The Challenge of the Arid West | National Humanities Center

TeacherServe: Essays by Leading Scholars

The Challenge of the Arid West

By Worster, Donald

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“the relative emptiness of much of the West is due to the persisting power of
nature to set terms to human life”

Flying west across the continent, the traveler notices a dramatic change in the American landscape—from wet to dry, from green forests and cornfields to sagebrush plains and harsh deserts with only scattered stands of trees at the higher elevations. For more than a century now we have called that dry half of the continent the West. It starts on the Great Plains and stretches over a thousand dusty miles to sun-baked Los Angeles and an anomalous fringe of temperate rain forest in the Pacific Northwest.

Today, millions of people live here, but they tend to concentrate in a few places—oases where water is delivered—rather than spreading out on the ground. In fact, much of this region is still unsettled (with fewer than two people per square mile) and likely will never become settled. That fact is not due to any of the historical forces we commonly talk about—Puritanism, the Enlightenment, capitalism, slavery, or television—although they all have had their influence on this region. No, the relative emptiness of much of the West is due to the persisting power of nature to set terms to human life.

Each set of people who have come into this country has had to deal with those environmental realities. Only the Spanish-speaking immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula, which is similarly arid, came with much experience; other immigrants from ancient or modern Asia, Africa, or northern Europe have had a lot more to learn. Growing numbers of Americans began to encounter the arid West in the 1820s, journeying along the Santa Fe Trail, and in the 1840s, when the Mormons arrived in Utah while hundreds of thousands of other citizens plodded farther overland to find California gold. They debated the West’s promise: would it set a rigid limit on the country’s growth, a “Great American Desert” that had little to offer, or would it be redeemable by agriculture and other forms of labor?

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“They debated the West’s promise: would it set a rigid limit on the country’s growth . . . or would it be redeemable by agriculture and other forms of labor?”/div>

In 1878 John Wesley Powell, who led the first exploration of the upper Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, published a government report on “the arid region,” which he defined as the territory west of the hundredth meridian. That line approximates the point where rainfall drops to less than twenty inches per year on average, which was not enough to sustain the leading domesticated crops. Powell recommended sweeping changes in the public land laws to allow small, irrigated farms and livestock ranches, but also to encourage a less individualist way of
living on the land. Americans must learn to work together, he argued, if they wanted to see the West support secure, prosperous homes, and always they must worry about the threat of monopoly over the vital natural resource of water.

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Americans must learn to work together, he argued, if they wanted to see the West support secure, prosperous homes, and always they must worry about the threat of monopoly over the vital natural resource of water.

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The twentieth century has launched massive projects to control and manage the scarce water supply, most dramatically with the dedication of Hoover Dam in 1935. Thousands of large and small dams, canals, reservoirs, and aqueducts eventually captured the water from far-apart rivers and transported it to agriculturists and to city consumers. Still, the West remains predominately brown, barren, and starkly defiant. Americans may have constructed a “hydraulic civilization” here, a society dependent on large-scale hydraulic engineering for survival, but they have not really turned scarcity into unlimited abundance. The battle to control water, which has been at the heart of the West’s history, goes on, and none of the engineering marvels is secure or permanent. The fact that huge numbers of people now live here, that aridity did not stop the westward movement dead in its tracks, does not mean that, in the end, nature had no power or influence over American history, or is no longer a threat to the future.

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“The battle to control water, which has been at the heart of the West’s history, goes on, and none of the engineering marvels is secure or permanent.”

Guiding Discussion

Like other aspects of the natural world, the visceral reality of aridity has become, for most students today, an abstraction. Even in places like Phoenix or Cheyenne, they enjoy a seemingly endless supply of water, and their food is always reliably there in the supermarket. So the first step is to get them thinking about how earlier generations coped with searing drought, sudden, torrential floods, dry water holes, the differences between spring and fall in river level, the hand digging of wells. Imagine with them how Indians, and then whites, tried to solve the problem of quenching their thirst with only simple technology.

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“Imagine with them how Indians, and then whites, tried to solve the
problem of quenching their thirst with only simple technology.”

A bright student may raise the question whether aridity has meant the same thing to everybody or has varied from culture to culture. Pat that student on the head and turn the discussion to the ways in which aridity is both an ecological fact of nature, measurable and objective, and a culturally defined condition.

