Monday, May 11, 2015

How the West Was Lost

Seen on Slate: Yes, the Drought Is Bad in California. It’s Going to Be Much, Much Worse in Arizona.

Which brought to mind this statement I head from a speech by Joel Salatin on the Extraenvironmentalist:
[1:04:08] “The food and farming system should increase the commons not decrease the commons. I call this my ‘whosoever will’ clause. In other words, could everybody do this? Is this open to everybody? What if everyone did this, what would things look like?  And this is where I go down my rabbit trail of the need for ponds if you’re going to irrigate – surface catchment ponds, back to P.A. Yeomans' Water for Every Farm – ponds rather than aquifers or public water irrigation. If we for the last seventy years had taken all the money that’s gone into Los Alamos in New Mexico, and spent it instead, using the bonanza of petroleum to carve high terrain catchments in all the valleys in New Mexico, today New Mexico would be drought-proof and flood-proof and would be an Eden. That’s the truth.”
See also John Wesley Powell's concept of "Watershed Democracy." The West could have been settled and developed in a much more sustainable fashion had his recommendations been followed:
In the Report and subsequent papers over the next dozen years, Powell argued that the homestead model of settlement that worked well in the more humid and productive forests and prairies of the central part of the country should be re-examined and restructured for the West. For the West, Powell had two revolutionary recommendations that continue to reverberate in land-use debates today.

First, because water is the key to development (and irrigation the ultimate agricultural objective), land management units should be organized around watersheds. This would require scrapping the “township and range” survey system that imposed a rigid systematic grid pattern on the land. This led to the vast checkerboard of land holdings familiar to any transcontinental airline passenger with a window seat. In its place, Powell recommended a management plan and a survey system based on watershed units.

Using watersheds as an organizing principle, the whole region would be subdivided along topographic lines, beginning with large river basins or districts, such as the Rio Grande in New Mexico, within which would be nested smaller districts, such as the San Luis Valley. Each district could be evaluated in terms of the water it might yield to support irrigation. Powell’s watershed approach was revolutionary by acknowledging that different lands within one region had different economic potential. He further asserted that the government, which was seeking to transfer lands into private hands, must perform surveys to establish the potential value of the land and make survey results known to the public.

The focus on irrigated agriculture as the economic foundation for arid lands led Powell to another revolutionary recommendation. Building and maintaining the reservoirs and canals that would feed irrigation systems required significant capital investment, while sustained maintenance of the system and the distribution of water among participants would necessitate fairly sophisticated social institutions. Based on his experiences in Mormon Utah, Powell felt that, rather than relying on individual initiative, communities should undertake development of western “watershed commonwealths.” This was a significant departure from the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy based on individual independent farmers that had helped propel westward expansion. Moreover, by placing communities at the forefront of development, industrial capitalists, who then dominated the national economy, were largely excluded. By allowing farmers to purchase 80 acres of land that could be irrigated and giving them collective stewardship over remaining range and forest lands, a new decentralized model of public land management might be forged.

Reaction to Powell’s recommendations, which took another 16 years to play out fully, was largely negative. By threatening to develop and distribute information on the economic potential of western lands, he undercut speculators who relied on settlers’ ignorance. By arguing that investment in these new lands come from within, relying heavily on community cooperation in labor and financing, he largely cut out capitalists. By suggesting that forested lands be held by the federal government, but managed by communities, he simultaneously locked out timber interests and those who might argue for a larger state or federal government role in land management. By insisting that lands be withheld from entry until they were surveyed and described, he stymied the developers who sought any sort of advantage in gaining access to the most favored lands.

Powell’s insistence on an initial survey prior to entry inadvertently suspended the Homestead and other related acts, thus denying settlers access to land. This was something that Powell did not necessarily oppose, but, by blocking entry, he alienated most popular opinion. While implementation of Powell’s recommendations would have led to a more orderly and prudent approach to development over the long run, Powell stomped on the toes of virtually all interests in the West. Not surprisingly, these interests stomped back and defeated him in the end.

And why are we growing everything in California, anyway? There's a Place That's Nearly Perfect for Growing Food. It's Not California. (Mother Jones) If there's a silver lining in the drought, it may be that regional economies and foodsheds might start to make as much economic sense as ecological and energy sense.


  1. Reminds me of "the Water Knife" by Paolo Bacigalupi

    1. I just heard he's got a new one out. I'll have to check it out.


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