Water in the Desert

Alameda Dam
Originally uploaded by heinemanfleck.

John Wesley Powell would be proud. From his 1878 “Report on the Arid Lands“:

There are two methods of storing the waste waters. Reservoirs may be constructed near the sources of the streams and the waters held in the upper valleys, or the water may be run from the canals into ponds within or adjacent to the district where irrigation is practiced.

We’ve had dams up the Rio Grande for some time, but Albuquerque is just now, more than a century later, getting its first dam. Lissa and I were out walking today along the river, and for the first time saw the dam raised. It’s a modest affair, design to create just enough head to divert water into a intake structure on the Rio Grande’s east bank, from which it will be pumped to a new treatment plant now under construction.

Those who revere Powell as the great proto-environmentalist would do well to note his language. “Waste water” was water humans weren’t using. The West’s natural resources, Powell believed, were there for the exclusive use of humans – and European immigrant humans at that. He’s revered because he understood, more than those of his days, that there were limitations to the exploitation of the West’s resources. But it’s important not to miss his central purpose, which was to squeeze every bit of human use possible out of West.