Water in the Arid American West

In the 21st century, waters from the Colorado River and other Western waterways are drawn for a multitude of purposes. Due to low annual rainfall totals, finite water resources, and in certain areas a complete lack of groundwater, modern distribution is measured and closely monitored. The move west in the 19th century coincided with advances in irrigation technology that allowed for use of the arid land. However, the development of water resources on the frontier looked very different from how it had on the East Coast.


John Wesley Powell, the first to lead a successful expedition down the Colorado River in 1869, conversing with a Native American.

In 1869, Civil War Veteran John Wesley Powell became the first American to lead a successful expedition of the Upper Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Powell was the first to recognize the significance of the 100th meridian. West of this demarcation, lands averaged less than 20 inches of rainfall annually, far less than necessary for growing wheat and corn without irrigation. In the 21st century, as stated by Ted Steinberg in chapter 8 of his book Down to Earth, it is understood that the Rocky Mountains and coastal mountain ranges block storm systems and wring water from clouds passing over them. Even before the availability of such scientific information, Powell understood that the cycle of drought in the west was unavoidable. Armed with this insight, Powell advocated for a departure from the grid system that had developed in the East. Instead of uniform 160 acre plots that land surveys of the time called for, Powell proposed two configurations for western land use: small 80-acre farms and larger 2,560-acre ranches for livestock. These lands would be attached to their corresponding irrigation districts. The logic behind this seemed to be to focus western agriculture on grazing lands, which would be reasonably expected to remain fertile through manure and lack of emphasis on nutrient-depleting crops. Powell also seemed to fear the threat of monopoly over the resource of water similar to that the Boston Associates had in the Lake Winnipesaukee region in the late 18th century. He argued for increased cooperation between Americans if agriculture in the west was to be prosperous. Unfortunately, the American people did not heed Powell’s advice, nor his warning of drought.

In his essay “The Challenge of the Arid West,” Donald Worster comments on the rapid development of projects to manage the scarce water in the early 20th century. As the population in the west exploded, canals, reservoirs, aqueducts, and dams both large and small sprung up to transport water to both farmers and cities. He argues that while a “hydrological civilization” was constructed, it did not turn the scarcity into abundance. This problem persists today, and new measures are being taken to ensure that demand for water resources is met. This summer, a large-scale “water transfer” deal was struck between the Imperial Valley (California) Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA). Under the deal, water excess water sent to the Imperial Valley, which has no groundwater, will be diverted to the SDCWA with a stipend given to those farmers in the Irrigation district for 45 years. Until the 1990s, California had benefited from surplus flowing downstream from other states that did use all of their legal allotments of water. However, given tightened control by other states over their resources, urban centers like San Diego are increasingly turning to water transfers to meeting their demands. Apparent in this system is the concept of water as a commodity that followed Americans west in the early 19th century. In a water transfer, cities get the water they need and farmers tap a new source of income that helps supplement the traditional commodity market. This alternative income also is geared to help farmers stay afloat during periods of drought. These types of agreements are prime examples of the type of cooperation that John Wesley Powell had advocated. However, the problem of the scale of demand for both agriculture and human consumption is that of the 21st century. Water management in the American West will continue to be a pressing issue, and water transfers and other innovative methods of resource use are likely to continue to play a large role in the region’s future as well.

The Imperial Valley. The Colorado River irrigates nearly 4 million acres of land here that produces roughly 15% of the USA's food supply.

The Imperial Valley. The Colorado River irrigates nearly 4 million acres of land here that produces roughly 15% of the United States’ food supply.

For more information on the Imperial Valley – San Diego Water Transfer, please visit the following link http://www.eenews.net/greenwire/stories/1059984008/search


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