Wallace Stegner’s “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” is the finest biography of explorer-scientist John Wesley Powell, the famed explorer of the Grand Canyon in 1869.
Stegner details Powell’s major accomplishments as an officer, explorer, educator, geographer, ethnologist and second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as Powell’s ideas and philosophy about an arid West.
A Union artillery officer, Powell lost an arm in battle, then tried and failed to settle down with a quiet career in academia. It didn’t work. The pull of the West was too strong.
Powell’s expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers, through the Grand Canyon in 1869, was a voyage through the last, large, uncharted chunk of territory on the continent. The expedition saw country that the local tribes had never seen, in vastly deep canyons and through mountainous waves over monstrous rapids. Powell emerged from the canyons a national hero, amid speculation that he and his men had died.
Powell came back to Utah’s canyon country again in 1872. Drawn from afar by the towering cliffs around Zion Canyon, Powell was the first European-American to descend the East Fork of the Virgin River from the current location of Mount Carmel Junction to Shunesburg. A plaque can be found just east of the Zion National Park boundary in the East Fork
As railroads stitched across the continent, the railroad owners and politicians all had an interest in promoting the land beyond the hundredth meridian as agricultural land just waiting for the plow and homesteaders. Asked about water in a treeless environment, everyone confidently predicted that “rain will follow the plow,” bringing welcome rain to the fertile soils of Kansas and the Dakotas. Powell, seemingly, was the only prominent, scientific voice reminding the public that deserts and semi-deserts are not really suited for agriculture.
(His research, “A Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah,” suggested limited, small-scale irrigation projects.)
Rather than accept that bit of practical wisdom, the West’s boosters and politicians defied the arid climate, Powell’s observations and the gritty, tragic experience of sod-busters who had spotty success and massive failures. Even Mother Nature conspired to sucker the public that dry-land farming could work, with years of above-average precipitation, followed by killer droughts. With each drought, more farms were abandoned.
Powell’s recommendation of federally-funded dams and irrigation systems was slowly embraced, then drastically accelerated via billions of dollars to create taxpayer-subsidized water systems in the rivers of the West. Politically, it became an article of faith that bigger and better dams, reservoirs and irrigation systems would bring lasting prosperity to the West. Hoover. Glen Canyon. Grand Coulee. Bonneville.
The West is still characterized by too much dry land and too little water, despite the efforts of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. And much of the green one can see from aircraft comes from dwindling aquifers.