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NRCS History Articles - Small Watersheds and the USDA

Legacy of the Flood Control Act of 1936

by Douglas Helms

Reprinted from Rosen, Howard, and Martin Reuss, eds. The Flood Control Challenge: Past, Present, and Future. Proceedings of a National Symposium, New Orleans, Louisiana, September 26, 1986. Chicago: Public Works Historical Society, 1988, pp. 67-88.

The Flood Control Act of 1936, followed by the Flood Control Act of 1944 and the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954, made the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) one of the federal participants in flood control work. The act initiated the most thorough examination yet of agriculture's relationship to flooding. The period of study and investigations of watersheds springing from the 1936 act affected the structure of future water resources programs in USDA. The experiences of the earlier period were incorporated in the provisions of the 1954 act, the legislation under which most of USDA's flood control work has been carried out.

While this paper will not concentrate on individual projects and field activities in flood control, a general idea of the programs that resulted from the process begun in 1936 will help in understanding the events of the intervening years. The Agriculture Department's small watershed program, as it has come to be called, is generally limited to upstream tributary watersheds of less than 250,000 acres. Many of the projects have utilized combinations of floodwater-retarding structures, channel modifications, and other engineering works to reduce flooding along streams. The department has generally provided financial assistance for these aspects of flood control projects. USDA also offers assistance, often a technically trained soil conservationist, to help apply conservation practices on farm and ranch lands in the watersheds above the structures.

In the parlance of USDA the former type of assistance is called flood prevention and the latter, watershed protection. In addition to flood prevention, most projects involved additional purposes. Drainage has been involved in 22 percent of the projects, recreation in 19 percent, municipal and industrial water supply in 12 percent, fish and wildlife habitat enhancement in 7 percent, and irrigation in 7 percent. Since the Flood Control Act of 1944, the department has been involved in 1,387 projects covering more than 87 million acres.

The nature of these projects has been shaped to a certain extent by the results of scientific research and technological developments. To an equal or greater degree they have been influenced by attitudes--attitudes about the interrelationships of land cover, soil erosion, and flooding; attitudes about the most desirable working relationship between federal, state, and local entities; attitudes about who should benefit from and who should pay for flood control projects; and attitudes about small watersheds in comprehensive river basin planning. Such attitudes influenced the flood control legislation for upstream work. But the legislation left leeway for administrative decisions. Thus, changes in attitudes on how the program should be operated have been important and likely will continue to influence the program.

Underlying the decision to have a flood control program in the headwaters, the upstream tributaries, or the little waters was the belief that humans, through their activities, affect the frequency and severity of floods, especially by removing vegetation and inducing soil erosion and rapid runoff. Undoubtedly there are many ancient examples of this belief, but for an early American example the observations of the colonial naturalist John Bartram should suffice. He observed in New England that pasturing the woodland caused little hollows which "wear to ye sand & clay which it bears away with ye swift current down to brooks & rivers whose banks it overflows."1

The question of the scientific relationship of forests and flooding entered the public policy arena in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those who believed the relationship to be close felt that good forest cover regulated streamflow by enhancing infiltration. Watershed protection for water supply was a primary intent of the 1892 legislation that allowed the president to establish forest reserves from the public lands, reserves which became the core of the national forest system. The Weeks Act of 1911 permitted the purchase of lands in the East to establish national forests. The rationale that satisfied constitutional objections was that forest cover influenced streamflow; therefore the government could purchase watersheds under the power to regulate commerce. Watershed protection also played a part in Senator Francis G. Newlands' plans to legislate for a comprehensive water resources development program--plans that included, in part, forests and reservoirs as an alternative to levees for flood control. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers particularly protested what they viewed as an overemphasis on forests and flooding. Thus, hydrologic theories became embroiled in the controversy over water development policy, and the debate gradually moved from the professional journals to popular magazines which could influence public opinion.2

The generation of young men then beginning their public service, who would head government programs during the New Deal, seemed more swayed by the land-cover advocates. President Franklin D. Roosevelt looked upon forests as beneficial to flood control. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a Roosevelt creation, would work on "forestry, the prosecution of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects." Concerned about public criticism of CCC work on private land, he insisted that such work be directed to solving flood control problems over broad areas rather than benefiting an individual parcel of land. Such an attitude revealed his faith in the value of forests in reducing floods.3

The Civilian Conservation Corps helped another new conservation agency, the Soil Erosion Service, later the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), begin its work. The CCC camps, as well as the Works Progress Administration labor, allowed Hugh Hammond Bennett to test his theories about soil conservation. Bennett, a career soil scientist in USDA, concerned himself mainly with the impact of soil erosion on loss of productive capacity, but he was not unmindful of the question of the relationship of soil erosion to flooding. Where soil erosion was prevalent, the floods covered fertile bottomlands with stones and infertile sand. Erosional debris reduced the capacity of stream channels and reservoirs. Particularly destructive floods could remove the fertile alluvium, leaving only stones, a condition which he said required levees or dikes.4 But, he also believed that there could never be "any far-reaching permanent flood control if erosion is not put under control over the watersheds feeding the streams of the nation." In addition to the troublesome results of sedimentation, soil erosion "speeded up runoff of surface water from bared slopes to accentuate flood peaks and to augment the cutting power of stream flow." The soil profiles that Bennett so loved to dig showed a difference in the nature of the alluvium deposited since European settlement. The variations reflected, Bennett believed, a change in the velocity of floodwaters.5

Bennett's chief of research, Walter Lowdermilk at the new Soil Erosion Service, had conducted some of the seminal studies on the relationship of forest influences on runoff. His travels in China brought him to the conclusion that the watersheds must be treated in the interest of flood control.6  Naturally Bennett and Lowdermilk were interested in the effect of their soil conservation program on runoff and sedimentation. The soil conservation program for farmlands involved a myriad of interrelated and mutually supporting farming practices and mechanical and engineering measures. Among the plans for America's farmlands could be found terraces, grassed waterways, contour plowing, stripcropping, longer crop rotations, and improved pastures and woodlands with controlled grazing to maintain a healthy ground cover. Soil conservationists came to call this package of measures land treatment. In addition to maintaining productivity and farm income, soil conservationists believed that land treatment on a watershed basis helped to reduce the height of floods in the small tributaries. As they began setting up watershed-based demonstrations, they also began to make provisions to measure the influence of land treatment on streamflow.7

Another influential New Deal figure who emphasized land treatment on farmlands as a part of river basin development was Morris Cooke. He had more influence with President Franklin D. Roosevelt than other advocates of the same idea. As administrator of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), Cooke promoted the publication of Little Waters: A Study of Headwater Streams and Other Waters, Their Use and Relations to the Land, which was issued by REA, SCS, and the Resettlement Administration. In his presidential message transmitting the report to Congress, Roosevelt held that disastrous floods "originate in a small way in a multitude of farms, ranches, and pastures." National plans should not neglect major rivers in favor of the little waters, but the plans should "envisage the problem as it is presented in every farm, every pasture, every wood lot, every acre of public domain." The Water Resources Committee of the National Resources Committee tried to counter what they regarded as a very unscientific view with their own publication Low Dams: A Manual of Design for Small Water Projects (1939). The slim volume received its due in hydrologic circles, but was no competition for Cooke's adept promotion of Little Waters.9

The question of land treatment and its value in flood control received a review from all points of view at the Upstream Engineering Conference in 1936. Abel Wolman spoke for the friends of soil conservation who believed that the concept was being called upon to do too much. He said, "The case for soil conservation and reforestation is so good of itself that one must naturally wonder why it should be ruined on the rocks of overstatement, overpromise, or undervaluation of scientific principles."10

The Upstream Conference, another of Cooke's ideas, was held three months after the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1936 to discuss implementation of one of the act's significant provisions.11  The legislative journey of the Flood Control Act of 1936 began in response to the spring floods, but emerged as a national policy on flood control. To expand the national policy providing for "investigations and improvements of rivers and other waterways" to the entire hydrologic unit, an amendment on the floor of the Senate added the phrase "including watersheds thereof." The amendment also assigned authority to the secretary of agriculture for "investigations of watersheds and measures for run-off and water flow retardation and soil-erosion prevention on watersheds."12 In submitting these amendments to the White House, Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona had characterized them as "showing how I think the flood control bill should be amended to conform with the president's message on Little Waters."13  With the support of the White House, the amendments were included in the final bill.

In addition to Joseph Arnold's excellent analysis (in The Flood Control Challenge: Past, Present, and Future, edited by Howard Rosen and Martin Reuss) of the complicated sequence of events leading to the passage of the act, one other factor should be mentioned. Earlier Hayden and other Arizona politicians had sought the assistance of SCS in controlling floods on the Gila River. He went specifically to Walter Lowdermilk, assistant chief of the Soil Conservation Service, whom he had known in Arizona. The plans for flood control, to which the downstream irrigators objected, included twelve floodwater detention dams along with land treatment on the upper Gila. Hayden thought the scheme should be applied to all upstream areas. He and Lowdermilk worked on national legislation and Hayden stood ready to promote the upstream program in 1936 when the occasion arose.14

After Roosevelt signed the bill, Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace decided to neither assign responsibility to a single bureau in the department nor establish a large flood control office. The various bureaus would do the technical works while a small group in the secretary's office, the Office of the Land Use Coordinator, under Milton Eisenhower, would coordinate the work. The chiefs of the Soil Conservation Service, Forest Service, and the Bureau of Agricultural Economics formed an advisory committee.15  The act left much to administrative decision, but it was generally understood that the Department of Agriculture would make a survey of flood and sediment damages, devise a remedial plan, and submit the plan to the president and then to Congress.

