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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 on the Colorado River and the Grand Coulee on the Columbia River. These projects later led to homesteading and promoted economic development in the West.


Hoover Dam
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:

  • Civil Engineering – 561 employees
  • Industrial Equipment Mechanic – 249 employees
  • Misc Admin and Program Management – 208 employees
  • Information Technology Management – 200 employees
  • High Voltage Electrician – 172 employees
  • General Natural Resources Management – 163 employees
  • Electric Power Controlling – 140 employees
  • Engineering Technical – 137 employees
  • Electrical Engineering – 136 employees


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, 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 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

  • Manages, develops, and protects water and related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public.
  • Is the nation’s largest wholesale water supplier, operating 337 reservoirs with a total storage capacity of 245 million acre-feet (an acre-foot, 325,851 gallons of water, supplies enough water for a family of four for one year).
  • Provides 1 out of 5 (or, 140,000) Western farmers with irrigation water for 10 million farmland acres that produce 60 percent of the nation’s vegetables and one quarter of its fresh fruit and nut crops.
  • Is the second largest producer of hydropower in the United States and operates 53 hydroelectric power plants that annually produced, on average, 40 billion kilowatt-hours for the last 10 years.
  • Delivers 10 trillion gallons of water to more than 31 million people each year.
  • Manages, with partners, 289 recreation sites that have 90 million visits annually.
  • Reclamation’s management and recreation activities contribute $46 billion in economic output, and support about 312,000 jobs.

The Bureau of Reclamation priorities are to:

  • Ensure the continued delivery of water and power benefits in conformity with contracts, statutes, and agreements.
  • Operate and maintain projects in a safe and reliable manner, protecting the health and safety of the public and Reclamation employees and improve financial accountability and transparency to our contractors.
  • Honor State water rights, interstate compacts, contracts with Reclamation users, further the Secretary of the Interior’s Indian Trust responsibilities, and comply with all environmental statutes.
  • Plan for the future using programs that focus Reclamation’s financial and technical resources on areas in the West where conflict over water either currently exists or is likely to occur in the coming years.
  • Enhance the business operations of Reclamation in accord with the Managing for Excellence initiative.
  • Provide for the implementation of the newly authorized Loan Guarantee Program that can assist districts with large operation and maintenance/replacement projects on Reclamation facilities and facilities used to deliver Reclamation supplies.

The Bureau of Reclamation is:

  • Developing strategies to manage and deliver water more efficiently and effectively to our customers in order to help satisfy the many needs of irrigation, municipalities, power, and the environment and serving as a technical resource for water users and planners.
  • Working in partnership with states, Tribes, water and power customers, and others to seek creative and collaborative solutions to Western water issues.
  • Ensuring our dams do not create unacceptable risk to the public by monitoring, evaluating, and when appropriate, performing risk reduction modifications.

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 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.


  • Peter Soeth, Public Affairs ,Commissioner’s Office, Bureau of Reclamation, Denver, CO
  • Matt Mishkind PhD, SPHR, Team Lead for Training, Systems, and Human Capital Strategy, Human Resources Policy and Programs Division Policy and Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, Denver, CO
  • Photos were provided by the Bureau of Reclamation

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About The Author

A Pennsylvania native, Betty Boyd moved to the Tennessee Valley in 1994. She retired in early 2012 after 30 years of Government service. Boyd was an Acquisition Manager/IT Manager/ Project Manager during her 30-year career. Boyd also served as a supervisor and team leader during her career. In 2012 Boyd founded a consulting firm, Boyd Consulting Services, which offers writing services to clients and companies. For more information about these writing services see the following website: http://www.BettyBoydWriting.com/. Betty attended Athens State University, Athens, AL and received a B.B.A. in Management of Technology in 2000. She received her Masters of Science degree from Syracuse University with a concentration in Information Management in 2007. Boyd is a certified Level III contracting professional and she received a Masters level certificate in Project Management from the National Defense University in 2008.