While reading some news reports concerning the diversion of water from the Mississippi River to the arid and drying up West, I thought of Wallace Stegner and his warnings about our misunderstanding and misuse of the arid region beyond the 98th Meridian. He wrote several books concerning our history of living in the arid West, but in this essay I refer to his collection of three speeches (The American West as Living Space) he made in 1986 at the Law School of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Stegner tells that all emigrants going west wrote in their journals that when they passed Grand Island in the Platte Valley, their nostrils dried out, their lips cracked, and their wagon wheels began to shrink and wobble. After this point in their long walk, they became aware that the air became so dry their “estimates of distance began to be ludicrously off the mark”, which was a vital skill for a wagon train’s emigrants. Mary Austin, a later emigrant, would title her 1903 book about this space, The Land With Little Rain.
Some explores and settlers of this land learned from it and accepted it for what it was. People such as Ivan Doig, the mentioned Austin, Stegner, and John Wesley Powell encouraged adaptation to the West’s dryness. However, folks like William Gilpin (the first territorial governor of Colorado) and that foolish booster of the west, Cyrus Thomas (“rain follows the plow” theory) helped open the west for what we now know is a threat instead of a man-made paradise. While we quickly learned that rain did not follow the plow it seems that we have yet to learn that we can bend nature just so much.
A writer in the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, CA observes that “We just need to get an amount of water similar to that which goes down the California aqueduct (100,000-125,000 gallons/second) to Lake Powell and then on down to Lake Mead.” To accomplish that the writer suggests digging a trench across several states to hold a pipe to carry the needed water. The writer points out that between August 1942 and August 1943 the American government built two pipelines to carry oil from Texas to refineries in New Jersey. So, the writer continues, let’s get on with it and correct mother nature’s distribution of water.
The writer quoted above and others who agree with this type of thinking should read Stegner’s books or any of the other good examinations by many writers of our failure to appreciate the “liquid gold” beyond the 98th Meridian. I do not doubt that American government and ingenuity could build a pipeline to divert water from the Mississippi River to the drying up Lake Mead, Lake Powell, or anywhere else the water is wanted. But we may want to heed Stegner’s warning: “The solution of western problems does not lie in more grandiose engineering.”
Perhaps we need to learn how to live in a land with little rain.