by Kevin Burkman
“Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”
The region west of the 100th meridian of longitude is home to some of the most diverse landscapes in North America. At around two thousand feet above sea level, the mixed grass prairies of the Great Plains gradually rise in elevation, and at around three thousand feet above sea level, they give way to short grass prairies that continue to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Between the Rockies and the mountain ranges along the Pacific coast is the Inter-Mountain West, a deep interior region comprised of the canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau, the volcanic wastelands of the Snake and Columbia rivers, the basin and range topography of the Great Basin, and the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of the Southwest.
For all their diversity, a common thread runs across all these landscapes: aridity. The 100th meridian is more than just an arbitrary line, conceived for map making and spatial positioning; it also delineates the twenty inch isohyet (a line of equal precipitation). To the east of the line, annual precipitation is generally twenty inches or more and to the west, it is twenty inches or less. This is the border between the moist east, and the arid west, parts of which were once known as the “Great American Desert.” Over the past 150 years, a vast arid empire has emerged in this region. Extensive damming has given rise to thousands of square miles of irrigated farmland, an extensive hydroelectric power grid, and highway systems that run across hundreds of miles of desert and otherwise inhabited regions that link the region’s burgeoning urban centers. This arid empire came at a tremendous environmental and monetary cost.
In the late 1800’s a singular man—an explorer, scientist and bureaucrat—considered the implications of settlement, land use and most importantly, water supply in the arid West. At a time when the term “Rain follows the plow” described 19th century climatology models, he applied scientific observations and reasoning to the environmental conditions of the West. Forgoing the popular rectilinear patterns, he proposed political borders based on watershed boundaries. Recognizing that only a relatively small section of the West was suitable for agriculture, he recommended small, locally controlled dams and irrigation systems. Without these measures, he believed the American West was in for a future of contentious water politics, frequent shortages, litigation, costly and excessive infrastructure, and unsustainable practices. While his recommendations were largely dismissed or ignored, one of the largest man-made bodies of water in the world, created as part of a water “reclamation” project he surely would not have approved of, is named for him and sits behind a massive dam in the canyons of southeast Utah: Lake Powell.
John Wesley Powell- Academic, Warrior and Explorer
John Wesley Powell was born in 1834, and spent his youth in the Midwestern states of Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois. Despite little formal learning, he had an enduring interest in the natural world, and spent much of his time collecting flora, fauna and minerals. Between 1853 and 1858, Powell attended several different Midwestern colleges, while also teaching in country schools in Wisconsin and Illinois, and conducting naturalist expeditions along the Mississippi River. He would eventually settle in Hennipen, IL in 1858 as a teacher, and became secretary for the Illinois State Natural History Society.
A staunch abolitionist, Powell was drawn to the Union cause when civil war broke out in 1861, and returned to academia following his discharge in 1865. Powell served as a professor of geology and natural history at Illinois Wesleyan and the State Normal University of Illinois. Under the auspices of the State Normal University, Powell led his first major natural history expedition to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in 1867, and second in 1868. These expeditions the focused on amassing a collection of fossil, mineral and animal specimens, for the university’s museum
Flushed with the success of his excursions, Powell embarked on two more expeditions, for which he is most famous, one in 1869, and the other in 1871, to explore the uncharted Green and Colorado Rivers of the Utah Territory. In these expeditions, Powell and his crews travelled 2000 miles through some of North America’s most isolated, rugged, and dangerous terrain. They collected data on the land’s physical characteristics and precipitation patterns, and cataloged flora and fauna. They also gathered topographic data to produce the first ever map of the Grand Canyon, and named many of the topographic and hydrologic features they discovered. They took hundreds of photographs, that, for nearly every American, were a first glimpse of the Colorado Plateau’s vast and spectacular canyon systems.
While Powell was exploring the canyons of the Colorado River, Congress established the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. Powell was soon named its first director, a post he held until 1879. Under his leadership, the department surveyed much of the Colorado Plateau and other regions of the Inter-Mountain West. During this same period, Powell’s exploits on the Colorado and Green Rivers were published, in The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, a classic example of American exploration literature.
