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“There is not enough sufficient water to irrigate all the land which could be irrigated”. These are the words from John Wesley Powell when he argued that civilization would difficult to cultivate in the West due to the lack of water in the area. However, Americans went ahead and created civilization. In fact, early Americans established the biggest cities in the United States and the world such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. Nonetheless, Powell was not entirely incorrect about his findings of the West as many issues became present. Pioneers and corporations were unable to establish irrigation systems enough for a stable society due to the lack of water and funds. Even though water issues are present today, it was imperative that Washington, DC lead the role in providing water for the West.
The western part of the United States has always been a desert. Water was scarce, but “people figured that when the region was settled, rainfall would fall magically; however, in the late 1800’s, such theories amounted to political dogma. ” Land was such a sought-after commodity, and with land available West of the Mississippi River, people took the chance to buy land and create civilization there. Unfortunately, the people were not advised about the extreme lack of water in this region. Irrigation was a must. John Wesley Powell warned the federal government about the risks of establishing civilization in the West. His main concern was allowing individuals to take it upon themselves to irrigate the land. He believed that individuals would not be able to create a civilization in the West because no one knew how to properly irrigate, and no one had enough money to create an irrigation system enough for a stable society. Another problem for water in the West was control. The debate between state and federal power has been around before the issue of western development. McCool summed the Western water problem perfectly as “many westerners want federal funds for western development but do not want federal control”. The question remained: should the government intervene to develop the West?
Throughout the history of Western development, the government passed bills to deal with water control. The first Western development bills allow more individual freedom for people to irrigate the land whatever means necessary. Unfortunately, pioneers were not able to cultivate the West. When pioneers went West, they hoped to have land with water. The federal government promoted Western expansion through many acts. The Desert Act of 1877 offered land to anyone who could irrigate it. The 1894 Carey Act distributed federal resources to the states without federal control. The states were required to fund enough money to create irrigation projects. Unfortunately, the Carey Act and the Desert Act failed as the private irrigators had already developed the land, and no one had enough money for the remaining land that needed “substantial investment”. Moreover, farmers tried funding their own irrigation projects but failed. Farmers needed a solution and turned to irrigation districts. The Wright Act was signed into law to create the framework for irrigation districts. These irrigation districts “establish a mechanism to require all landowners in the area to join in the common enterprise of developing and delivering water for irrigation”.
Irrigation districts assessed a tax on all property in the district to fund construction projects and operations. They took on debt by issuing bonds to fund large-scale capital construction projects. Despite the vision, these organizations failed as people were not willing to pay for bonds to fund construction projects. The multiple failures of farmers in the West was a call to action for the government. Congress passed the Reclamation Act of 1902 after there was extreme droughts in the West during the 1880’s and 1890’s. The Reclamation Act was an essential bill to help develop the West as the federal agencies governed water issues. “It authorized the Secretary of the Interior to conduct field surveys, build storage works, divert water, and withdraw from entry public land for irrigation”. The Secretary of Interior also created the Reclamation Service to carry out the policies. “Within a few years, the Reclamation Service discovered a new major source of revenue in the hydroelectricity generated at its dams”. Dams have been and continue to be an integral part for civilization in the West to flourish. They provided cheap water and energy. Fortunately for the West, the Reclamation Service’s projects were a success. The successes of Shoshone Dam, Arrowrock Dam, and Elephant Butte Dam showed the power and the importance of federal funding especially because dam failures were common before the Reclamation Service.
Despite of the Reclamation Service’s crucial projects, their power was still limited and thus allowed people such as William Mulholland and Fred Eaton to manipulate the system. William Mulholland and Fred Eaton were the masterminds behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct. After droughts negatively affected Los Angeles, Mulholland and Eaton decided to take the water from the Owens Valley. Owens Valley contained runoff from the Sierra Nevada’s, thus Eaton Mulholland believed this source of water would be vital for a growing population in Southern California. J. B. Lippincott, a representative for the Reclamation service in charge of the California program, assigned Fred Eaton to decide the issue on the Owens Valley. Eaton was able to buy up all the land along with the water rights in the Owens Valley to create the aqueduct necessary to bring water to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was a success and the city of Los Angeles was able to have enough water for its resident with no worry of a drought. Disastrously, Los Angeles devoured almost all the water in the Owens Valley. It created an extreme drought for the residents living in Owens Valley. Ranchers, in the Owens Valley, were initially told that “they would grow in prosperity along with Los Angeles, but they began to realize that their fertile fields were becoming parched and nonproductive”. Small farmers were forgotten about, and the water from the Owens Lake was vital for the local economy. With the help of the Reclamation Service, Eaton and Mulholland’s plan crippled the local farmers and closed schools and businesses. Even though dams created civilization for the West, it still posed a problem for the environment. Environmentalism was a growing movement in the 1970s. Environmentalists protested the overt use of water from natural environments. David Gaines and a group of biologists found that Mono Lake was at the brink of collapse. This was because Mulholland decided to include Mono Lake to the sources of water Los Angeles would use. In 1976, Mono Lake had “dropped to 40 feet” and exposed mineral towers that made Mono Lake “three times saltier than the ocean”.
The lack of conservation of water created an unsafe environment for the ecosystem. Environmentalists were worried Mono Lake would have a fate similar to that of Owen’s Lake. Gaines joined the Audubon Society to help fight a legal battle against the city of Los Angeles to protect Mono Lake. Fortunately, for Gaines and the Audubon Society, they won the legal battle against an entity that seemed too powerful to fight against. “Whiskey is for drinking, water is worth fighting over”. Mark Twain’s words emulate the water situation in the West.
To this day, water is the most important substance for every individual in the Western region. Credit must be given to the federal government because if not for the federal government’s financial backings, the West would not be developed. Nevertheless, problems persist. The distribution of water is an important issue in California as many farmers, cities, and ecosystems rely on water in the arid and dry West. While we must feed a never-ending growing population with water, we must also be conscious about the usage of the water. Everyone in the West must be wary of their use of water as we do not want to fall into the same fate as the tragedy of the commons.
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