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The West’s Coming Tragedy of the Commons
(Photo: Al_HikesAZ / Flickr)

The West’s Coming Tragedy of the Commons

(Photo: Al_HikesAZ / Flickr)

The severe droughts now affecting California and the Colorado River basin suggest that we may be at a tipping point in our ability to continue to manage the water systems that are needed to power agriculture and support Western development. According to The New York Times, many experts believe the current drought that is drying up the Colorado River “is only the harbinger of a new drier era in which the Colorado’s flow will be substantially and permanently diminished.” Already, the drought in California is threatening the state’s water supply – a harbinger of the enormous conflicts that are now on the horizon – conflicts between states and regions, urban residents and farmers, developers, farmers and environmentalists. With global warming now reducing the Sierra snowpacks, whose runoff has been irrigating the country’s breadbasket, we could be facing rising food prices and even food shortages into the future. It is within the realm of possibility that we could see – even in the United States – the kinds of conflicts that are roiling parts of the developing world.

How is it that we have allowed a significant proportion of the nation’s food supply to be located in a region that is part semi-desert and dependent on irrigation? Why have we allowed one of the fastest-growing regions of the country to depend on a water source – the Colorado – that historically received little rainfall and for whose use there has been little coordinated planning?

It is not as if we were not forewarned. As early as 1878, John Wesley Powell, the one-armed geologist and Western explorer and the second director of the US Geological Survey, submitted a Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States to Congress. The report contained a careful survey of the rainfall patterns of all the land from the middle of the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean, the land Powell termed the “Arid Region.” Powell concluded that only a minority of this land received enough rainfall each year to support agriculture and warned that “many droughts will occur; many seasons in a long series will be fruitless; and it may be doubted whether, on the whole, agriculture will prove remunerative.” If these lands were to be cultivated, they would have to be irrigated. Such irrigation, he proposed, would require enormous amounts of capital and would have to be carefully managed to prevent the kinds of conflicts over scarce water that are now becoming apparent – the classic dilemma of the “tragedy of the commons.” Powell’s revolutionary proposal was that the irrigable lands be divided into semi-autonomous hydrological districts, structured around local water sources. Communities sharing a common water source were to be entrusted with the responsibility of its use and were to set up cooperatively managed and funded governing systems. Powell was also concerned that forests be managed cooperatively. “If they permit the forests to be destroyed, he said, “the source of their water supply is injured and the timber values are wiped out.”

The role of the federal and state governments in Powell’s scheme were to be supportive of these locally managed water and forest systems. States would provide courts for the adjudication of disputes between districts as well as inspection systems, while the federal government would “allocate land to the watershed districts; classify its use, and retain ownership only of non-irrigable lands.”

Powell’s scheme resonates with the bioregional proposals of some modern environmentalists and his governance scheme with the democratically managed common pool resource projects that the late Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues at Indiana University promoted in developing countries. Prescient as Powell was, his proposal did not resonate with the lobbyists for the railroad industry or the land speculators who turned the “arid region” into a frenzy of chaotic development that would later result in the Dust Bowl. Nor did it resonate with the timber barons who would strip the country’s forests, leading to the floods that devastated the country in the 1920s and 1930s.

If Powell’s development plan had been implemented, as shown in a map he created, state boundaries yet to be drawn would have resembled the boundaries of watersheds instead of the arbitrary boundaries that exist today. According to Donald Worster, Powell’s biographer, if Powell’s ideas had been adopted, “We would not have, any of our huge federal water projects. And we certainly would not have had anything like the massive urban growth that’s taken place in the West.” Worster’s certainty has been challenged by John Lavey, who thinks that our human penchant for growth and technological development would probably not have resulted in the limits to growth Powell’s proposal implied. Yet it is helpful to think of how our country might have developed had we heeded this knowledgeable Cassandra, if only as a means of encouraging us to imagine how we might do things differently.

Limiting agriculture to cooperatively managed water districts might have led to retention of the small family farms that once dotted the greener parts of the country, producing food for local use. We would certainly not have committed a major portion of the nation’s breadbasket to a single region like the Central Valley of California that has a historically weak rainfall pattern. Nor would we have developed the giant agribusinesses that dominate the Great Plains and are dependent on huge irrigation systems that are rapidly depleting the Oglalla Acquifer. As our breadbasket dries up, the call of locavores for locally produced and consumed food becomes more pressing.

In the 1930s, as the country began to suffer from the cumulative effects of failing to heed Powell’s warning, a similar concern with watershed-centered development re-emerged. This time it was the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who carried the banner. In a campaign speech in 1932, Roosevelt recognized that the country suffered from the lack of planning. “We cannot review carefully the history of our industrial advance without being struck with its haphazardness, the gigantic waste with which it has been accomplished, the superfluous duplication of productive facilities … the profligate waste of natural resources.” Faced as president with floods of biblical proportions, the loss of one-sixth of the country’s topsoil and the decimation of seven-eighths of the country’s forests, Roosevelt argued that planning for sustainability was a national problem and that it would have to involve the federal government in ways that even Powell had not envisioned. To that end, he proposed the creation of a series of watershed districts throughout the country whose development would integrate water power, flood control, forestry, conservation, reclamation, agriculture and industry. The Tennessee Valley Authority was to have been the first of seven such projects. Also recognizing that the country had achieved a level of development and scientific knowledge more complex than that which Powell had confronted, FDR suggested that there would have to be multiple intersecting planning jurisdictions based on both the developmental needs of the human population and the mix of environmental issues that characterized different areas of the country.

The urgency of moving in this direction had been undergirded by a report of the Great Plains Committee on the Future of the Great Plains that was issued in August 1936 and was to be the basis of legislation for the new Congress. In an admission that the country had failed to heed John Wesley Powell’s findings, the Report stated

A trip through the drought area, supplementing data already on record, makes it evident that we are not confronted merely with a short term problem of relief, already being dealt with by several agencies of the Federal Government, but with a long term problem of readjustment and reorganization. … A new economy based on conservation and effective use of all the water available is called for. Intelligent adjustment to the ways of Nature must take the place of attempts to “conquer” her.

In a related matter, on January 12, 1937, Roosevelt sent to Congress the report of the President’s Committee on Administrative Management, which he had appointed the year before to consider means to improve the administration of the executive branch. Among other things, the report recommended the establishment of a permanent national resources planning board to plan the development and use of the country’s resources, and the creation of a department of conservation to administer the public lands and parks and the conservation laws. To prepare the necessary legislation, the Congress appointed the Joint Committee on Government Organization and on June 23, 1937, Senate Bill 2700 was introduced, embodying some of the committee’s recommendations.

Roosevelt urged the Congress to “get on with it.” Alas, Congress did not get on with any of it. As a nation we seem prone to ignore the lessons of history or to learn from those who have most to teach us. John Wesley Powell’s proposal for a United Watershed States of America went nowhere, as did FDR’s call for national resource planning. Despite enthusiastic support from the AFL, the CIO, farmers’ groups and Congressional liberals, Roosevelt’s National Resources Planning Board did not become a vehicle for the coordination of sustainable resource planning districts. A report issued by the board in January 1943, though, focused more heavily on planning for post-war economic security, called for a program of conservation and improvement of agricultural, range, forest, recreational and wildlife lands as a “substantial part of a post-war program of public and private construction.” The NRPB, however, was abolished by Congressional conservatives in August 1943, just five months after it had issued its report. No department of conservation was ever established. The logical successor – the Environmental Protection Agency – was only recently elevated to “Cabinet level” status, a somewhat ambiguous designation, and there has been scant attention to planning ever since. We are now beginning to reap the whirlwind.

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