Drought is a Policy Choice
California is a land of contradictions. Verdant orchards and vast deserts coexist, reflecting both the abundance and the desolation that defines our state. We now stand at a crossroads as we confront climate change, a threat that is poised to turn our prosperous lands barren.
The Newsom administration’s Water Supply Strategy presumes the inevitability of the acidification of the West1. Passivity is our state's reaction to this challenge, with water resources cautiously calculated and demand deliberately suppressed2. As a result, millions of fertile acres3 are actively fallowed each year, sacrificing agricultural land to “progressive” policies touted as sustainable.
This shortsighted strategy is ignorant of California's history with taming arid lands. The prosperity arising from the contradictions of her landscape stems not only from her geography, but from the indomitable American spirit that characterized the 19th Century. In fact, the West’s natural climate has always been arid beyond habitability. Yet, with scientific progress as our guide, the United States has cultivated one of the world’s most vibrant economies from a harsh wasteland. Given this track record of surmounting aridity, the West should be poised to meet today's challenges. Instead we flounder.
The true threat to the West lies not in climate change, but in policies that were once well-intended, now twisted into the shackles of civilization. With advancement constrained by the perversion of progressive laws, paralysis takes hold.
Paralysis breeds inevitable decline, as time gradually erodes civilization's hard-won gains. Even more unsettling, the realm of reason is gradually yielding ground to a pervasive skepticism regarding the very existence of an objective reality. Consequently, a grand yet suicidal vision is steadily gaining adherents - the restoration of an imagined natural utopia through the deconstruction of infrastructure. This only accelerates our downward descent.
Nature patiently awaits any lapse in vigilance, poised to reclaim dominion if humanity's grip slips. We teeter at the precipice, failure assured if resignation and willful demolition persists.
But this trajectory is a choice. The quickly approaching moment of crisis contains opportunity, if we can find the courage to see beyond surrender. Our future remains unwritten. Progress nor regress is preordained-- it unfolds one step at a time.
Modernism and Progress
In the beginning of America’s history, the men who stepped onto her soil were limited only by their will. They harvested nature’s bounty, transmuting timber, ore, and water into mechanical miracles. As historian J.B. Bury wrote, “men who were born at the beginning of the [1800s] had seen, before they had passed the age of thirty, the rapid development of steam navigation, the illumination of towns and houses by gas, [and] the opening of the first railroad.”4 America’s men witnessed mathematical magic — water transformed to power, minerals refined into wires. Progress was god, and science its prophet, preaching plenty pulled from bare earth.
The proud display of civilization’s advance captured mind and morality. "In America, more than anywhere else, the spectacle of mechanical progress, has made so deep an impression, that it has suffused the whole moral code,”5 wrote Walter Lippmann in Public Opinion.
An unflinching faith in progress became engraved in the American Psyche. The nation believed that advancement would perpetually unfold, ever accelerating, its benefits unceasing. Lippmann encapsulated the modernist creed, writing that “the country village will become the great metropolis, the modest building a skyscraper, what is small shall be big; what is slow shall be fast; what is poor shall become rich, what is few shall be many; whatever is shall be more so.”6
Progress was providence. Those marching to its beat were patriots. To question progress was insult. The state mirrored the fervor of its flock, her laws an ode to forward motion. To halt progress was treason not just to country, but to nature itself.
This is the context in which the West was born.
Death Laughs When Dreams of Nature’s Beauty are Sold
Nature’s beauty is artifice, constructed by man to obscure her harsh truths. We transfigure nature's hostility into domestic tranquility by gazing at a meadow's charming wildflowers or a pond's tranquil surface. Beneath the thin veil of nature’s aesthetic splendor lurks evolutionary machinery, dispassionate and brutal.
The silent owl haunts the same meadow we admire, talons poised to shred its prey. In the pond's tranquil depths coil parasitic worms, waiting to burrow into their hosts.
Visions of beauty are our defense against the anxiety nature produces7, but our gaze can’t change her essence of violent competition, consumption, and predation. Here lies nature stripped of pretense - an endless cycle of violation and gore.
Acknowledging the violence of nature would have stalled the conquest of the West. So came the embellishments, the soft-focus illusions. Destiny was manifested by denial’s momentum.
Acting with haste and little foresight, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862. Millions of unexplored acres of land were auctioned off for the nominal price of $1.25 per acre (equivalent to $32.60 in today’s currency8). The wheels of westward expansion were set in motion.
