The Vision of John Wesley Powell
Explorer Foresaw Water Issues That Would Plague the West

ListenListen to Howard Berkes' report.

John Wesley Powell circa 1896.

John Wesley Powell circa 1896.
Credit: Courtesy Smithsonian Institution

A map of the arid region of the United States showing drainage districts, 1890-91.

A map of the arid region of the United States showing drainage districts, 1890-91.
Credit: Courtesy Dan Flores
Enlarge image

This irrigation canal in Provo, Utah, is still in use, more than 130 years after it was dug by Mormon pioneers. Mormon settlement practices and use of water greatly influenced the thinking of John Wesley Powell.

This irrigation canal in Provo, Utah, is still in use, more than 130 years after it was dug by Mormon pioneers. Mormon settlement practices and use of water greatly influenced the thinking of John Wesley Powell.
Credit: Howard Berkes, NPR News

Powell, Wyo., today.

The irrigation canal that brings water to Powell's fields is visible in the foreground of this photo of the town today.
Credit: Howard Berkes, NPR News
View an image of the same spot in Powell, Wyo., in 1909.

Beryl Churchill

Farmer Beryl Churchill stands in a field of broccoli in Powell, Wyo. Churchills have farmed this land since irrigation water first arrived.
Credit: Howard Berkes, NPR News

Aug. 26, 2003 -- If Congress had listened to explorer and scientist John Wesley Powell 125 years ago, the American West today might be an entirely different place.

"We would not have, if Powell's ideas had carried through, any of our huge federal water projects," says Powell biographer Donald Worster. "And we certainly would not have had anything like the massive urban growth that's taken place in the West."

A one-armed Civil War veteran, Powell launched daring expeditions down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, and to Indian and pioneer communities where little rain fell. As NPR's Howard Berkes reports, Powell's knowledge of the region convinced him that water, or the lack of it, would be a major and ongoing problem in America's westward expansion.

"The East is a green America, but the American West was a brown land," Worster says. "People had noticed. They couldn't help but noticing this as they went West in covered wagons. But Powell was the first to ask why did that difference exist and what did it mean for the nation's future."

Homesteaders who headed West in the middle of the 19th century believed rain would follow their plows. "That's what they were told by newspapers, railroads, speculators and even scientists," Berkes says.

Lured by the Homestead Act and the promise of free public land, these settlers found themselves the victims of a cruel hoax, says William deBuys, author of Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell.

"Many thousands of families made a go of trying to farm without irrigation in the arid lands, and they suffered extremely," DeBuys says. "It was a bitter double cross on those hopeful people, and Powell saw that."

In 1878, Powell published his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, which laid out a concrete strategy for settling the West without fighting over scarce water. Powell wanted to stall the waves of homesteaders moving across the plains and mountains. Instead, he wanted to plan settlement based in part on the cooperative model practiced in Utah by Mormon settlers, who tapped mountain snowmelt and the streams, lakes and rivers it created with irrigation ditches leading to crops. Powell wanted to organize settlements around water and watersheds, which would force water users to conserve the scarce resource, because overuse or pollution would hurt everyone in the watershed. Powell believed this arrangement would also make communities better prepared to deal with attempts to usurp their water.

"Any city -- Los Angeles, for example -- would have had to deal with these local watershed groups and meet their terms," Worster says. "For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place. So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist."

Powell's utopian vision also focused on self-reliance. Farmers would spend their own money, not government funds, on the dams and canals needed to get water to them, and their use of water would be tied to their land. They wouldn't be able to sell their water separately to cities or syndicates. But that was all too much for a nation desperate to expand, says Worster.

"A number of Western congressmen said, 'Oh wait, whoa, this is too radical. There's too much planning in this. There's too much regulation. There's too much community control. This is not the American way.' It would interfere with rapid development. It would interfere with free enterprise."

Three months before Powell died in 1902, Congress launched a century of massive dam and canal construction costing billions of dollars, all subsidized by the federal government. That fueled homesteading and corporate mega-farms. Cities snapped up water rights and imported water across hundreds of miles. Small farmers were overwhelmed by urban and corporate interests. And more water was promised than was sometimes available, triggering water wars.

But in places like Powell, Wyo., some of Powell's vision survived. The town sprang up in 1909, when an irrigation project allowed water to travel 30 miles from the Buffalo Bill Dam to the arid region, making it hospitable to farming. Although the federal government subsidized the $3.4 million project, the farmers in the irrigation district in and around Powell paid back their interest-free share. Powell's farms are relatively small by today's Western standards, water rights are tied to farmland, and the community of 5,300 people practices cooperative water use.

"It's an irrigation district which is made up of small farmers who are in control of their own destiny," says historian Robert Bonner. "And that is the kind of thing that is at the heart of what John Wesley Powell wanted to see happen."

In Depth

  • Sept. 22, 2002: NPR's Howard Berkes reports on the legacy of John Wesley Powell.

  • July 27, 2003: NPR's Howard Berkes and NPR's David Welna report on the New Homestead Act, a new law that aims to repopulate dying towns across the Great Plains.

  • Nov 14., 2002: 'Talk of the Nation' looks at the water woes of Western states.

    Other Resources

  • John Wesley Powell Memorial Museum

  • Links to some of John Wesley Powell's reports

  • Information on the history of the Buffalo Bill Dam

  • A history of Powell, Wyo., from the Powell Chamber of Commerce