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Powell Drainage Districts

American state borders have straight lines. All US state have one. Wyoming and Colorado are perfect rectangles, and a dozen other states are bounded by enough straight borders to resemble boxes. West of the Mississippi such near-rectangles are prevalent, where in the words of the folk song, 'the states are square'.

The eastern portion of the United States is supplied with abundant rainfall for agricultural purposes, receiving the necessary amount from the evaporation of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico; but westward the amount of aqueous precipitation diminishes in a general way until at last a region is reached where the climate is so arid that agriculture is not successful without irrigation. This Arid Region begins about midway in the Great Plains and extends across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. On the northwest coast there is a region of greater precipitation, embracing western Washington and Oregon and the northwest corner of California. The winds impinging on this region are freighted with moisture derived from the great Pacific currents; and where this waterladen atmosphere strikes the western coast in full force, the precipitation is excessive, reaching a maximum north of the Columbia River of 80 inches annually. But the rainfall rapidly decreases from the Pacific Ocean eastward to the summit of the Cascade Mountains. In fact, a broad belt separates the Arid Region of the west from the Humid Region of the east. Extending from the one hundredth meridian eastward to about the isohyetal line of 28 inches, the district of country thus embraced will be subject more or less to disastrous droughts, the frequency of which will diminish from west to east. For convenience let this be called the Sub-humid Region. Its western boundary is the line running irregularly along the one hundredth meridian. Its eastern boundary passes west of the isohyetal line of 28 inches of rainfall in Minnesota, running approximately parallel to the western boundary line above described.

Nearly one-tenth of the whole area of the United States, exclusive of Alaska, is embraced in this Sub-humid Region. In the western portion disastrous droughts will be frequent; in the eastern portion infrequent. In the western portion agriculturists will early resort to irrigation to secure immunity from such disasters, and this event will be hastened because irrigation when properly conducted is a perennial source of fertilization.

The Arid Kegion is the great Rocky Mountain Region of the United States, and it embraces something more than four-tenths of the whole country, excluding Alaska. In all this region the mean annual rainfall is insufficient for agriculture, but in certain seasons some localities, now here, now there, receive more than their average supply. Under such conditions crops will mature without irrigation.

John Wesley Powell was born 24 March 1834 at Mount Morris in western New York state. His parents moved to Illinois, where he was educated at Wheaton and Oberlin colleges. He became interested in botany and geology at an early age, and began geological work with a series of field trips, including a trip the length of the Mississippi River in a rowboat; he also traveled the Ohio and Illinois rivers. In 1861 he enlisted in the Union Army and was commissioned a captain when he recruited a company of artillery. At the battle of Shiloh he lost his right arm at the elbow. He nevertheless returned to active duty and was promoted to the rank of major.

After his discharge in 1865, he was appointed professor of geology and curator of the museum at Illinois Wesleyan University at Bloomington. He later became a lecturer and curator at the museum of Illinois Normal University.

In 1867 he commenced a series of expeditions to the Rocky Mountains and the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. During his most famous expedition, from 24 May through 30 August 1869, he and his party made a daring nine-hundred-mile journey with four boats, traveling from the Union Pacific Railroad crossing of the Green River in Wyoming down through the Grand Canyon. He repeated much of the journey again in 1871 and 1872 to make a more thorough study of the Green and Colorado rivers.

In 1879 the United States Geological Survey was organized and in 1880, following Clarence King's resignation, Powell became the director of the survey, a position he held until 1894.

While Powell is most widely known as the first explorer of the Colorado River, he also made significant contributions as an administrator and as an advocate for conservation and careful planning in the use of western lands. He argued that because of their arid nature, western public lands should be classified as to their potential use for irrigation, pasturage, timber, and mineral or coal extraction. Powell also maintained that the traditional 160-acre farm as provided for in the Homestead Act was much too small for grazing purposes in the West. Instead, grazing farms there should be expanded to no less than 2,560 acres in order profitably to support herds.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Eastern understanding of the Western environment had rested as much on cultural myth as on scientific insight. Powell's landmark work in 1879 - "Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States" - accurately defined the West's unique geographical identity as an "arid land," established the nature of the challenges confronting its economic development, and made a compelling case for the potential benefits to be derived from government-sponsored irrigation of Western lands.

Written by a man whose intimate knowledge of the region was based on first-hand experience in pioneering surveys (notably in expeditions along the Colorado River canyons), and who was for a time the head of both the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology, the work did a great deal to advance a realistic understanding of the Western environment, and to inform the growing national debate on the question of Western irrigation.

Powell's proposals for a radical revision of the public-lands surveying system and the distribution of Western lands to settlers on a democratic and environmentally sound basis went unheeded, however, so that this work's prophetic character provides a complex and somewhat ironic counterpoint to the subsequent course of Western history.

In 1890 John Wesley Powell produced his Map of the Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Districts. Powell argued for those districts to become the essential units of government, either as states or as watershed commonwealths.

Powell’s testimony to the House Committee on Irrigation appear in the Eleventh Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey. As of 1890, Powell was the director of the survey, having achieved his fame twenty years earlier as the first white American to explore the Grand Canyon. Powell saw that water management would be the central issue of govenrment throughout the arid lands where growing crops required irrigation. He saw the drainage district as the only way to organize “a homogeneous body of people, a people having one common interest”.

So Powell proposed organizing these districts (watersheds) as commonwealths, crossing state lines as necessary. He expected the federal government to retain ownership of the land, with local residents managing the land and selling the crops. Any other system would prolong “a great deal of contention”. Powell had a solution to the problem of state lines in some closing comments: “The Government should not grant these privileges to the districts until the States themselves ratify the agreement and provide statutes for the organization of the districts, and for the regulation of water rights, the protection and use of forests, and the protection and use of pasturage.”

Powell's water-based states would have been contained by the eastern and western boundaries of the arid region itself. This would leave a much smaller area for the Pacific states. These would be reduced to a narrow coastal band, except for the North-West, where the non-arid region lurches inland, and southern California, which would be included in the arid region almost up to San Francisco.

The shading makes a total count of the districts a bit tricky - probably 22 or 23. Some of the drainage districts are quite small, like the light brown one in the south of New Mexico, or the dark brown one surrounding the Salt Lake in Utah. Others are huge, like the orange one bordering the Salt Lake district to the south-west, which reaches across southern Nevada and southern California all the way down to the Mexican border.

Powell neglected to provide names for his proposed states/commonwealths. It would have been fun to toy around with a batch of vaguely familiar and totally weird state names, like the ones proposed by Thomas Jefferson for the Northwest Territory (5). But like Jefferson's states, the units proposed by Powell seem, well, the wrong shape. From a purely cartophile point of view, they don't work as well as the states that did eventually make the cut. Ironically, they lack the normality of the present batch of straight-border states. Or is that just the force of habit talking?

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Page last modified: 19-10-2017 15:23:41 ZULU