Remembering John Wesley Powell in a Dry Year 

Lake Shasta. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

It is sometimes terrible to realize how much more intelligent and honest some earlier Western Americans were than our present leaders are; but that feeling is part of the prolonged tragedy we are living through long after the prophets have come, spoken, and gone, and Manifest Destiny has won such an impressive victory over science.

One such prophet was Major John Wesley Powell, who embodied all the virtues of the mythical westerner — rugged individualism, independence of mind and spirit, and love of outdoor adventure.

But, he possessed one quality not included in the aura of true Westerners: he was a natural scientist, largely an autodidact, when in the post-Civil War nation, scientific careers were not limited to exhaustive knowledge of the genome of one or two species. Powell had scope, and his decades of exploration of the West, presented in his 1879 masterpiece, Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States with a more detailed account of the land of Utah with maps, enunciates one of the core scientific facts of the continental United States: West of the 100th Meridian to the Pacific is an arid region. Powell had ideas about how to develop such a delicate area, which involved changes in land laws like the Homestead Act to bring it into accord with the realities of making a living in the remarkably different environments occurring in the West.  Powell even suggested changes in the maps of Western political jurisdictions to organize human political groups around watersheds rather than traditional counties. And he did not believe that rain followed the plow, a common real estate hustle of Western expansion in agrarian times.  But he did believe in disinterested public service and federal support and sponsorship of science. He founded the Bureau of Reclamation and was the second director of the US Geological Survey.  His studies of Native Americans had major influence on American cultural anthropology. Powell also believed in democracy and knew that in the West that must take a certain form or else …it would turn out the way it has turned out, agrarian feudalism and urban plutocratic kleptocracy.

His root insight flew in the face of the whole establishment of land speculators, banks, corporate agriculture and forestry, and all the forms of boosterism that formed the destructive culture we inhabit.

His root idea, well researched, was brutally simple: the West is an arid land, which can only support a limited number of people and a limited irrigation agriculture. It is an area that has no normal climate, although it tends toward drought interspersed with times of flood. Therefore, development must respect the limitations of the natural resources and not exceed the carrying capacity of the different regions.

But how could 40 million Californians and the most productive corporate agriculture in the nation be wrong about anything? We have crushed the natural resources of the state or used them and left nothing but a few iconic viewscapes paid for by the government and wealthy land conservancies – some national parks and forests and fragments of pastureland, pretty beaches, mountain lakes, etc. The ecological crisis is now almost beyond description, which is why the press obsesses on the endless stream of grim scientific measurement—quantified data by the mile, the acre-foot, or parts per million of air pollution.

The water press is full of stories about how heroic technocrats are manipulating less and less water; how reservoirs are drying up; how hydroelectric power is fading by the week, with the hottest periods still ahead of us; full of whining farmers and legislative bills for new reservoirs and whatever other strategies special interests can ram through Congress and the state Legislature.

But, what you are not hearing this hot, dry summer in the Western public dialogue is a strategy for reducing the load on the natural resources, permanently fallowing land which now holds permanent crops like the export-led industries of almonds, grapes and dairies. Golf courses should be forbidden in California except where we learn to play on sand and dirt. In 2020, sixty-five percent of the almond crop, about 2 billion pounds (all grown in California) was exported to other countries — 920 billion almonds, taking a gallon of California water per nut with it.  In 2020 California exported 41 million cases of wine (2.4 gal/case, 318 gal.water/gal wine) to foreign nations; 317 billion gallons of California water went into its production.  It takes about 880 gallons of water to produce a gallon of dairy milk. Total milk production in the state costs in the neighborhood of 40 trillion gallon .of water.

Some cities should be given back to the Indians. The absurd rump of California, Palm Springs and surrounding slurb, is crisscrossed with miles of walled and gated “communities” of second homes lining boulevards named for 1950s movie stars. The air is often unbreathable in blistering temperatures for the denizens of 125 golf courses and the other, lesser inhabitants. Its growing senior citizen independent and assisted living industry relies on the mega developer myth of retirement in the beautiful, healthful desert.

It is madness, endurable only by life in artificially lighted cavernous halls filled with cool, controlled air where your happy grandpa can try to find the morning finger-painting class or see “Casablanca” for…how many times? Well, after a few weeks of senior living in the Palm Springs slurb, it won’t make any difference to grandpa.

Sergio Arau’s 2004 satire, A Day Without a Mexican, would haunt Palm Springs and slurbirons if any rich masters of the universe or any members of the vast “service employees” networks would ever countenance a film so ancient and honest. But its level of irony drowns in the larger irony of walking down a street of side-by-side walled and gated “communities” in 110-degree heat beside a gutter full of wastewater from a golf course at noon in the middle of the desert in the middle of one of the worst droughts the state has ever seen, goaded to higher levels of misery by global warming.

As de Tocqueville noted, Americans didn’t have history to fight against; we had nature to defeat.

And did we ever! Look at us now!

Bill Hatch lives in the Central Valley in California. He is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of San Francisco. He can be reached at: