Living Western History: Water in the West, or, why is it so dry out here?!

Living Western History:
Periodic musings on Western history and its contemporary Implications

Today’s topic:
Water in the West

 Remember back in 1820 when Stephen long dubbed the Great Plains of Nebraska and Oklahoma the “Great American Desert”?  What a jerk.  Ok…I’ll be the first to admit that it can be a bit dry out there – but no need to get nasty and start throwing the “Desert” word around.  It is a fact though, aridity is a feature that much of the West holds in common.  There are pockets – like my verdant native NW Washington – that don’t fit the mold, but most of the West could use a bit more water.  Or, more carefully stated, could use more water with a more even season distribution.

I spent the last two summers living in Kearney, NE – west of the 100th meridian aridity line, and much drier than the previous 7 years in Lincoln, NE – in the midst of one of the worst droughts in decades.  So, water (or the lack thereof) has been on my mind.  Thinking about that, I assigned some books on water to my graduate students, had undergrads consider a so-so documentary (narrated by Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman), and have posted occasionally on facebook about water issues.  As silly as it sounds, as I spent most late-afternoons in summer 2012 at the pool with my kids, I found myself thinking, “Ah.  This water is great.  That reminds me, I wonder how the drought is going…has Lake Powell dropped anymore this summer?  Has the Colorado run dry yet?  How is the Ogallala aquifer doing?  I wonder how many feet down it is here in Kearney.  Has it dropped in the past few years?” and so forth.  Thus, thoughts about my studies in Western water issues regularly crossed my mind as I escaped the summer heat in the lukewarm chlorinated H20.  At the same time, report after report comes forth concerning droughts, unsustainable water management practices, aquifers draining, etc…  Even my parents – in lush green and verdant NW Washington – are being asked to limit their water usage by the local utilities.  I don’t care where you stand on climate change or other environmental issues.  You cant’ deny that water is drying up as it evaporates around you.  Well, you could deny it, but then you’d die of eventual thirst.  This must be recognized by Westerners as one of the most pressing issues for maintaining their regional prosperity.  It would be less sad if it was an unforeseen development that took us completely by surprise.  But, that isn’t the case.  Many of the water-related crises we face now should have and could have been prevented.

Think about our favorite one-armed civil war veteran John Wesley Powell rafting down the mighty Colorado River back in 1869 (note: this was before it was dammed, and a bit more mighty – not the trickle that doesn’t even reach the ocean anymore…sorry Sonora).  When he penned his 1876 Report on the Arid Regions of the United States he tried to explain to Easterners that the West was different.  You couldn’t just draw nice box-shaped territories and states and expect the environmental politics to work.

He suggested that boundaries be configured along watersheds.       

powell watersheds

Why?  Because it made for a prettier map?  No.  Because water management would be the defining feature of building sustaining growth and development in those regions.  Well, that would have maybe helped the current multi-state legal wrangling over water in the SW and Great Plains.  Arguments made a generation ago by desert dwelling (and very amusing) curmudgeons like Ed Abbey and others could have been passed off then as primarily philosophical or aesthetic in nature – neither of which are good ways to gain political traction in enacting reform.  Those same arguments today, however, appear far more pressing.  Their ramifications have quickly moved away from the philosophical to the pragmatic, economic and political.  Life, it turns out, can’t exist without water.  And, the prospect of it running out is getting peoples’ attention.  Too bad public discourse hasn’t dealt with it more vigorously in the 50 years leading up to this point.

In any case – it is a subject I highly suggest we all read up on.  Here are some recent news items that might get help you wrap your mind around the subject.  If you have suggestions for other, drop them in a comment and I’ll add them to the list.

Here are some more lengthy readings.  They are not all of equal value and range from the academic and historical to popular and activist – but should all spark important debates. In addition to these, many of which are broad, countless local/regional/water-project specific studies exist as well.  Look up where you live, and chances are, someone has done work on water issues relevant to your region!  Environmental history IS NOT my primary field of training, so I actively request suggestions for titles to add to the list in a comment, and I’ll add it to the main post.

Relevant Readings
Thanks to Jason Heppler, Dave Nesheim, Sterling Evans, Adam Hodge, Tim Bowman and others for their suggestions added to this list via a facebook post

Others Possibly Worth Digging Through
If you think one of these deserves being bumped to the first list, make your case in a comment

3 thoughts on “Living Western History: Water in the West, or, why is it so dry out here?!

  1. Pingback: Goodbye Lake Powell, it Was Nice Knowing Ya’ | Brenden W. Rensink, Ph.D.

  2. Elaine Nelson, from over at (check them out!) suggests Loeffler, Jack and Celestia Loeffler, Thinking Like a Watershed: Voices from the West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012.

  3. Pingback: From the Bookshelf: Valenčius – The Health of the Country | Brenden W. Rensink, Ph.D.

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