Big Dreams and Bountiful Capital: Western U.S. Expansion

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The settlement of the American West in the mid-nineteenth century saw streams of Americans, Europeans, Asians, and Central and South Americans converge on the region and its resources. The new peoples brought their views of agriculture, exploitation, and wealth to the strange ecosystems of the West. For East Coast Americans and Europeans, who were accustomed to climates with plentiful water and limited available land, the fields beyond the mountains seemed limitless. Virgin soils, amazing sun, and vacant space awaited them in California and Oregon, ready to be irrigated. The West was a virgin land where fortunes could be made.

The federal government institutionalized this exploitation through policies and institutions that brought engineering prowess to the goal of consumption. California saw some of the most ambitious actions. Throughout the state, large capital infusions funded grand manipulations in land and water use, including flood control in the central valley, cross-state diversions for urban water supplies, and massive irrigation projects. For instance, the Klamath basin, which straddles the California/Oregon border, was one of the original targets for irrigation authorized by the Reclamation Act in 1902. At the time, Western states, though possessing vast natural resources, were in a precarious economic position, deeply susceptible to cyclical economic and climatic cycles. The Reclamation Act was passed to inject federal money into large-scale engineering projects that would bring arid land into use, usually through irrigation and dams. The Reclamation Act was a symbol of the American drive to transform land for human purposes, facilitated by wide-scale engineering projects that fundamentally altered ecological processes. The Klamath Project, which was finally completed in the 1960’s, created a series of dams, lakes, and irrigation channels that linked existing rivers, provided some (though minimal) water storage capability, and offered substantial irrigation water outputs to thirsty farmers. Like many projects of its day, it was designed to maximize water supplies for agriculture in a politically relevant region, with little regard for ecologic or geologic characteristics. The project emphasized the capability of humans to construct new landscapes suitable for habitation without understanding the long-term consequences.

Large engineering projects in the Western U.S. were often undertaken as a result of political pressure from local or state interests. For instance, the Upper Klamath Basin had limited economic value without agriculture, which was reliant upon accessible irrigation water. Without irrigation, the area would not reap profit, the goal of every land speculator, farmer, and town supervisor in the growing West. The combination of appropriative water rights and generous national subsidies for irrigation, part of a much larger dependence on large-scale environmental transformation in order to create habitable landscapes for Western settlers. The Klamath Basin was one of many projects that rapidly changed ecosystem patterns and functions. These practitioners sought to exploit and monetize the nation’s natural resources based on a belief in human achievement with little regard for resource constraints, ecological functions, or environmental boundaries. To these ends, legal, political, technological, and social structures were all mobilized to promote growth and generate monetary wealth.

Enter Scarcity

While the water projects that typified population expansion in the Western U.S. were grandiose and successful at diverting water, they were not designed with resource scarcity in mind. As the era of federally-driven infrastructure expansion wound down in the 1960’s, new developments hinted at problems. Throughout the U.S., environmental disasters related to pollution and resource extraction were manifesting in unprecedented ways. The 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland and the Love Canal incident in the 1970’s brought to the public difficult issues of human impact on environmental systems. Rachel Carson’s prescient text, Silent Spring, warned of dangerous effects of industrial chemicals and pesticides on the environment and human health. Scientists and policy makers began to question the common practices of the industrial era, responding with a string of environmental actions, including the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Endangered Species Acts, and ultimately the 1972 creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. These actions went far to mitigate harmful processes, but did little to curb consumption. The environmental issues faced by many other regions are much stickier in nature, related to the fundamental systems (energy, agriculture, water) that support an unchallenged mantra of economic growth.

Engineering infrastructure also represents an expensive remnant of past assumptions. Similar to legal and policy frameworks, engineering systems found in California feed a belief that we can successfully manage resources for multiple end-uses. As the twentieth century closed, some ecologists, resource managers, and policy makers began to argue that there may not actually be enough water in the system to supply all uses through current approaches. This era of coming scarcity was in stark juxtaposition to layers of legal and technological frameworks that advocated full allotments. Western rivers are highly allocated and some are drying up, but our systems are not responding. The systems had been engineered to move water to users, but they had accomplished this too effectively. Even more, these systems were built without foresight of life cycle costs, and governments face the challenge of paying for billions in infrastructure upkeep.

This was a new paradigm of problems that the myriad of federal, state, and local water regulatory authorities were ill-equipped to handle. Historical biases create current expectations as to who “deserves” what allocation. Values of the participants of any dispute are at the heart of the conflict. Science often operates with particular uncertainties that do not translate well to the political realm. Combine uncertainty with expectation and values-based judgments, and a recipe for conflict ensues. Once the problem of allocating water had less to do with mobilizing resources and more to do with limiting extractions for all users, the political and technological systems built over decades to deal with environmental issues became wholly inadequate.


Doremus, Holly D, and A. Dan Tarlock. 2008. Water war in the Klamath basin: macho law, combat biology, and dirty politics. Washington,   DC: Island Press.

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