Daily Archives: September 1, 2016

The Arid Region of the United States and its Afterlife: Beyond the 100th Meridian

The map may not be the territory.  But it shapes one’s relation to the territory–and to the presence of water in the land, as well as the land itself.  John Wesley Powell had a clear idea of the importance of mapping the sustainability of his audience’s relation to the new nature of the aridity of the plains states and western territories in the 1870s, when he used his deep knowledge of plants and foliage of the region that was distinguished by a deeply fragile economy of water to try to convince the U.S. Congress of re-organizing the region’s settlement, in the face of increasing hopes for its development:   by bounding the area beyond the hundredth meridian west as the “Arid Region,” as if it were a truly unknown land, not subject to the practices of surveying rectilinear boundary lines that the had extended west along the Mason-Dixon line, Powell sought to convey a better understanding of the permanence of drainage zones of the region as the best possible ways of understanding and planning its process of settlement in the way that would be most helpful to future residents, boosterism of the importance of young men going west to find futures notwithstanding.

Indeed, the mapping of how the “Arid Region” of the United States could be settled by John Wesley Powell created as the second Director of the United States Geological Survey, a post he held from 1881–1894, but which he had first expansively described in 1878.  The United States Congress followed Powell’s recommendation to consolidate the western surveys into the new U.S. Geological Survey, and he long sought to create a map capturing the fragile water ecology of the American West.  The completion of his classic report on the region first suggested a new relation to the distribution of water in the region in ways that would best serve all of its residents, and in his later map, he tried to articulate so clear a relation to the region’s future settlement.  Powell’s view on the need for systematic irrigation of the region stands in almost polemic relation to the place that the western states held in the spatial imaginary of the Homesteading Era:  indeed, his insistence that led to the charge to undertake a systematic irrigation survey of lands in the public domain of the wester United States in 1888, long a topic for which he had agitated, and his map of the region reflected a demand to integrate a topographic survey, hydrographic survey, and engineering survey of the region.  Perhaps the map offered a new sense of the territory, if “territory” includes the waterways that would be able to adequately irrigate all open lands.

Arid Region of US

For the reception of Major John Wesley Powell’s attempt to map what he called the “Arid Region of the United States” reveals both he difficulty in mapping the relation of water to the land, and the appeal that a piece of paper might gain over time.  The detailed map provided something of a ground plan and register of how the arid region might be best inhabited, and of the relation to the land and landwater of a region’s inhabitants.  And it provides an early recognition of problems of water management and distribution in the western states–captured in its naming simply as the “Arid Region” as if to set it apart from the plentiful water in other regions–that later eras began to appreciate in ways that Powell’s contemporaries were less able to see in his ambitious attempt to reorganize the management of its regions around its multiple inland watersheds that he had hoped to canalize.  For Powell’s ambitious 1890 remapping of lands west of the 100° meridian in the United States tried to encompass their unique aridity and to pose a solution for its future inhabitants with special attention to its drainage districts–as discreet riverine watersheds.

Arid Lands ReservationsArid Region of the United States (1890); detail

The best practices that motivated Powell’s map as a basis to orient the government to the land’s groundwater.  The distinctive scarcity of water in the western states became evident in a time of sustained drought, giving unexpected currency to how Powell’s map reoriented readers to the “Arid Region of the United States.”  The brightly colored map to which the explorer, geographer, and anthropologist not only dedicated an extreme amount of attention in his later life, and of which he became something of an evangelist, suggests a early recognition of the scarcity of water and its management, in an era when there is a specter of considerable anger around poor practices of water management in much of the western states, tempered by an expectation that groundwater would be available for farming and irrigation.

The rivers in the United States are quite widely distributed, leaving much of the western plateaux at a distance from riverine waterways–

Western Rivers.pngTim Sinott

–and the image of Virgin Land so deeply ingrained across that regions settlement that its unique character of low rainfall and widely dispersed water sources was erased in the spatial imaginary which replaced the detailed map Powell of the administration of groundwater in the western states that Powell had created with his surveying team as a guide to the region that he knew so well, and which he sought to communicate when he became second director of the United States Geographical Surveys (1881–1894).  The governmental office did not give him authority to organize , but to create a new map that might better organize the nation to the lesser rainwater in what was known as the Great American Desert.  For Powell attempted to re-orient homesteaders to the imperative of western migration through the map, by organizing water administration and the future prospect for canalization in order to grow prospects for the irrigation of the region and its future farmlands that have considerable ethical power to speak to us today.

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