‘The West doesn’t have enough water’ — Mark Jaffe


Here’s an in-depth look at John Wesley Powell’s attempt to get politicians to pay attention to the science when laying out development policy in the West, from Mark Jaffe writing for The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

Powell’s solution was a completely new approach to development. Cutting up the land in square, 160-acre quarter sections, as was done in the fertile and wet Midwest, would not work. Instead, for areas dedicated to grazing, he said the minimum grant should be 2,560 acres and rather than blocks, farm boundaries should be drawn so each grant had access to a stream or river. There were areas where development would have to be banned outright.

Irrigation cooperatives had to be developed, and the federal government would also have to take a bigger role in developing water supplies. There would also have to be a larger federal presence in the West, with better surveys to assay resources and Washington taking over surveying from local contractors.
Powell’s report ran into opposition from political interests promoting a totally different idea of the West, and also from America’s original climate deniers.

The heart of this alternative vision was in Colorado. William Gilpin, the first Colorado territorial governor, had spent decades promoting the West, trying to erase the rubric given to the region by early explorers: “The Great American Desert.”

Gilpin was in inveterate dreamer. In his 1890 book, “The Cosmopolitan Railway,” he envisioned linking America to Europe by rail over the Bering Strait and through Moscow. He also made half a million dollars on land speculation in the San Luis Valley.

Gilpin was a promoter of the “rain follows the plow” theory, which said that as the West was settled, trees planted and reservoirs built, the climate would become more temperate. There was no evidence to prove the contention, and scientists had already expressed doubts, but no matter.

Powell’s report attacked more than the “rain-follows-the-plow” chestnut. It undermined the ethos of the solitary pioneer, replacing it with cooperatives and government. It completely throttled the vision of settlers streaming into the West. It was almost as if Powell was telling the rugged Western individualist, “You can’t build this alone.”

More USGS coverage here.

Leave a Reply