But the surveying and approval did not proceed quickly. Not until May 1940 did Agriculture Department officials believe they would be ready for the action part of the program. Field survey work had been completed on eleven watersheds, and these reports were undergoing technical review in the department. After three or four surveys had been coordinated with the plans of the Corps of Engineers, it was anticipated that the reports would be submitted to the president for allocation of the $4 million already appropriated.16  But it would be more than a year, October 1941, before USDA submitted a report on the Los Angeles River to Congress. After World War II interrupted the work, USDA reached an agreement with the Bureau of the Budget to concentrate on surveys nearest to completion and to suspend flood control work on July 30, 1943.17

By September 1944 the department had completed 154 preliminary surveys covering nearly 1.25 million square miles. Thirty surveys revealed insufficient benefits in flood control and sediment reduction to warrant detailed surveys. Of the 124 calling for detailed surveys, 18 had been completed and submitted to Congress for authorization. USDA recommended eleven of the watersheds be funded under the flood control acts. Of the remaining seven that did not have sufficient flood control benefits, USDA suggested that six should be funded under other authorities because the suggested program would benefit the watershed.18

Certainly Congress and the Department of Agriculture in 1936 envisioned some work in the field, not just completion of reports, after more than five years. In the history of flood control work in USDA, the delay is important for our consideration. One must wonder whether the history of flood control activities would have been different had the department managed to get surveys approved and to undertake field operations in a number of projects before the onset of the war.

The organizational structure of the flood control survey work probably was a major reason for the delay. The idea of coordination had not worked. Arthur Ringland, a career Forest Service employee who had studied headwaters control in Europe, served as chairman of the Flood Control Coordinating Committee of the Office of the Land Use Coordinator. After several years of dealing with the problems, without much authority, he stated that "the flood control program is the victim of institutionalism at its worst."  To correct the "confusion and diffusion of responsibility," he said there should be a department-level official with administrative authority. The Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service should have "straight line undivided responsibility and authority for all flood control project work in the field of whatever character."19

The ill-advised organizational decisions accentuated the difficulties that naturally came with a new function. The 1936 act stated that benefits should exceed costs. Some work had been done on evaluating on-farm conservation measures, but the department had a new task in evaluating the downstream or off-site benefits.20

There was another need for information and analysis--the need for hydrologic information for the small watersheds. In late May 1936, less than a month before the passage of the flood control act, the National Resources Committee published "Deficiencies in Basic Hydrologic Data," which called attention to the need for information on rainfall and runoff to support government programs. Ringland lamented, then and later, that USDA delayed too long in enlisting the Weather Bureau's cooperation in acquiring information on the intensity and duration of rainfall in small watersheds. When called upon to comment on the flood survey reports, the Weather Bureau repeatedly emphasized that more data were needed in order to evaluate the flood potentials.21

Looming over and complicating the technical and organizational details were the various institutional and political opinions and rivalries on what constituted an upstream program. The Bureau of the Budget, which advised the president on approval of flood control projects, believed that flood control authorities should not be used to fund conservation measures when the Department of Agriculture already had authority under the Soil Conservation Act of 1935. The Bureau regarded such work as an intensification of the regular soil conservation program. The Bureau of the Budget prevailed, at least temporarily, in that opinion when the Flood Control Act of August 18, 1941, restricted expenditures by USDA to "works of improvement which the Department is not otherwise authorized to undertake."22

Other differing opinions were being fought out in the flood control survey approval process. Not all of the participants were from the federal agencies. States, particularly those with water resources agencies, looked to the new legislation as a means to help finance their flood control plans. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board under the energetic leadership of Don McBride had already devised a plan for controlling floods on the Washita River. Forsaking any dams on the main stem of the river, the plan called for twenty-five reservoirs on the tributaries. McBride believed that such a system would best protect and retain the valuable bottom land.23  Since flood control surveys by a federal agency were a prerequisite to financial assistance, Oklahoma would have them--one each by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Department of Agriculture.24  As the surveys proceeded, McBride was already prepared to speak for the Washita folks in saying that "We are all agreed that we need the dams on the tributaries of the river to protect our fertile farm lands and our towns."25  McBride believed that he had succeeded in getting the new water resources agency, the Department of Agriculture, to accept the plan. But on a trip to Washington in 1940 he found that the "reservoir section had been taken out of the Washita Report."26  While some in USDA and SCS would have accepted the role of assisting Oklahoma, the Office of the Land Use Coordinator, especially Arthur Ringland, viewed reservoir building as outside the purview of the department's charge under the 1936 act.27  Such starts and reversals did delay the approval of surveys as various attitudes about what an upstream program should be were debated.

In the Flood Control Act of 1944, Congress authorized eleven projects that USDA had submitted to Congress between 1941 and 1944. Work would not begin until after the war was over. These projects, most of which are still active, would be the only department projects authorized under the procedures of the Flood Control Act of 1936. But experiences from the project planning and implementation would be the model for future USDA flood control activities.