The 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States was Powell’s seminal work, and a harbinger of his development and environmental policies in the coming years. The premise of the report was simple and straightforward: there was not enough available water in the West and Southwest to support the high-density populations of the East, the same could be said for large-scale agriculture. According to Powell’s estimates, only 1-3% of the territory between the 100th meridian and the costal mountain ranges along the Pacific could support agricultural development. To spur and sustain growth, Powell suggested three key requirements, considered progressive for their time:
- Completing a survey of the entire region to determine which areas were irrigable
- Mapping the West into nested irrigation districts conforming to watersheds on which all state and local boarders would be based
- All development, including dam and irrigation infrastructure, would be financed and constructed by local governments and communities
Powell favored development of the region, which included the necessary installation of dams and irrigation systems. But his vision for the West was one of a completely modern civilization bent on the domination of nature. Unlike the old, capitalist East, Powell’s West would become an agricultural democracy, powered by the people and communities of the West, and not by the federal government or Eastern industrialists. His proposed requirements would need to be met, before any development of the region could take place. He would soon find that most of his government associates and business leaders did not share his view.
John Wesley Powell- Bureaucrat
In 1881, Powell became the second director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) a position he held until 1894. Under his leadership, the USGS would become the largest scientific organization in the world. During these twelve years, Powell spearheaded the federal government’s scientific triad of topographic, geologic, and hydrologic surveys. However, his tenure as USGS director would prove to be tumultuous.
Powell’s call for guidelines to shape development in the West during his early years at the USGS fell mostly on deaf ears. A series of droughts in the late 1880’s brought land-use issues in the West to the fore. In 1888, Congress finally gave him the chance to prepare an irrigation survey of all public domain lands in the West. For the first time, he could put his proposals into action. He devised a seven-year plan to survey topographic and hydrographic features and conduct an engineering survey.
It now seemed that Powell had the authority to cease settlement over much of the American West, pending the results of his surveys. After an analysis of his survey data, land would ultimately be released for agricultural development. Despite Powell’s best intentions, the West would not enjoy the clear and comprehensive land planning he championed. Instead, he ignited a blaze of opposition over various points of contention, among them:
- That land would be withheld from development until they were surveyed, thwarting developers and speculators who sought to gain access to the most irrigable lands;
- That collection and distribution of data regarding the economic potential of surveyed sections would undercut land speculators;
- That investment in new land development would come from local sources, particularly in labor and financing; and
- That forested land would remain under the absolute control of the government, but managed by local communities, precluding industrial forestry and logging.
Representatives of this array of interests, including some of his associates at the Geological Survey, attacked Powell ceaselessly. For most of five years, Powell combated his opponents, facing one Congressional inquiry after another. Western policy makers and the public believed that Powell was purposely delaying the findings, while on the floors of Congress, a battle raged between science and public policy. It became clear that scientific logic would not stand in the way of development in the West, and by 1890, most of Powell’s budget for the remainder of his irrigation survey was drastically reduced, effectively bringing it to an end.
Frustrated, Powell resigned his position at the USGS in 1894 and died in 1902, without ever seeing his development plans for the West come to fruition. Although famous in his time, Powell has been all but forgotten by history, and his forward-thinking policies were left behind, as a new century dawned.
The Post-Powell Era and 20th Century West Water
In the early 20th century, the federal government immersed itself in water management in the West, on a large scale. The Newlands Reclamation Act (1902) was the first major federal water infrastructure act. Under its aegis, the United States Reclamation Service was formed and in 1923 renamed the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). The Bureau carried out the act’s intentions, which included the sale of semi-arid public lands. Sales revenues went toward the construction and maintenance of irrigation projects. Newly irrigated tracts would be sold, and the revenue placed in a revolving fund to support further irrigation projects. As a result, nearly every major river in the West was dammed under the act, and the USBR became the largest supplier of water in the US, serving over 31 million people. The Bureau provides 20% of all irrigation water across 10 million acres of farmland and is the second largest producer of hydroelectricity in the West.
A second piece of legislation formed the Colorado River Compact in 1922. One of the longest rivers in the West, the Colorado River flows for 1,450 miles and drains a watershed of 246,000 square miles, making it a lifeline for the people of the Southwest. The main premise of the Compact was water allocation, and it sought to halt the decades-long battle between the states that share the river’s water. The antithesis of Powell’s policy, the act authorized the formation of a collective to allocate and develop water and power resources on the river. Two administrative divisions of the river were created: the Upper Division, comprised of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Division, which includes California, Nevada and Arizona.
The Compact aided the proliferation of state and federal water projects, particularly through the Bureau of Reclamation, which fueled extensive irrigation in the Southwest and major urban development in desert climates. Thus, the Colorado River is arguably one of the most tightly controlled and contested rivers in the world, and every drop of its water has been allocated to serve the needs of 40 million people. While the Compact aimed to anticipate the future needs of the Colorado River Basin, its signatories in 1922 could not have known that the river’s water would be insufficient to meet future demand. Unmitigated urban growth, a growing interest in the preservation of this regions’ unique and fragile environment, and the implications of climate change, challenge the purposes of the Compact.
