August 18, 1894: Desert Land (Carey) Act Signed to Encourage Irrigation in the West. On August 18, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the Desert Land Act of 1894, better known as the Carey Act. Sponsored by Wyoming Senator Joseph M. Carey, the Act was meant to improve the success rate for the settlement of the public lands. The law specifically addressed the millions upon millions of acres in the western states that required irrigation for productive farming—the so-called ‘arid lands.’
The Act authorized the Federal Land Office to transfer up to a million acres of arid public lands to individual states that established approved reclamation programs. States would cover expenses by charging fees and selling the land at nominal prices, with the real incentive being the expected increase in tax revenue.
Development companies proposed, designed, and built suitable irrigation projects. They profited by selling water to the settlers, at rates determined in negotiations with the state reclamation office. The development company did not ‘own’ the land itself—technically. However, these firms could place liens on the land and the associated water rights to protect their capital investments so the effect was basically the same.
In 1908 through 1910, developers initiated forty new Carey Act project in Idaho. No other state approaches Idaho in the exploitation of the Carey Act and later related legislation. By one reckoning, 60% of all U.S. acreage irrigated by Carey Act projects is in Idaho.