While there was understandable disappointment over the progress of completing and approving reports, the period of study had profound influence on the future of flood control work. The studies had added a new understanding to the relationship of land treatment to floods. One of USDA's hydrologists on the flood control work, Howard Cook, believed that the effects of land treatment on flooding involved some of the most difficult problems in hydrology and that the surveys "did a great deal to dry up the source of this controversy by making possible hydrologic and economic studies of unprecedented scope and intensity."28  Field and plot studies often showed dramatic increases in infiltration on pasture and woodland compared to bared land. But the field- and plot-sized results could not be extrapolated to an entire watershed. On thin soils, floodwater came from subsurface, as well as surface, runoff. Thus, land treatment measures to enhance infiltration had limitations in preventing floods. It was true that watershed characteristics had an influence on flooding, but vegetation and land treatment were only part of the characteristics. The combined hydrologic and economic studies found that watershed treatment reduced flood and sediment damages by as much as 40 percent in some cases, but as little as 5 percent in others. Generally the benefits of conservation practices to increased income exceeded flood and sediment damage reduction benefits of the program. The flood control benefits, according to the surveys, were not what many might have expected when the 1936 act was passed.29

However, another revelation of the surveys augured well for an upstream flood control program. The analysis showed that the crop damages in the numerous tributaries from frequent flooding far exceeded the agricultural damages in the wide alluvial plains of the rivers. The implication was that while the control of floods in upstream tributaries had limited influence on floods of major rivers, a small watershed program of flood prevention had considerable economic value.30

After the war the Department of Agriculture began receiving appropriations to resume flood surveys and to begin work on the eleven authorized projects. Also, the Soil Conservation Service began writing sub-watershed work plans, plans of actual work, for the approved watersheds.31  In these sub-watershed plans, especially those in the Washita, Trinity, and Middle Colorado in Oklahoma and Texas, SCS planned to install what were categorized as "small upstream floodwater retarding structures for temporary storage to regulate storm runoff and reduce peak discharges."32  By mid-1949 they had completed some twenty-five of these structures. Completed sub-watershed plans included another 410 structures which could store 227,385 acre-feet of water.33  When this matter came to the attention of the solicitor in the Department of Agriculture, the ruling was that SCS did not have authority to build such structures.34

This development was related to the manner in which the reports were approved. The approved congressional documents outlined a general plan of remedial action, but were not written in legal language. Thus, the reports were subjected to a great deal of interpretation as to what activities had actually been approved for federal expenditures. Within the Agriculture Department, the solicitor held that the congressional documents did not approve floodwater-retarding structures. To correct this problem, USDA and SCS went before the agriculture subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations and requested an amendment. In their prepared statement, the Soil Conservation Service had to, if not deny, at least deemphasises the value of land treatment for controlling floods. SCS told the committee, "Our experience to date indicates that the works of improvement originally authorized to be installed by this department in the eleven approved watersheds are inadequate to control the movement of water from the watershed lands until it reaches the points where the Corps of Engineers take over."35  The subsequent amendment to the appropriations bill allowed funds to be spent on "gully control, floodwater detention, and floodway structures."36  In this manner, without debate in Congress, and without comment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Bureau of the Budget, SCS secured authority for building floodwater-retarding structures.

Undoubtedly, the clarification of this issue by including floodwater-retarding structures in the upstream program was a seminal point in the history of the Agriculture Department's water resources program. Without the more structurally oriented program, the Soil Conservation Service would have had great difficulty in differentiating land treatment under the flood control act from the agency's other field work under the Soil Conservation Act of 1935. Conserving topsoil retained its primary place in the conservation mission, but there had been a trend, almost from the beginning, to include upstream structures in the program. The Soil Conservation Service's work with CCC camps had involved some small reservoir construction. As Lowdermilk's plans for the upper Gila indicated, some elements in the Conservation Service were not averse to including floodwater-retarding structures. Even before the passage of the 1936 act, the research division of SCS had expanded its runoff studies from plots to natural watersheds.

By the late 1930s there was sufficient sentiment in SCS in favor of combining the structures with land treatment to include them in the reports to Congress. But at the departmental level, in the Office of the Land Use Coordinator, such plans were blocked, mainly due to the objections of its head, Milton Eisenhower.37  That the Department of Agriculture did not include floodwater-retarding structures in the flood control surveys was more a matter of choice than a lack of authority under the 1936 act. The bill simply made USDA responsible for "measures for run-off and water flow retardation and soil-erosion prevention on watersheds." Stymied at the departmental level, SCS tried for more direct authority. An agency-initiated Senate bill (S. 1812) in 1944 would have authorized Agriculture Department flood control plans to include "structures for the catchment and detention of flood waters or sediment which shall not exceed a cost of $100,000 for any single structure." The bill would have circumvented any coordinating groups by providing that the secretary would "administer the provision of this title through the federal agency known as the Soil Conservation Service."38  The bill did not pass, but after the war there was no need for it. SCS no longer had to report through the Office of the Land Use Coordinator. Under Clinton Anderson and Charles Brannan, the attitude of the secretary's office had changed to one that was more receptive to flood control in rural areas as part of the Agriculture Department's mission.39

