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Water in the West : Growing Beyond Nature's Limits

December 29, 1985|Wallace Stegner | Among many works, Wallace Stegner is the author of "The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West" (1969); "Angle of Repose," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, and "The Spectator Bird," winner of the 1977 National Book Award.

LOS ALTOS HILLS, CALIF. — Everything that makes the West different from other regions, and everything I loved about it while I was growing up in it, derives from aridity. Much of what is wrong with it now derives from our arrogant belief that we can conquer aridity and remake the region.

Except for parts of the Pacific littoral, mainly in Washington and Oregon, there is either not enough rain for unaided agriculture, or the rain falls at the wrong season. In high altitudes there is plenty of water, but the soils are thin and the growing season short. Great reaches of the desert and plains will support only a meager population. Animals there adapt to drought or become extremely mobile, and in general live sparsely. So, for a good while, did people. They learned to adapt and accept. Walter Webb was right, as late as the 1950s, in calling the West an oasis civilization.

Aridity has consequences both physical and spiritual. One is a sharp change in erosional landforms, another is a greatly altered flora, another an intensification of light. Those mean new shapes and colors. When artists started to paint the West they had to learn a new eye and a new palette, and virtually forget green.

Another consequence is spaciousness, an enlarging and exhilarating sense of openness and freedom. The air is dry and clear, the scale enormous. A man is small and lonely in such big landscapes, but important too: He can be seen a long way off, he peoples the unpeopled. He may even acquire an exaggerated notion of himself and embrace illusions of independence and self-reliance. These inflate the ego, but for most Westerners have not proved useful qualities. Bernard DeVoto liked to say that the true individualists of the West usually wound up on the end of a rope whose other end was in the hands of a bunch of cooperators. The myth of western individualism has been useful chiefly to boosters, and to politicians when they want endorsement of the energetic greed that "made America great."

Still another consequence is the public domain. It is concentrated in the 11 western states, and it remains public because the land was generally too dry and apparently worthless to tempt private owners. The West's spaciousness depends on it. It holds the oases apart. Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management manage it, or are supposed to, in the public interest. They sell timber (too much, too cheap), and leases for grazing (too many, too cheap), coal (too cheap) and oil (too cheap) to individuals and corporations. They also protect watersheds (sometimes inadequately) and provide recreation space. People from everywhere use these lands freely, but Westerners use them most freely of all because they are right next door. Often they think they own the public domain, or should, though in fact it belongs to and is maintained by the whole country.

These federal lands lie within the boundaries of the western states, but are not subject to state control or open to unchecked exploitation by the interests that dominate state governments. Periodically the states try to grab Forest Service or BLM lands they covet. The cynical outburst called the Sagebrush Rebellion was the latest instance. The perennial conflict between state and federal governments over the resources of the public domain is an unresolved part of the future that overhangs us.

But the vital resource of the West is water, not land. Land without water is worthless for agricultural, industrial or municipal use. John Wesley Powell, who understood the West better than any man of his time, thought that in the control of water lay the opportunity for a democratic and cooperative society in the West. He proposed political divisions along drainage divides, cooperative irrigation districts, irrigation and grazing homesteads surveyed according to the availability of water rather than by the rigid grid of the usual cadastral surveys.

Habit, ignorance, politics and western "individualism" prevented Powell's program from getting anywhere. Private capital developed the smaller and easier water projects. Cooperatives never materialized so western boosters and the politicians who worked for them got the burden of the future transferred to the federal government. After all, the West was public domain. And irrigation would turn the West into the Garden of the World. Powell's effort had been to prevent land monopoly based on control of water. The boosters, with federal help, made a degree of land monopoly immensely profitable, hence inevitable.

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