The Canadian John Wesley Powell

John Palliser and James Hector

In the U.S. western water community, John Wesley Powell is a legend for his insight about the difficulties of building a society in an arid land. But we can be a bit parochial here in the states, so until today I’d never heard of his (sort of) Canadian counterpart, John Palliser.

Palliser explored the northern Great Plains in the 1850s, a region now known as Palliser’s Triangle. According to Michael Collier and Robert Webb, in their book Floods, Droughts, and Climate Change, Palliser “warned that southeastern Alberta and southwester Saskatchewan would not reliably sustain human (i.e., agricultural) life. The land was fundamentall arid, receiveing 400 or fewer millimeters (mm) of rain a year; some years there might as well be no rain at all.”

Like Powell, Palliser found his observations about the problems of aridity swept aside by boosters eager to spread across the continent in ways that ultimately turned out to be unsustainable. The Dust Bowl took impressed its will on the farmers of Palliser’s Triangle, just as it did to the folks beyond Powell’s 100th meridian.