Now that the Soil Conservation Service had legislative authority to include flood control structures in the eleven authorized projects, the proponents of this type of USDA/SCS program could look forward to a favorable reception for their inclusion in other projects to be authorized by Congress under the provisions of the 1936 act. This, however, was not to be the future of the flood control program in the Department of Agriculture. After the war there continued to be difficulties in completing surveys and forwarding them to Congress. USDA seemed about ready to submit several plans to Congress in 1949, when the secretary's office issued an amendment to the procedures calling for revisions in the economic analysis.40

There were other factors leading to delay and an impasse. Under Secretary Charles Brannan, the Agriculture Department was emphasizing comprehensive river basin planning with the flood control surveys as a part of the process. The department made surveys in the Missouri and Columbia basins a priority. Another disagreement within the department involved the flood control structures, which SCS favored, while the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and the secretary's office wanted the surveys to include money for land treatment as part of a comprehensive watershed project.41  The Bureau of the Budget continued to object to the land treatment aspects of the flood control projects that could be carried out under USDA's regular conservation program. In this attitude they were, perhaps unwittingly, the allies of some in SCS who had wanted a greater emphasis on structures to control floods.42

Finally, there were problems with Congress. The Flood Control Committee, whose duties passed to the Public Works Committee under the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, had authorized the eleven survey reports. Originally, funds for the surveys had gone through the War Department to USDA. After the war, the agriculture subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations began handling the funding requests. The situation was almost bound to create confusion. Who would now authorize additional projects, the Agriculture or the Public Works Committees USDA submitted survey reports to both committees (page 106). Some members of the Public Works Committee frankly thought they detected "a perversion of the intent of the flood-control acts" to carry out the regular USDA conservation work "under the guise of flood control."43

However, it was not just the differing opinions within government involved in the stalemate over the Department of Agriculture's flood control surveys. Out in the countryside, what was known as the upstream-downstream debate was at full force. The big dam-small dam controversy raged in the Arkansas-Red-White Basin and the Missouri Basin for some understandable reasons related to climate and topography. The Washita River, one of the projects authorized in the 1944 act, for instance, presented a good case for the small dams. Clouds, swept up from the Gulf of Mexico, provided moderate annual rainfall, but rainfall often was delivered in thunderstorms. Geologic forces created an area of moderate relief with wide flood plains, which, when protected from the very frequent floods, were much preferred for cropland over the adjacent, more droughty slopes and crests. Advocates of small dams on the tributaries argued that a series of small dams would protect the valuable bottom, while large dams would inundate too much of it. Partisans of the upstream program trekked to see the small structures along the Washita. The concept represented by the Washita was the model lauded in the major proselytizing treatise of the era, Big Dam Foolishness (1954) by Elmer T. Peterson, an Oklahoma journalist.

The Washita-type program, of course, involved many hydrologic questions. The point at issue was no longer simply the effect of land treatment on flooding. Now it was a question of the value of a system of small dams, or the effects of the small dams on the function of the corps' larger dams. Could a system of small dams be substituted for larger dams? Some of the upstream forces advocated a system of land treatment and small reservoirs as an alternative to large downstream flood control structures. People who would lose farmland to the large reservoirs found this a particularly appealing idea.44 While the Agriculture Department did not publicly promote this flood prevention program as the answer to downstream flooding, the Public Works Committee believed SCS was supplying the upstream forces with information which was misused and exaggerated in the debate.45

The Corps of Engineers began to voice objections that Soil Conservation Service small structures in the eleven authorized projects had not been coordinated with their work. But their primary objection was that such a program would call for another engineering agency, and that Congress should not create another agency. The upstream territory, like the downstream, would be theirs if there was really a need.46

The result of all this controversy was an impasse in the authorization of additional USDA flood control projects. According to Arthur Maass, two events broke the impasse and led to an entirely different method of approving watershed flood control work. One event was the election of an administration which was not wedded to the comprehensive planning and implementation of land treatment and flood control work. The other event was a congressional election in Kansas that alerted the administration to the desire of people in the headwaters for a small watershed program.47

Farmers and other residents had been lobbying for an upstream program, with some communities, especially in Kansas, forming watershed associations. The proponents had testified in 1951 before the subcommittee handling the Missouri Basin Agricultural Plan that they should not have to wait for complete river basin development to implement a small watershed program. The chairman of the subcommittee introduced a small watershed bill, but that bill did not reach the floor because Public Works Committee members stopped it in the House Rules Committee.48 Kansas, along with the rest of the Missouri River Basin, was, in the early 1950s, debating the virtues of a proposed Missouri Valley Authority modeled after the TVA, as opposed to the Pick-Sloan plan, a combination of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan and the Bureau of Reclamation plan. Part of Pick-Sloan included the Tuttle Creek Dam on the Big Blue River in Kansas to help protect Topeka, Lawrence, and Kansas City from flooding.

