John Wesley Powell Was Right

For 18 years I lived and worked in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. I learned to respect water.

Sonoran Desert

Water in my radiator, extra gallons of water in my car, water in my drinking mug, and water in canals that stretched to the horizon in rows of broccoli and lettuce. Frequently wearing a bandana around my neck to douse with water when I needed extra cooling, I learned basic survival skills: rise early to do errands, be home by noon, stay inside until 6 pm. then emerge to “cooling air.” I adjusted to living in a land limited by water.

I worked at Arizona State University in Phoenix which lies in low desert ecology. Very dry and hot, then later moved to Tucson in the high desert. As a teacher and naturalist I taught people about how the desert works ecologically, the ways life adapts to the desert to conserve water and promote cooling. Much was taught about the cultures of the desert that thrived before air conditioning, and piped in water from the Colorado River.

Today a vast population is straining under unprecedented drought, heat, and waning rivers. The American West, home to more than 40M people, is on fire and under emergency conditions.

John Wesley Powell Warned Us

In 1878, Powell’s Report on the Lands of the Arid West was published by the USGS. However, the best documentation on Powell’s epic geological surveys in the American West is Beyond the 100th Meridian by Wallace Stegner. The book chronicles Powell’s expeditions, and what he learned and tried to convey to Congress and the public: the west should not be exploited like the eastern half of America. Furthermore, Powell devised detailed plans for how to develop agriculture and ranching based on Western watersheds. He suggested a self reliant system in which individual landowners paid for bringing water to their crops, without large federal investments in infrastructure that seek to move water over long distances such we see in the canals, dams, and reservoirs all over the North American West. Powell’s campaign to convince lawmakers and business tycoons was unsuccessful but he was right. Fires, droughts, cities on the brink of water crises, and 40 million people living in the Southwest alone demonstrate his wisdom.

Capitalism without science and common sense to guide it is a dangerous force. Powell’s spirit must be sadly watching the drama unfold.

America’s West Faces a Megadrought: What’s the Solution?

Amid Historic Drought, A New Water War in the West – New York Times, June 1, 2021 by Mike Baker.