Major Water Infrastructure Projects of the 20th Century
The United States Bureau Reclamation, Colorado River Compact along with other authorities and legislation have brought about a series of massive and questionable water infrastructure projects. The USBR alone has built and operated 250 dams and 350 reservoirs in 17 western states, in grand engineering plans that ignore logic, as their environmental and economic costs far outweigh their benefits.
The following is a summary of some of these projects and their unintended consequences. The list is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather a survey of circumstances that seem to repeat time and again, as development tracked across the western landscape.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct (1905)
Before the federal government became involved in large-scale water development in the West, the City of Los Angeles authorized the construction of an aqueduct to transport water 233 miles from the distant Owens River to its terminus in the San Fernando Valley. This first section was completed in 1913, and a second aqueduct was added in the 1940’s, draining water from the Mono Lake Basin, some 300 miles from the city. A final aqueduct was completed in 1970, to siphon more water from the Owens River. The aqueduct system eventually led to explosive population growth in the Los Angeles basin. By 1934, the city had quadrupled in size (1.2 million) and became the fifth most populous in the country.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct led to the city’s transformation from a remote arid town into a sprawling, global metropolis, which has come at great environmental cost to areas hundreds of miles from the city. Water from the Owens River that once flowed into Owens Lake has been diverted into the aqueduct. Over time, the water level has fallen drastically: a one-hundred-square-mile lake soon became a vast alkali flat. Winds lift four million tons of alkali dust off the dry lakebed each year, adversely affecting air quality.
Boulder Canyon Project Act (1928)
The Boulder Canyon Project authorized the construction of a massive dam in the Colorado River’s Boulder Canyon, at the Arizona-Nevada border. The primary purposes of Boulder Dam (more famously known as Hoover Dam) were “flood control, improvement of navigation on the Colorado River, storage and delivery of water for reclamation and other beneficial uses, and generation of power.” At an inflation-adjusted cost of $842 million, the dam was an engineering marvel of its time, standing 700 feet high and over 1,200 feet across. Completed in 1936, the dam created Lake Mead, one of the largest man-made reservoirs on earth. The Lake’s impounded water is distributed to 8 million people in Arizona, California and Nevada.
Although Hoover Dam has been a boon to development in the Southwest, its cost to the environment has been substantial. Along with the Glen Canyon Dam, further upstream, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead have significantly altered the flow of the Colorado River. Together, they impound so much of the River’s water that it rarely reaches the Gulf of California. The fisheries in the Gulf that once depended on the nutrients the River carried, are virtual dead zones. Tons of silt collect behind Hoover Dam and are no longer available to enrich downstream wetlands, and four species of fish native to the Colorado River have since been listed as endangered due to habitat loss.
Colorado River Storage Project (1956)
The Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) was conceived as an upper-basin-wide water resource development plan. The project’s region is comprised of four separate units spread across an expansive portion of the Colorado Plateau. Capable of reserving 30,000,000 million acre feet of water, the system consists of six dams on the Colorado, and Gunnison rivers, including Flaming Gorge (Utah), Navajo (New Mexico), and Aspinall (Colorado). But its most famous (and notorious) is the Glen Canyon Dam, located on the Colorado River in Arizona, just south of the State’s border with Utah. The lake formed by this impoundment in 1963 is named after John Wesley Powell, who may not have appreciated the gesture. With a total capacity of 26.2 million acre-feet, Lake Powell accounts for over 60% of the CRSP system’s overall storage capability. The reservoir back-fills a maze of canyons, covering a surface area of over 161,000 acres, and spans north nearly 190 miles into Utah.
The damming of Glen Canyon has been controversial since it was first proposed more than half a century ago, and helped fuel the environmental movement of the 1960’s. Glen Canyon was not the government’s first choice for a dam location; its optimal choice was the Echo Park on the Green River in Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument. This choice fueled a six-year national debate on dam construction within a National Park unit. Various groups, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and other nascent environmental groups successfully saved Echo Park from impoundment. Regrettably, Glen Canyon had always been part of the CRSP’s legislation and, with the defeat of Echo Dam, the government channeled its efforts into dam construction in the unprotected Glen Canyon.