When the Missouri Basin Commission held hearings in Kansas in the summer of 1952 to gauge public sentiment, Bureau of the Budget observers found "a real and growing resistance and resentment toward the Pick-Sloan big dam approach as the solution of all the problems of Kansas."49 With the cities still pressing for the Tuttle Creek Dam, the nature of the opposition in the valley of the Big Blue River became obvious when Howard S. Miller, a seventy-three-year-old farmer from Morrill, captured the normally safe Republican congressional seat in the 1952 elections.50 Miller, who had campaigned almost exclusively on the issue of the dam, failed to stop it and lost the next election. But his election had alerted the new Republican administration to the desires of rural people for a small watershed program. After a change in administrations, Congress in 1953 authorized a $5 million "pilot" program on sixty-two watersheds. The following year Congress passed the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act. Amendments to the act have made it possible to construct works for drainage, irrigation, fish and wildlife development, and municipal water supply.

Within the Agriculture Department the flood control work expanded rapidly after the passage of the 1954 act. The Forest Service cooperated on the forestry aspects of projects. Its work on private lands increased. Within SCS the new surveying, planning, engineering, and construction supervision in watershed protection and flood prevention grew to claim a partnership role with the soil conservation operations.

The influence of the activities carried out under the 1936 act in shaping the watershed protection and flood prevention program was obvious. Subjection of long-held assumptions to scientific inquiry created a coterie of believers in small floodwater-retarding structures and channel improvement as a part of the upstream program, and they prevailed in having these included in the program. Land treatment to help infiltration and to protect reservoirs from sedimentation was included in the plans for the watershed. But traditionally, at least until recently, USDA has not shared the cost of land treatment under the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act. The Bureau of the Budget attitude prevailed. Currently, the Agriculture Department and Congress are approving "land treatment watersheds," which are mostly long-term cost-sharing agreements for land treatment without the floodwater-retarding structures. Economic analyses during the 1930s revealed the costs of upstream flooding and provided the economic rationale for an expanded program. Under the 1936 act survey parties designed a remedial project unique to the area. This procedure had a certain rational appeal; it left leeway for a greater number of objectives in project design. But project approval accelerated after the experience gained during the 1930s and 1940s was digested and used to write guidelines and criteria under which small watersheds would be examined for approval.

The agricultural interests had pressed for the program, and most of the projects were sent to the agriculture communities for approval. Projects that would benefit agricultural land received a more sympathetic hearing than those to reduce urban flooding. The new program had decreased emphasis on total river basin planning. After determining that a proposed project qualified under the laws and regulations, the willingness and ability of the local community and the state to pay was the crucial test. The map of the small watersheds projects reflected areas where the state and local community thought they had upstream flooding problems and were willing to pay their share to correct the problems.

Finally, there is the influence of the act on the Department of Agriculture and on the Soil Conservation Service in particular. The inclusion of a strong water resources program in SCS certainly broadened the base of disciplines. Hugh H. Bennett and Walter Lowdermilk viewed soil conservation as an interdisciplinary undertaking and included the many disciplines in the formative years. The water resources activity brought more hydrologists, engineers, geologists, and economists into the combined soil and water program than might have been expected. In response to the controversies arising from complying with the National Environmental Policy Act, more biologists were added. Furthermore, the method of planning and implementation under the flood control acts provides a basis, if not to ensure that each discipline participate in the joint soil and water conservation effort, at least to encourage such participation.

If there is a lesson for the future here, we should consider this aspect of the history. Currently, two of the important resource questions are ground-water quality and the off-site impacts of erosion and the contributions of agriculture to those problems. Both of these are highly complex scientific problems with complex solutions. The lesson from the experience under the Flood Control Act of 1936 was not to be too quick to extrapolate information from a field or experimental plot to an entire watershed, and that an interdisciplinary approach was needed to study the problems. That lesson should be borne in mind when confronted by other resources problems demanding understanding and calling for corrective measures.