We perceive nature according to the standards of “normality” with which we’re familiar. The modern-day newcomer to Las Vegas may insist that a bluegrass lawn around his house is normal; he is no different than the nineteenth-century pioneer who expected to transplant her milk cows, her fruit trees, indeed her whole notion of what it meant to live on the land. By such imported standards of judgment, nature in the West may appear very deficient. But it was not deficient in the eyes of a pronghorn. Nor was it deficient or even “arid” in the eyes of the Paiutes who dwelt in the Great Basin; they learned how to feed themselves on desert seeds, small mammals, and grasshoppers and even assumed that they lived in the most blessed part of the earth! While all living things must maintain a water balance or die, most people in history have consumed water, directly or indirectly, beyond their basic biological needs. Encourage students to consider how culture enters the picture and begins to shape what we mean by aridity, deserts, or scarcity.

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“But it was not deficient . . . or even ‘arid’ in the eyes of the Paiutes who dwelt in the Great Basin”

Ask your students what cultural attitudes Americans brought with them to the West in the nineteenth century, and then how those attitudes have changed down to our own time. In the first place, they generally came as farmers or grazers, bringing with them a culture based on domesticated plants and animals that determined how they appraised the land and what they wanted from it. That is what Powell had in mind when he talked about the significance of the hundredth meridian: it was a line that a society based on agriculture could not cross without adjustment.

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“the hundredth meridian: it was a line that a society based on agriculture could not cross without adjustment”

Get out a map and note the average rainfall amounts west of Powell’s line, and then ask how much water a cow or sheep, a corn or wheat crop needs, and how they could survive in the West. Try to find grains or legumes—anywhere on earth—which can thrive on such low precipitation.

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Is this a limitation created by nature or culture? Consult Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, 1997) for a provocative discussion of what was biologically possible and what was not in the history of domestication. Even now we have not learned how to turn the creosote bush into practical food or build an agricultural economy on it. Thus, biology and culture converged to say that it would be impossible to farm out here unless you did what people in arid lands have always done: adopt a low-intensive, pastoral way of life or bring water to your crops artificially. Americans eventually adopted those novel forms of agriculture—they had to. But, again, they did so in ways determined by both culture and nature. The need for calories and energy was the same for all people. However, rights to water, the amounts of water sought and applied, and the full purposes of agricultural production all differed from one ethnic group to another. Here you might compare the methods that different societies employed in irrigation: those of the native Americans such as the Hohokam, the Spanish in colonial New Mexico or California, the Mormons working under the supervision of their church, and the more secular-minded, profit-seeking Americans (see online resources).

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Nature Transformed_Arid West_ irrigation
Nature Transformed_Arid West_Moki

“However, rights to water, the amounts of water sought and applied. . . all differed from one ethnic group to another.”

The typical response of students confronting something as large as the West and its modern technology of water management is to feel that all this history was inevitable—and perhaps wonderful. We did what we had to. We triumphed. Now we can forget about the problem of aridity. But if the purpose of studying history is to make us better able to handle complexity and change, then teachers need to work hard to overcome both that feeling of historical inevitability and the cheerful apathy it often engenders.

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In the first place, the climate of the West has never been a fixed state of nature that, once understood, could be predicted and controlled. What was wet sometimes abruptly became arid, and what was arid sometimes became even more arid. Nature’s own history has been as volatile and changing as the history we have made. The water that was stored in reservoirs like Utah’s Lake Powell seeped into porous sandstone, or evaporated, until westerners often ended up with less water than they started with. Silt collected behind their dams, making them only temporary solutions. And salinization of the soil followed like a curse wherever intensive irrigation was practiced. A good question for discussion then is how long will a dynamic, irrepressible nature allow us to maintain the hydraulic civilization we have built?

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“how long will a dynamic, irrepressible nature allow us to maintain the hydraulic civilization we have built?”

A second question for discussion that complicates this story is how government policy shaped the outcome that we see today. Policies that subsidized railroads, offered generous land grants, and encouraged immigration deliberately pushed people into the teeth of aridity. It is worth asking what the West would have become without those policies. Or without the massive investment of capital and expertise that the government made, especially from the 1930s through the 1960s, to capture water for western development. What would Los Angeles look like without that government intervention to find more water?

