John Wesley Powell, for whom our town is named, had an enormous contribution to exploration and effective irrigation policies that have allowed the American West to thrive, including our own …
John Wesley Powell, for whom our town is named, had an enormous contribution to exploration and effective irrigation policies that have allowed the American West to thrive, including our own area’s agriculture industry upon which our local economy relies.
Despite the value he brought to the West, policymakers did not readily embrace Powell’s advice, and the story provides a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of looking to government to solve problems.
After Wesley Powell’s historic trip down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon, Powell went to work for the federal government. In 1881, he became the second director of U.S. Geological Survey. In 1888, the West faced a series of droughts that spurred federal action. Powell directed an extensive survey of the public domain lands of the West, and the government halted settlement of these lands while the surveys were done.
From these surveys came Powell’s proposal to build irrigation systems in the vast, arid territory. Water and land, he argued, should be distributed in a way that doesn’t limit the resource to just those lucky enough to own land along the river.
What seems a no-brainer to us today was met with fierce opposition at the time partly as a result of another large-scale government project. In an effort to incentivize railroad companies to connect the East and West Coasts of America, the federal government granted huge swaths of land to the railroad companies. When the companies learned of Powell’s proposals, which would limit them selling all that land to farmers, the companies aggressively lobbied to have Powell’s ideas relegated to the dust bin of history.
Powell ultimately lost the battle, and the Geological Survey reverted back to distribution of land based mostly on the railroad companies’ financial interest. The controversy took the fight out of Powell. He resigned the directorship of the Geological Survey and died nearly penniless in 1902.
Powell’s ideas eventually made their way into federal policy on irrigation and today we have a network of dams and canals that feed water to our vital agricultural industry. But this very nearly didn’t happen.
The story of Powell is a cautionary one. While government can produce good results, policies can have a slew of unintended consequences. We did get the railroads built, and we have a functioning irrigation system. Both were beneficial. But the policies that gave birth to the former very nearly killed the latter, which would have been a disaster.
There’s a lot of debate today over how much government should be involved in developing solutions to healthcare costs, climate change, immigration and many other issues. It’s worth remembering just how unreliable government solutions can be and how unforeseen consequences of bad policies can alter situations.
In the case of railroads and water resource management, there weren’t a lot of other options. Where there are other options, it’s probably best not to rely on government.