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Powell’s map of the West

This is John Wesley Powell’s 1890 map of “the Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Districts”.

The map is interesting because Powell thought these colored regions should be the principal unit of government in the West — and the House Committee on Irrigation, to whom the map was presented, was willing to listen.

This map and Powell’s testimony both 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 (we would call them 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.”

In other words: Powell wanted the federal government to insist that States give up their authority over water rights, and cede it to these interstate commonwealths. Powell did not want big dams or federal involvement in them; he wanted little dams, under local control, in each district. The West did not turn out that way, but Powell’s watercolors show what it might have looked like.

Source:  Powell’s map is online in the USGS annual report, in an odd format.  It’s also in William deBuys’s helpful book, and clicking on the image above gives you a big pdf.

Update: For other takes on this post, see Frank Jacobs at StrangeMaps, Timothy Hurst at Ecopolitology, Ben Jervey at Good, and Tim Evans at NJ Future.  Thanks especially to Frank for getting people engaged.

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