Watershed Reports Submitted to Congress After World War II
These reports were not authorized for works of improvement in flood control acts.
Watersheds Date Submitted Referred to H. Committee House Document Number
Missouri River Basin 9/29/49 Ag. 373, 81/1
Green River, KY & TN 10/19/51 Pub. Works 261, 82/1
Grand (Neosho) River, OK 2/27/52 Pub. Works 388, 82/2
Brazos River, TX 3/10/52 Pub. Works 396, 82/2
Pee Dee River, VA, NC & SC 3/10/52 Pub. Works 395, 82/2
Sny, IL 3/10/52 Pub. Works 398, 82/2
Queen Creek, AZ 3/10/52 Pub. Works 397, 82/2
Delaware River, NY, NJ, PA, etc. 3/19/52 Pub. Works 405, 82/2
Sevier Lake, UT 3/19/52 Pub. Works 406, 82/2
Scioto River, OH 3/19/52 Pub. Works 409, 82/2
Pecos River, NM & TX 5/20/52 Pub. Works 475, 82/2
* Salt-Wahoo Creeks, NE 7/03/52 Ag. 530, 82/2
* Blue River, NE & KS 7/03/52 Ag. 530, 82/2
* Upper South Platte, CO & WY 7/03/52 Ag. 530, 82/2
* Osage River, KS & MO 7/03/52 Ag. 530, 82/2
* Five Mile Creek, WY 7/03/52 Ag. 530, 82/2

* Submitted as one document entitled "Supplemental Report, Missouri River Basin Agriculture Program."

Source: Arthur Maass, "Protecting Nature's Reservoir." In Public Policy, vol. 5, edited by C.J. Friedrich and J.K. Galbraith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), 106.


1 Quoted in Hugh Hammond Bennett, Soil Conservation (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1939), 869.

2 Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency (New York: Atheneum, 1979; originally published by Harvard University Press, 1959), 22-26, 199-208; and Harold T. Pinkett, Gifford Pinchot: Private and Public Forester (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970), 96-101.

3 Douglas Helms, "The Civilian Conservation Corps: Demonstrating the Value of Soil Conservation," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 40 (March-April 1985): 184-188; and G.M. Granger and J.C. Kirchner's note about FDR's verbal instructions to them on the flood control phase of CCC work may be found in Item 29, April 8, 1933, Reference File, Records of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Record Group 35, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (hereinafter cited as RG for Record Group and NA for National Archives).

4 Hugh Hammond Bennett, "Soil Erosion and Flood Control," Lecture III (Paper delivered at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School, February 3, 1928), mimeographed, copy at National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD. For other early discussions by Bennett on this topic, see The Soils and Agriculture of the Southern States (New York: Macmillan Company, 1928); and Soil Conservation, 596-616.

5 Hugh Hammond Bennett, "The Relation of Soil Erosion to Flood Control" (Address before National Rivers and Harbors Congress, Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C., April 30, 1934), mimeographed copy at National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD.

6 Walter C. Lowdermilk, Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years, Agricultural Information Bulletin No. 99 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1951), 13-15. For references to some of Lowdermilk's writings about the influence of forests on runoff, see the endnotes in J. Douglas Helms, "Walter Lowdermilk's Journey: Forester to Land Conservationist," Environmental Review 8 (Summer 1984): 132-145.

7 R.H. Davis to Bennett, November 3, 1933, File 243, General Correspondence, RG 114, Records of the Soil Conservation Service, NA. This file also includes correspondence with the U.S. Geological Survey about establishing gauging stations so that the influence of soil conservation work on sedimentation and flooding could be measured.

8 H.S. Person, Little Waters: Their Use and Relations to the Land (Washington, D.C.: Soil Conservation Service, Resettlement Administration, and Rural Electrification Administration, 1936), n.p.

9 Gilbert White, unpublished transcript of an interview by Martin Reuss, June 1985, Boulder, CO, 33-37. Office of History, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.

10 Headwaters Control and Use, Papers presented at the Upstream Engineering Conference held in Washington, D.C., September 22 and 23, 1936 (Washington, D.C.: Soil Conservation Service, Forest Service, and Rural Electrification Administration, 1937), 178.

11 Jean Christie, Morris Llewellyn Cooke: Progressive Engineer (New York: Garland Publishing, 1983), 191-192.

12 U.S. Congress, Senate, Congressional Record, 74th Cong., 2nd sess., 1936, 80, pt. 7: 7575.

13 Carl Hayden to Marvin H. McIntyre, May 1, 1936, Official File 2450 (Little Waters), Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY.

14 Walter C. Lowdermilk, Oral History Interview, Bancroft Library, University of California, 143-147; C.H. Southworth to Major Burton P. Fleming, October 30, 1935, copy in History Office, Soil Conservation Service, Washington, D.C. For a discussion of the history of the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1936, see Joseph L. Arnold, "The Flood Control Act of 1936: A Study in Politics, Planning and Ideology," in Rosen and Reuss, eds., The Flood Control Challenge: Past, Present, and Future, and Arthur Maass, Muddy Waters: The Army Engineers and the Nation's Rivers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951), 81-86.

15 Henry A. Wallace, Memorandum for Chiefs of Bureaus and Offices, November 30, 1936, File 10-111, Office of the Land Use Coordinator (OLUC), Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture, RG 16, NA.

