Markets for Federal Water: Subsidies, Property Rights, and the Bureau of Reclamation

By Richard W. Wahl | Go to book overview

1
History of Federal Involvement in the Reclamation Movement

Imagine what it would have been like to be an early explorer of the Colorado River region, such as John Wesley Powell. Observing the vast spaces, the deserts, and the river cutting its way from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, what visions might you have had of its future development? How would your visions compare with those of the one-armed major who guided his wooden dory through the rapids of the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon? How would they compare with the way the land and water resources in this region are used today?

Would you envision agricultural development only within the confines of the flat grassy valleys along the Colorado River and its tributaries? Or would you picture the water supply as sufficient to be diverted on a scale vast enough to make the deserts bloom? Would you want the federal government to steer this development, or would you trust the more haphazard and piecemeal results of leaving development to local and private interests? If you perceived a federal role, would it be limited to providing information on settlement opportunities or would it extend to providing loans, grants, and even construction of irrigation works? These are the questions that became central to the early debates over "reclamation" of the arid West.

Powell's expeditions and surveys, which began in 1867 and continued with his trips down the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871, motivated him to think about a plan for the western lands. His Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, published in 1879, embodies a set of proposals regarding irrigation. Powell's own views on these subjects changed somewhat over his lifetime, but he consis

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