How the west was… dry—back then and today

March 7, 2014 Dave Bennett

Over 130 years ago, experts warned of drought problems in the Western US. Why didn't anyone listen?


The West doesn’t have enough water. That‘s the lead sentence in an article by Mark Jaffe in the Denver Post. Jaffe’s article caught my attention, not only for its reflection on what’s happening in the Western US right now, but also how we might have seen this coming long ago.

In his piece, Jaffe chronicles the history of explorer John Wesley Powell, a geologist, professor at Illinois State University, and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey. In his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, Powell warns that "Many droughts will occur; many seasons in a long series will be fruitless.” He reported that west of the 100th meridian, we should expect an average of less than 20 inches of rain each year. That was in 1877.



Jaffe goes on to explain Powell’s proposed approach to development of the West, which reflects the reality of a limited and variable water supply. For example, Powell said that dividing the land into 160-acre quarter sections as they did in the wetter Midwest wouldn’t work. He instead suggested that any land used for grazing should be at least 2,560 acres and boundaries should be shaped to ensure access to local waterways. In some areas, development should be banned outright.

As you can imagine, Congress didn’t want to hear that. Colorado congressman Thomas Patterson charged that Powell was no more than "a charlatan of science and an intermeddler in affairs of which he has no conception." He and others labeled the report the work of "new-fledge collegiates" and dismissed it in favor of the “rain follows the plow" theory, which purported that the more settlers planted trees and vegetation, built reservoirs, etc., the more the climate would acclimate and become more temperate. Then Congress passed the Desert Lands Act and the Timber and Stone Act, both intended to encourage people to expand and develop in the West.

It’s hard to say what might have been different if Powell’s vision had prevailed. Can we continue to accommodate the growing demand for water in “The Great American Desert”? Absolutely. It’s just a matter of money ... and a paradigm shift. When it comes to water in the West, the low-hanging fruit has mostly been picked. Going forward the solutions are more complex and costly. And that warrants a more holistic view of our interaction with water so it can be optimized in the most economical way.

In 2014 there are more facets to the water equation than ever before, be it surface water, groundwater, wastewater, reclaimed water, advanced wastewater treatment, stormwater, irrigation automation, indirect potable reuse, active stormwater treatment, recharge, shared infrastructure, automation and intelligent infrastructure, and the list continues. Water issues now require input from experts in every facet plus the perspective, creativity and experience to recognize and develop a community’s optimal path.

Jaffe closes his article with another quote from Powell’s 1877 report: "The redemption of the Arid Region involves engineering problems requiring for their solution the greatest of skill." More true today than ever. It’s the greatest of challenges, the greatest of opportunities.

About the Author

Dave Bennett

Educated in business and co-founder of a well-respected firm that merged with Stantec, Dave Bennett has spent his entire career in construction and engineering consulting, mostly helping communities dealing with too little water.

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