The Chamber of Commerce conjured an image of a mythical garden,9 advertising fantastical scenes of unchecked abundance. The fantasy ensnared the minds of America’s men, enduring them with shared images of a promised land that would bring wealth and prosperity. The West called to them like a siren.
The success of this advertisement was significant-- nearly 1 million had settled the west by 1900.
Like an oasis that disappears into empty desert, so too did the fantasy of the West’s abundance dissolve upon the settler’s arrival. Romantic dreams collided with reality’s sharp edges. Instead of green valleys, the frontiersmen were met with parched earth. Rather than calm lakes teeming with fish, they found only dry and dusty plains.
There was no timber. Homes were crafted out of holes dugout in hillsides with doors constructed out of cut sod. For warmth, settlers burned dried cattle manure, leaving a perpetual stench in the air.
Streams were scarce. The lucky settlers carried water back to their homestead with buckets, but the majority were subject to nature’s whims for the collection of rainfall.
Floods surged in spring. Summer brought drought, killing crops and livestock.10
The West stripped the pioneers of civilization’s defenses. Man was reduced back to animal, forced to expend all faculties just to survive nature’s ravages. When reason is abandoned, the consequence is regression- nature’s reality inevitably claims dominance over man.
The foundation of westward expansion was built on mirages destined to dissipated. The effort was doomed from the outset.
The West’s Promethean Fire
John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, was among the few to traverse the rugged frontier prior to the pioneer's arrival. Alarmed by the government’s haste in auctioning off unsurveyed land, he lobbied Congress tirelessly. He urged caution and demanded an expedition to map the little-known topography and resources. For years, his warnings went unheeded.
Finally, in 1869, Congress financed Powell's mission – a crew of ten men equipped with four rowboats to explore 1000 miles on the Colorado River.
The journey quickly descended into chaos. Rapids ravaged the rowboats, damaging one beyond repair. Provisions were hurled overboard, dwindling rations down to starvation levels. Three members had abandoned the journey early, foolishly betting they could escape alone. Their gamble proved fatal - the men were killed by Natives. Just three grueling months later, six men emerged, crammed into three remaining vessels.11
Though battered and beaten, those who endured the full descent came back clutching a valuable prize - the first complete maps of the untamed West.
One of Powell’s Maps, Showing Water Sources in the United States. Source: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
The Report on the Arid Lands
Powell's resolute determination to deliver his discoveries to Congress culminated in a dossier known as the Report on the Arid Lands. Within its pages was an unsettling truth laid bare: that drought and disaster loomed over the settlers of the Western terrain.
This revelation was unearthed through the harmonization of two wellsprings of information- the precipitation data collected by the Smithsonian Institution and the cartography detailing the network of bodies of water stretching across the country.
Powell discerned an inescapable pattern within this nexus of data. While the northeastern United States receives abundant rainfall and snowmelt, moving south westward, precipitation and surface water diminishes rapidly.12 By scientific measurement and calculation, he determined over 40 percent13 of our countries expanse to be too arid to sustainably support the multitudes that had moved there.14 In these arid lands, nature’s meager supply fell short of humanity’s soaring demands.
Yet his report was not a declaration of defeat, dividing it sharply from its modern day counterparts. Powell, animated by modernist faith, insisted that human ingenuity could overcome any challenge nature posed.
His proposal centered on an intervention from the federal government. To address the aridity of the West, funding was required to construct an extensive system of dams, reservoirs and irrigation. This infrastructure would capture rainfall where it fell abundantly, then transport it to the arid lands.
The return on this investment would prove more than worthwhile. Through the use of irrigation, the settlers would no longer be at the mercy of nature’s whims, a luxury that would not be afforded to the farmers of the more humid regions of the country. Powell predicted that engineering would transform the West’s land from uninhabitable to the most productive region of agricultural land in the country.15
More than taming nature, Powell envisioned domesticating her, bringing the wilds to heel through irrigation's disciplining rein. This vision offered the possibility of reshaping the West into the prosperous Eden that had captured the minds of so many. But this garden would be man-made, not natural; designed to nature’s specs by engineering, not evolutionary chance. Infrastructure would construct the ramparts that defined man’s dominion and elevated him above the throws of primordial nature--emancipating him from her chaotic forces that eternally threaten to swallow order in their raging tides.
