- The Aesthetics of Water ReclamationCinema and the Irrigated West
Since the earliest years of cinema, desert landscapes have provided vibrant spaces for filmmaking. So much so that in 1930 the United States Bureau of Reclamation published an article inviting filmmakers to visit the federally owned Yuma Desert and experience filming on public lands that were, as the bureau claimed, “peculiarly adapted to talkies.”1 Featured in the Bureau of Reclamation’s official magazine, Reclamation Era, the article positions the Yuma Desert as an ideal place to shoot a film because of its remote location, little noise pollution, consistently good weather, and exposure to the sun’s naturally bright lighting— pristine filmmaking conditions miraculously produced by nature and curated by the Bureau of Reclamation for Hollywood’s benefit. The bureau was originally founded in 1902 for the purpose of bringing water to America’s so-called western wasteland. However, as this Reclamation Era article indicates, filmmaking and water reclamation are coeval processes inextricably tied to landscapes. In the twentieth century, film-making functioned as a continuation of the Bureau of Reclamation’s settler colonialist practices of irrigating the American West through infrastructure creation. As the bureau sought to become the sole provider of water infrastructures in the United States, it simultaneously worked to reclaim cultural infrastructures by producing its own libraries of cinema.
The Yuma Desert is a part of the publicly managed Sonoran Desert located along the US-Mexico border and is mostly devoid of vegetation and animal life, but it is full of vast sand dunes and sweeping plains.2 [End Page 40] Additionally, the desert is classified as an endorheic basin, meaning it has no outflow to external bodies of water, making it an especially dry landscape compared to other kinds of deserts.3 The Yuma Desert has long been irrigated and inhabited by the Quechan Tribe, who farmed on the banks of the Colorado River during dry seasons and lived underground during periods of flooding for thousands of years. Once the United States annexed Mexico in 1848, white settlers violently forced Quechan Tribe members onto the Fort Yuma Reservation and gained full ownership of the Yuma Desert in 1898.4
Just as the prospect of conquering the West’s seemingly “endless land[s] of richest fertility” fueled the widespread fulfillment of Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century, the new possibility of harnessing the West’s water and energy—via irrigation and dam building—was taken up by the Bureau of Reclamation in the twentieth.5 In 1904 the Yuma Desert was acquired by the Bureau of Reclamation when they bought out three private irrigation companies working to bring water to the Yuma.6 Subsequently, the bureau began implementing the Yuma Project, an irrigation plan that sought to divert water to the Yuma Desert and transform the seemingly wasted land into useful, productive property in the eyes of the government—a reclaimed landscape.
To properly irrigate the desert, the Bureau of Reclamation first purchased an initial irrigation system and pumping plant from the private companies that had been attempting to irrigate the Yuma Desert before 1904.7 The bureau then began construction on the Laguna Diversion Dam, which was rapidly completed by 1909, the first of what would eventually become fifteen dams along the Colorado River.8 From this point, the bureau began building out a system of reclamation infrastructures on the Colorado River to further facilitate the irrigation of the arid Yuma Desert. According to this history of escalating levels of water reclamation, desert lands could only be recognized as useful and fully “reclaimed” once they became vibrant sites of agricultural production, and were consequently made almost unrecognizable from their original conditions.
Like the 1930 article suggests, this irrigated desert could be made even more efficient by making the Yuma Desert culturally productive through filming “talkies” in the Yuma’s empty lands of sunshine and solitude, inherent features of the desert almost designed for the growing film industry. The article boasts that the Yuma Project was “gaining [End Page 41] reputation as sound-picture location,” reporting that Fox Film Corporation was in the process of making a film entitled The Big Trail...