16 Henry A. Wallace, Memorandum for Chiefs of Bureaus and Offices, May 13, 1940, File 10-12, OLUC, RG 16, NA.

17 Grover B. Hill to T.C. Burch, July 2, 1943, "Water 2-1," General Correspondence, RG 16, NA.

18 Ibid., Charles F. Brannan to Speaker of the House of Representatives, September 8, 1944; Hugh H. Wooten, "The Agricultural Flood Control Program: A Review of the Watershed Investigations and Reports," Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics 22 (February 1946): 35; and U.S. Congress, House, Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, Department of Agriculture Appropriations Bill for 1948, Hearings, 80th Cong., 1st sess., 1947, 939.

19 Arthur C. Ringland, Memorandum for F.A. Silcox, November 3, 1939, File 10-14, OLUC, RG 16, NA.

20 For a discussion of the problems of implementing the economic analysis of the flood control survey, see Wooten, "The Agricultural Flood Control Program," 35-47; and Bernard Frank and E.N. Munns, "Watershed Flood Control: Performance and Possibilities," Journal of Forestry 43 (April 1945): 236-251.

21 Arthur C. Ringland, Oral History Interview, Bancroft Library, University of California, 197-205.

22 U.S., Statutes at Large, vol. 55, p. 651; and Sam R. Broadbent to the Director, September 12, 1941, Trinity River, Flood Control Surveys, Series 39.27, Records of the Bureau of the Budget, RG 51, NA.

23 "Washita River and Drainage Basin," mimeographed (Oklahoma City, OK: Division of Water Resources, 1938), 30-31. Copy at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, Oklahoma City.

24 Don McBride to W.J. Theissen, January 25, 1940, "Washita Valley Improvement Association," Library, Oklahoma Water Resources Board, Oklahoma City.

25 Ibid., McBride to Dick Longmire, February 12, 1940.

26 Don McBride to Lula K. Pratt, October 23, 1940, reproduced in "Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention of the Washita Valley Improvement Association," mim-eographed, p. 3. Copy at the University of Oklahoma Library, Norman.

27 Ringland Interview, 208-209.

28 Howard Cook, "Flood Abatement by Headwaters Measures," Civil Engineering 15 (March 1945): 127.

29 Wooten, "The Agricultural Flood Control Program," 41.

30 R.L. Webster to Marion T. Bennett, November 25, 1943, "Water 1-1," General Correspondence, RG 16, NA.

31 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Report of the Chief of the Soil Conservation Service, 1947, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1947), 40.

32 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Report of the Chief of the Soil Conservation Service, 1949 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1949), 49.

33 Ibid., 49.

34 U.S. Congress, Senate, Congressional Record, 8lst Cong., 2nd sess., 1950, 96, pt. 8: 10482-10483.

35 U.S. Congress, House, Department of Agriculture Appropriations for 1951, Hearings, 8lst Cong., 2nd sess., 1950, 1152.

36 P.L. 81-759, September 6, 1950.

37 Interview with Jefferson C. Dykes, former assistant chief of SCS, College Park, MD, September 30, 1985.

38 S. 1812, 78th Cong., Records of the U.S. Senate, RG 46, NA; interview with Dykes, September 30, 1985.

39 Interview with Dykes, September 30, 1985.

40 U.S. Congress, Department of Agriculture Appropriations, 1951, 1146-1149.

41 Arthur Maass, "Protecting Nature's Reservoir," Public Policy, vol. 5 (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1954), 80.

42 S.R. Broadbent to Lee Dashner, January 16, 1951, Series 39.4a, "Water-Flood Control," Records of the Bureau of the Budget, RG 51, NA.

43 U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Public Works, The Flood Control Program of the Department of Agriculture, 82nd Cong., 2nd sess., 1952, House Committee Print No. 22, 41.

44 For a discussion of the controversy, see Luna B. Leopold and Thomas Maddock, Jr., The Flood Control Controversy: Big Dams, Little Dams, and Land Management (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1954).

45 Flood Control Program of the Department of Agriculture, 12-22; and Leopold and Maddock, The Flood Control Controversy, 89-92.

46 For a discussion of some of the technical disagreements between SCS and the corps, see "Supplement Information on Hydrologic Agreement and Coordination, Arkansas-White-Red Basins," mimeographed (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, September 1953), 45 pp. Copy in the Howard Cook Papers, Office of History, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.

47 Maass, "Protecting Nature's Reservoir," 96-97.

48 Beatrice Hort Holmes, A History of Federal Water Resources Programs, 1800-1960, Miscellaneous Publication No. 1233 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 1972), 28.

49 W.R. Vawter to John J. O'Neill, July 7, 1952, Series 52.1, P4-2, "Missouri River Basin," RG 51, NA.

50 Howard C. Miller to Paul Dodge, January 23, 1953, Series 52.1, P4-2, "Tuttle Creek Dam, Kansas," RG 51; Maass, "Protecting Nature's Reservoir," 96-97; and Elmer T. Peterson, Big Dam Foolishness: the Problems of Modern Flood Control and Water Storage (New York: Devin Adair Company, 1954), 62-64.