Powell’s empiricism left no room for romantic illusion, but Congress was not willing to abandon the myth of nature’s maternal benevolence. Instead, they averted their gaze, choosing to cling to fiction instead. The same modernist ethos that birthed Powell’s innovations now spurned his findings.
Nature soon came to take the West for herself, exploiting the gap left by man’s renunciation of reason. Disastrous droughts descended in 1890. Powell’s prophecy was fulfilled.
Fantasy was forcibly expelled from the minds of America’s leadership by reports of desolation and starvation in the West. Scrambling to resolve the deteriorating situation, Congress returned to the Report on the Arid Lands. They founded the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902 and tasked it with building an infrastructure system closely aligned with what Powell proposed.
Powell passed away the same year of the creation of the Bureau. Although he did not get to witness the rise of reservoirs across the West, they stand as proud monuments of his visionary legacy. Today, the dams managed by the Bureau supply one-fifth of all Western farmers with water.16
The Deconstruction of Civilizations Creations
Modernism defined the Nation’s philosophy until the savagery of the First World War shattered the once unwavering faith in progress. Disillusionment replaced utopian dreams. From the rubble of collapsed ideals arose the postmodern environmentalist movement in the 1960s.
In a frenzy of devotion, followers erected alters of legislation to protect nature from humanity's sins. The National Environmental Protection Act was passed in 1969, compelling agencies to consider their impact on the environment. California rushed to outdo the Federal fervor, passing the California Environmental Quality Act in 1970. This redundant decree added but one commandment: avoid environmental impact altogether.
Soon the rites of this new-age faith grew extreme, evolving from protecting nature to preventing any action that disturbed her. With each reinterpretation by the courts, humanity was further subjugated under nature's will. Projects were delayed indefinitely by weaponization of these statutes.17 Worship was measured by restraint, progress judged as sacrilege.
Consequently, no major water infrastructure that increases supply has been built in California since 1979, despite our population exploding approximately 70% since then to 40 million. Given this failure to expand capacity, the state's chronic water shortages are unsurprising.
Some environmentalists have moved beyond obstruction to active dismantlement of existing dams. Advocates claim this pursues “harmony with nature.” Yet truly what they strive for is much more sinister: dismantlement of “anthropocentrism,” which places humanity above nature’s cruelty.
This is no fringe crusade. The dam removal movement found its pioneer in Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who served under Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Under Babbitt, Commissioner Daniel P. Beard slashed Reclamation's budget by over $100 million and staff by 20 percent. Beard pressed Reclamation to shift from building infrastructure to water conservation management, shifting its effort from construction to restriction.
This shift was the wave of the white flag, after a long battle with obstructionists. This was the only possible outcome of our dogmatic environmental law. Statutes like CEQA, NEPA and the Endangered Species Act - whether flawed from inception or warped beyond recognition - disempowered the Buera of Reclamation long before its purpose was corrupted by men like Babbitts and Beard.
The American West stands as a proud monument to humanity's visionary ingenuity, having mastered nature's cruel indifference through determined resilience. Yet our hard-won dominion rests upon a precarious foundation – the neglected infrastructure that lifts us above the wilderness.
John Wesley Powell's revelations laid the groundwork for the conquest of the savage western frontier. Without his empirical insights, America may have forsaken 40% of her land to primal sterility. The fertile fields of California would remain but a fiction
Man is besieged by endless nights of darkness. Whether or not humanity flourishes or falls hinges on the livelihood of reason’s flickering flame. When man rejects reason, his ramparts crumble.
In a telling interview published in the documentary entitled DamNation, Nate Gray, a Restoration Biologist, states “If I had to choose between electricity and fish, I’d choose fish.”
This benighted proclamation is emblematic of the environmentalist movement’s doctrine. It is a return of romantic folly: the elevation of the primitive over civilization.
In turning away from the anthropocentrism of the modernist era, our state has surrendered to nature's chaos. Our laws have twisted from protection into obstruction, dismantling civilization’s safeguards.
To stop this unraveling, we must rekindle the faith in progress that illuminated the West’s conquest. We have to take a serious look at the laws that have hindered our ability to construct infrastructure, and rewrite them or (better yet) get rid of them altogether.
We must continue to deploy technology to shape nature into prosperity’s vessel. We can perpetuate the defiant quest to construct order from chaos. Our future depends on our ability to reclaim this audacious resolve - to affirm that progress is the legacy of Western Civilization.