular lake in New Mexico and the El Paso area, providing all kinds of water sports year-round. The reservoir itself is 40 miles long with 200 miles of shoreline. Its name reflects the island in the lake, the remains of a volcanic core that reminded Reclamation Service Director Arthur Powell Davis of an elephant's head, hence the name.
As natural resources and electric power become scarce, water has again become an extraordinary subject of concern in the Southwest. More than ever, Elephant Butte Dam looms important in the continued economic and social development of this valley.