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Water works

Tapping the wellspring of a western water reformer



William deBuys has done us all a good turn by editing for publication a single volume containing all the essays, articles and reports of John Wesley Powell necessary for a basic appraisal of Powell’s work. In the introduction to Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell, deBuys, writes: “John Wesley Powell was an American original. He was the last of the nation’s great continental explorers and the first of a new breed of public servant: part scientist, part social reformer, part institution builder…Virtually alone among his late nineteenth century contemporaries, he saw that the character of western lands would shape—and in turn be shaped by—the way in which those lands were settled. He further saw that the result of that interaction would ramify onward for generations and would have profound consequences for the land and for American society.”

Given the bulk of Powell’s subject matter—a˜ precise account of aridity in the West and his prescriptions for the institutional changes necessary to live within the requirements of the land—I expected the writing to be ponderous, freighted with more scientific material than I could reasonably understand. Yet, these essays are eloquently plain spoken. Powell wrote them for politicians and the public, hoping to convince them of the impending disaster on arid western lands if homesteaders settled them in the same manner as eastern lands. He hoped through his efforts to change government policies that made the future sufferings of hopeful settlers inevitable. Many of Powell’s articles were published in Scribner’s and Century magazines, similar to the present day Harper’s. The writing is concise and scrupulously detailed and is not overly laden with technical terms. Powell did not celebrate his interactions with western landscapes the way John Muir did. His voice is matter-of-fact, his attitude toward the land almost wholly utilitarian.

Powell classifies the arid lands of the West into three broad categories: irrigable, timber and pasturage lands. His own introductory description of these categories gives a good idea of the general tone of his writing: “Within the Arid Region only a small portion of the country is irrigable. These irrigable tracts are lowlands lying along the streams. On the mountains and high plateaus forests are found at elevations so great that frequent summer frosts forbid the cultivation of the soil. Here are the natural timber lands of the Arid Region—an upper region set apart by nature for the growth of timber necessary to the mining, manufacturing and agricultural industries of the country. Between the low irrigable lands and the elevated forest lands there are valleys, mesas, hills, and mountain slopes bearing grasses of greater or less value for pasturage purposes.”

From the basis of these three categories, Powell describes the future possibilities inherent in the use of watersheds to give value to land in terms of settlement. He follows these descriptions with detailed analyses of how he perceived various governing models might alternately hinder and benefit the management of western lands, thus affecting the best interests of the settlers.

Ultimately, Powell envisioned a society based on self-governing “watershed commonwealths.” Each of the three classes of lands, irrigable, timber and pasturage, would be managed by community members organized into water districts. As deBuys writes: “Grazing and timber lands [would be administered] as a kind of commons, held for the benefit of all within the commonwealth.” Interestingly, however, Powell would not have the commonwealths receive title to these lands, lest they sell or otherwise dispose of their commons and break the unity of relationships binding the land in a whole. Instead, the United States would retain sovereign ownership of the commons of the Arid Lands and would serve as their trustee, holding the lands in perpetuity for the benefit of the commonwealths.”

Powell was an astute observer of landscapes, but there are times in examining his writings when I wonder about his blind spots. He was obsessed with the use of water for irrigation (“redeeming” the land) and seriously contemplated what would be necessary to use every last drop of it before it “ran to waste” by entering the ocean or disappearing underground. He seems thoroughly uninterested in the needs of wildlife. Most contradictory of all, Powell advocated a general policy of forced removal of native peoples onto reservations into what he must have known would be intolerable conditions. At the same time, he established the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution and became its first director. The cornerstone of his work there was the creation of a comprehensive linguistic taxonomy of the native languages of North America.

Powell seems to have taken a telescopic view, filtering his perspicacious thoughts on land use toward a visionary model of the future of industrial society or “civilization,” as he called it. It is impossible to know whether Powell’s concept of watershed commonwealths was a workable proposition or not. When his ambitions were finally derailed, Powell was just beginning an extensive survey of the western lands, with the aim of structuring the settlement of the West according to its results. Over the last century Powell’s ideal of the watershed commonwealth has taken on the quiet glow of a masterful hypothesis that ultimately has never been proven right or wrong. Powell hoped his tireless observations of land and its related institutions would benefit the majority of settlers over the long course of history. He left us a worthy legacy.

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