U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

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The Difference Between Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation

The Difference Between Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation


Today, both the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation are focused on water projects throughout the United States, primarily in the construction and operation of dams along America’s rivers. If these two federal agencies are both constructing dams and reservoirs, then what is the difference between Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation?

army corps of engineers recreation area
Shady Creek Recreation Area, Muscatine, IA

The Difference Between Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation

Because their dams have resulted in the creation of lakes, state and local governments have worked with both the Corps and Bureau to establish recreation areas. The creation of those recreation areas is why boondockers enjoy some beautiful (and often times free) camping on federal lands.

But originally, the two agencies had different purposes.


The Army Corps of Engineers was officially created in 1802. However, it roots go back to the Revolutionary War. It was on June 16, 1775, when the Continental Congress organized an army of engineers, led by Colonel Richard Gridley, to construct fortifications at Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown. After the war, Congress recognized a need to build the nation’s military bases and fortifications. Finally in 1802, the Army Corps of Engineers was established. But soon after, Congress realized something equally important, facilitating the nation’s interstate commerce. The country needed roads, bridges, and docks. Over the decades, the ACOE went on to create dams and levees to protect cities from periodic flooding. Today the ACOE operates some 700 dams across the United States.

The Bureau of Reclamation was officially created in 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt responded to farmers in western states over the need for improved water distribution. At the time, western states and territories were too arid and dry for the small 160-acre plots of land that the Homesteading Act provided Americans with. The task of the Bureau was to help farmers “reclaim” western lands for cultivation and profit. It’s primary solution was to create a series of dams and aqueducts to deliver water to farmers and water districts throughout the west. Today, the Bureau operates 338 dams across the western states.

Establishment of Fishing Areas and Campgrounds

Before dams had been built on America’s rivers, people had been catching fish and erecting tents along their banks for centuries. When dams were built, both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation studied what effects these dams would have on the environment and neighboring communities. Both agencies agreed to cooperate with state, county, and local governments to make sure residents could still enjoy their fishing and camping activities. Thus was establishment of designated recreational areas.

The Army Corps of Engineers largely oversees the administration and patrols of its own campground and fishing areas. However, the Bureau of Reclamation contracts most of the administration and patrols to city, county, and state governments, although it continues to manage some on its own.

Overlap Between the Two Agencies

As the decades moved on, both agencies found themselves overlapping and competing for projects. Today, both agencies are largely involved in the construction and management of dams, as well as facilitating the watersheds that feed these rivers.

The Bureau of Reclamation largely sees itself as a supplier and wholesaler of water, while the Army Corps of Engineers sees itself as the authority of waterway infrastructure. The Bureau is focused only in the Western states, while the Corps manages projects throughout the entire United States.

The two agencies have built numerous dams along the same rivers over their years of existence. Along the Columbia River, the Corps have built 12 dams in all, while the Bureau has built 2. All 14 of these dams have overlapping purposes, to either control floods, generate electricity, and create water supplies for agriculture and communities. The Bureau would have built all 14 of those dams, except for the fact that the Corps had a hundred years of bureaucratic capital on its side.

In 1902, when the Bureau of Reclamation was established (it had formerly been known as U.S. Reclamation Service), the Army Corps of Engineers could have easily built all of the dams and aquaducts needed to supply farms and homes throughout the West. However, both Congress and Roosevelt needed a system by which the federal government could become a reseller of water. The Bureau is exactly that… it’s a water sales agency.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers does not sell water. It simply builds infrastructure and operates it afterwards. It works in conjunction with federal, state, and local agencies to ensure that dams and electrical generators are working as they should.

In 1984, a proposal from the Reagan Administration arose to merge the Bureau into the Corps. But in the following year, both agencies rejected the idea, claiming that the proposed savings of $50 million a year would not be realized because the two agencies did not have enough overlap. However, many argued that much of the western states were no longer in need of Uncle Sam’s “reclamation” and were fully capable of administering its own water supplies. Moreover, many pointed to the Bureau’s destruction of America’s rivers and streams over a perceived desire to control the sale of water to the nation’s farmers. Eventually, the merger proposal died.

In 2018, a proposal from the Trump Administration arose that would remove all of the Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects (dams and levees) to the Department of Interior and the Department of Transportation. The Department of Interior currently oversees the Bureau of Reclamation. As of this writing, the proposal hasn’t moved anywhere.

What All This Means for Boondockers

For the majority of boondockers out there, it doesn’t mean much at all. This is because both the Corps and the Bureau of have adopted rules that are largely similar to each other so that campers don’t have to worry too much if they’re on Corps land or Bureau land. Overlap between the two agencies has largely gone unnoticed to RVers.

However, the future of these two agencies are in doubt. The recent changes in social and political opinion have many questioning if these dams are still necessary, or if these projects should be transferred to state control. While federal agencies tend to offer more choices for free boondocking, state agencies tend to require entrance fees and camping fees. The growing power of environmentalists are also putting pressure on government agencies to close off camping and RVing on certain public lands.

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