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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research
its powers as narrowly confined to those explicitly conferred upon it by the U.S. Constitution. The earliest federal role in water development and management began in the 1820s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) was authorized to undertake work to improve the navigability of the nation’s coastal and inland waterways. This was made possible by a Supreme Court ruling in the case of Gibbons v. Ogden (9 Wheat. 1, 197 1824), which declared that Congress had the authority to regulate navigation on interstate rivers under the terms of the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. That authority was subsequently broadened by other rulings regarding navigable rivers and their tributaries (Maass, 1951; Hill, 1957). Thereafter, Congress made direct appropriations to the Corps for specific river and harbor improvements. One rationale for authorizing the Corps to be involved in domestic civil works was to provide work for officers during peacetime so as to maintain their engineering proficiency. Navigation improvements continued to be the norm until after the Civil War, when Congress expanded the role and authority of the Corps to include flood control (Holmes, 1972).
During the latter half of the 19th century, the Corps’ authority was expanded in two distinct ways. First, the navigation activities that had previously been restricted to maintaining depth in natural channels by clearing debris were expanded to include the construction of dams and other structures on navigable waters. Simultaneously, the Corps also received authority to regulate the disposal of refuse as well as of dredge and fill materials, also for the purpose of protecting navigation. In this way, the Congress could ensure that the activities of the states and of private parties would not interfere with navigation. Second, the Corps was given responsibility for flood control on the lower Mississippi River, which on a regular basis was visited with devastating floods that adversely affected navigation and the development prospects of the region.
To summarize, the federal interests in water resources during the 19th century were limited to matters related to navigation. The expansion of federal authorities into other areas would not occur until the 20th century, although important events in land acquisition and development that set the stage for this occurred in the 19th century (as discussed below).
The period from 1775 to around 1850 has been characterized as the Era of Acquisition in the United States. During this period, the nation acquired most of the lands that would ultimately define the extent of the country on the North American continent, including the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the annexation of Texas in 1845, and the acquisition of the areas in the southwestern United States, including California, Arizona, and Nevada in 1848 through the Mexican Cession. With the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 and the acquisition of Alaska in 1867, the shape of the United States in North America looked very much the way it looks today.
Beginning around 1850, the Congress made significant efforts to turn much of this land over to private ownership via the Homestead Act of 1862, as large