Over the past few decades the nation has been reappraising its efforts to develop the arid West. Students should try to connect the past to current debates between environmentalists and developers, between rival users who want more water than they are getting, and between regions of the country over who should pay the cost of maintaining a civilization in the desert. Should we support more golf courses or urban growth, should we preserve the few remaining wild rivers, or should we cut down on the amount of water going to agricultural interests (typically 80 to 90 percent of the supply in western states)? Should water become more of a market commodity than it is now and be sold to the highest bidder? Does the desert have any value beyond economics? Has our history left ordinary citizens in control, or has it created a powerful elite who make the decisions? As hard as it may be to imagine how people once experienced aridity first-hand, it is even harder to grapple with the complex decisions that must be made about aridity today. Or to respond to nature’s limits and uncertainties.

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“Over the past few decades the nation has been reappraising its efforts to develop the arid West.”

Scholarly Debate

The first historian to address the challenge of aridity was Walter Prescott Webb in his book The Great Plains (1931), which argued that the natural environment created “an institutional fault-line” across the nation. Laws and technologies developed in humid America could not get over that line, forcing people to make such innovations as barbed wire (to substitute for wooden fences) and windmills (to pump underground water). Webb saw a nation divided by nature and unequal in development. Moreover, he raised a broader question that previous historians had ignored: what is the role of nature in social evolution? That question took on new significance in the Dust Bowl years. Wind erosion and forced migration caused many to question whether westerners themselves had understood their environmental challenges sufficiently and had learned to adapt to drought cycles and aridity. Where Webb had seen a distinctly new region emerging, others saw a failed civilization that had been foretold by Powell.

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In the early postwar period, Powell’s star continued to ascend until he became a shining hero to many scholars and conservationists. They were less interested in the role of nature in history and more in the cultural blinders that Americans wore when they moved west. Two classic works that followed Powell in criticizing maladaptive attitudes were Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land (1950) and Wallace Stegner’s biography of Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954). Both of them found the nation and the region alike to be unrealistic in expectations. Smith showed how an “agrarian myth,” joined with imperial ambitions, convinced people that they could create a “garden of the world” where deserts had ruled. Stegner, one of the most influential western voices in the twentieth century, described a battle between, on the one hand, Powell the scientist and, on the other hand, regional political and economic leaders who pursued extravagant dreams of growth.

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Following the rise of the environmental movement and the new field of environmental history, scholars have focused more and more on western water politics. Although some still celebrate achievements of the Bureau of Reclamation and other dam-building agencies, most historians have become more critical of how water has been managed in the West. Norris Hundley, author of three books on the subject—The Great Thirst (1992), Water and the West (1975), and Dividing the Waters (1966)—has argued that the government overestimated the amount of water available for use, particularly in the Colorado River, creating serious legal conflicts among the states and between the United States and Mexico. He sees a history of chaos and disorder in water planning—inefficiency, waste, and strife—instead of coordinated development or cooperative spirit.

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That view has been echoed in the writings of Robert Kelley in Battling the Inland Sea (1989) and Donald Pisani in, among others, Water, Land, and Law in the West (1996) who, like Hundley, have emphasized California. In their opinion, the federal government has not done nearly enough to govern water; it has built massive dams and other infrastructure but has not used its power to settle questions of distribution, leaving them instead to a cacophony of local interests.

To a point they are right; Washington has seemed reluctant to confront the self-seeking demands of land and water entrepreneurs who would impose their values on nature and society in the West. But, as I have argued in a number of works, the federal government has more often shared rather than opposed those values. Working together rather than in opposition, capital and bureaucracy have drastically reordered the arid region. They have shared a common logic, a broad plan of conquest, in the name of economic growth. They have achieved, as intended, an “empire” that today boasts forty million irrigated acres and sprawling metropolises. They have accumulated power as well, just as Powell feared they would. The most intriguing question for this historian is how long they will be able to hold on to that power or maintain their imposed order over a desert that can never really be conquered or evaded.

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Whether culture or nature, society or aridity, proves dominant in the long term is an issue that can only be settled by scholars in the future. Most likely, neither force will win out absolutely and civilization will continue to face the challenge of how to live successfully in this difficult land.

Resources Consulted

https://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntwilderness/wildernesslinksaw.htm

https://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntwilderness/essays/aridwestcredits.htm

https://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntwilderness/essays/aridwestbib.htm

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Subjects

History / Environment and Nature / Education Studies / American Westward Expansion / Water / Ecology / Agriculture / Environmental History / American West /

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