Central Arizona Project (CAP)
A product of the 1968 Colorado River Basin Project Act, the Central Arizona Project (CAP) broke ground in 1973. It is an extension of the USBR’s Parker Dam project, completed in 1938, which impounds the waters of the Colorado into Lake Havasu. A pumping station on Lake Havasu supplies an aqueduct system that spans over 300 miles, and services much of Arizona’s southern desert regions, including the sprawling cities of Phoenix and Tucson. Although it is nearly complete, some parts of the project could take another 10-20 years to execute. Still, the CAP is an engineering marvel; its fourteen pumping stations lift water 2,400 feet from the Colorado River to central Arizona. At a cost of over $5 billion, it is the largest and most expensive aqueduct system ever built in the US.
The CAP was originally intended to service agricultural lands, which would receive 60-80% of its flow. If the water it distributes were priced at the cost of delivery, however, CAP water would be substantially more expensive than groundwater pumped to the surface. Thus, taxpayers and the then small percentage of urban water users would pay for the majority of costs, effectively subsidizing agricultural operations. Critics of the project deemed it an economic and financial failure; however, the ever-expanding urban centers of central Arizona owe their very existence to the CAP. The rapid growth of Tucson and Phoenix, whose summer temperatures often exceed 100o, can be attributed to the CAP and the 1.5 million acre feet of water it delivers. Even with the 100 miles of desert between them, the region, commonly referred to as the “Arizona Sun Corridor,” is home to 5.6 million people. Regional growth projections for the corridor through 2050 put its population at 12.3 million, a 118% increase. An aqueduct system designed for irrigation decades ago will bear the brunt of the region’s growing demand for water.
Animas-La Plata Water Project
The USBR authorized the Animas-La Plata Water Project in southwestern Colorado in 1968. Construction was to begin in 1981, but was delayed by President Carter’s moratorium on federal water projects. After decades of studies, debates, and litigation, construction finally began in 2002. When completed, the Animas-La Plata Dam will impound the Animas River near Durango, creating a reservoir that will hold 120 million acre feet of water. Water from the reservoir will reach communities throughout southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, a region whose population is forecast to grow by at least 50% over the next 25 years.
Once termed the “last surviving dinosaur from the age of behemoth water schemes,” the Animas-La Plata will impound one of the last free flowing rivers in Colorado. But its cost to the environment is rivaled by its cost to the American taxpayer. In the 1990’s, the USBR concluded that project costs would vastly outweigh its expense. Although the project was expected to return only 36 cents for every dollar spent to construct it, the agency went ahead with its construction. Congress allocated $338 million for the project in 2002. By the time all cost overruns are calculated, the final project costs could exceed $500 million.
The USBR’s financial practices and the costs of its projects are beyond problematic. In 2011, the USBR spent nearly $2.9 billion building and servicing water infrastructure, while it received only $1 billion from those it services, a $1.9 billion shortfall. Starting in the 1950’s, the USBR was required to perform cost-benefit analyses of its projects. Independent studies have proven the agency’s internal analyses inaccurate, as they consistently underestimate costs and overestimate benefits. Further, these studies show that 15% or less of project costs are typically repaid, but do not account for the full costs of federal water infrastructure and irrigation subsidies. Nor do these studies account for the billions spent by the government to remediate the environmental damage created by the dams and irrigation systems.
Future Challenges in a Growing Region
In the past 50 years, researchers have observed significant changes in the amount of snowpack in the mountains of the West, which is vital to maintain sources of river water in spring and summer. Climate change has depleted these reserves, as precipitation patterns have begun to shift drastically along with rising atmospheric temperatures. The warmer atmosphere causes precipitation to fall on the mountains as rain instead of snow, draining directly into river headwaters. Rather than being stored as snow well into the summer, its availability peaks earlier in the year and the dry season is three months longer.
The consequences of these environmental changes are evident in impoundments throughout the West. Lakes Mead and Powell are filled to less than half of their capacity, exposing distinctive “bath-tub rings” on their canyon walls, evidence of declining in water levels, which is compounded by evaporation. The dams are located in low, hot canyons, where evaporation is expected, and thus project engineers factored in losses due to evaporation, but climate change has accelerated the rate of evaporation. Roughly ten percent of the Colorado River’s annual flow, 1.5 million acre-feet of water, evaporate off of the river each year.
Another challenge to water resources in the West is salinization, particularly in the Colorado River watershed. The River picks up 4.7 million tons of salt between its headwaters in the Never Summer Mountains and mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. The saline levels of the River risen sharply over the decades due to diversions of “pure” water from headwater regions, reducing the River’s ability to dilute its salt content. This is compounded by upper basin irrigation, which doubles the saline level by the time the River reaches the lower Colorado River region. As a result, salt concentrations in the Colorado that flow past California and into Mexico are generally 900 parts per million, sufficient to cause damage to plumbing fixtures and affect agriculture (at an estimated cost of over $360 million a year in damages). Further development in the upper basin will exacerbate this situation.
Reforming Western Water Policy
In the past 50 years, as development in the West has accelerated, Powell’s name and policies have been noted. Many mistake Powell as a conservationist, but nothing could be further from the truth. In terms of science and research, Powell was ahead of his time. He believed in subjugating nature for the advancement of civilization and that every drop of water in the West not harnessed for irrigation or power generation was being wasted. He predicted a day when every river in the West would be dammed, and all of their waters extracted. Powell was in favor of water resource development; where he differed from others of his time was the manner in which he hoped to tame the waters of the West.
We are moving ever closer to Powell’s vision of our Western rivers as a vast plumbing system. One imagines, however, the consequences had the nation followed Powell’s vision of “local-control” water management. His watershed commonwealths could not have accommodated the present degree of urbanization beyond the great divide. These commonwealths certainly would not have conserved natural resources for their aesthetic beauty; hundreds of valleys and canyon floors would have been submerged, along with their plant and animal life. Powell’s policies would have given rise to 150 local governments. What would have resulted from this experiment in local democracy and resource management?
The age of large-scale water distribution projects in the West is at an end, but the Bureau of Reclamation’s legacy lives on. Its works and attitudes of its “customers” in the West will continue to plague the country for the foreseeable future. Many have become utterly dependent on the water the USBR provides, especially Western farmers who receive subsidies not only for irrigation, but also for other agricultural and electrical uses. These subsidies tend to favor larger farms and landowners, including corporate farms. To a certain extent, subsidized irrigation in the West amounts to “corporate welfare,” at the expense of American taxpayers and the environment.
We started on this path of bureaucracy and inefficiency over 120 years ago, when we chose to ignore John Wesley Powell’s policies. Much of the worst he predicted has come to pass. The dams, impoundments, cities and irrigated fields are here to stay, but where do we go from here?
A first step would be to reform the water markets in the West. It is clear that the water the USBR supplies is not priced according to fair market value, in fact, farmers generally pay only 10% of the water’s market value. Over time the artificially low price of water in the west has encouraged waste and use in low-value activities like lawns and golf courses. Indeed, roughly 25 % of all USBR water is lost during transport. One way to remedy the excesses of failed water policy in the West is simply to raise the price of water to its true market value, in effect, aiding conservation efforts, and freeing large amounts of water for high-value uses.
Any attempt at water reform in the West must address the issue of water transfers. Governmental constraints on the transfer of water between users also contribute to the artificially low price of water. Farmers who receive USBR water generally do not have the option to resell it, and it is reserved exclusively for agricultural uses. Thus, water remains in lower-value uses while higher-value uses are undersupplied. Water shortages are often a result of transfer restrictions, rather than regional shortages. If farmers were permitted to transfer their water, they would be more inclined to conserve supplies and scale down irrigation on their least productive lands. Easing these restrictions would benefit farmers who wish to transfer their excess water to earn a profit and growing cities and industries with demand for new water sources. Further, Reduced barriers to water transfers may ease tensions over water in the West. Water allocations in the West are generally zero-sum decisions based on legal and political grounds; if water transfer conditions were instead dictated by a fair market, competing claims resolved through voluntary agreements.
A second step would be to diminish federal involvement in water supply in the West. In John Wesley Powell’s time, the construction of water infrastructure in the West was somewhat justifiable, given the scale of the projects, and the vast territories involved. Today, however, the American West is home to tens of millions of people with the capacity to manage their own water needs. All services provided by the USBR could be provided by local authorities, including state government, cities local irrigation districts and privately owned utilities.
Reducing the role of the federal government is no simple matter. The water network in the West is a complex web of water rights, legislation and judicial rulings enforced by the power of the federal government. The Bureau of Reclamation is a firmly entrenched bureaucracy, and is unlikely to give up its power and jurisdiction without a fight. But delaying reform will exacerbate the water situation in the West. Explosive growth in this region could lead to more frequent water shortages, with ever expanding political and legal conflicts. The transition may not be a painless one, but it is absolutely necessary.
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