3. The Long View and the Short

THE SWING through the West with the Irrigation Committee in the summer of 1889 had little effect on the constitution-makers of North Dakota and Montana, whom Powell addressed, nor on those of South Dakota, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming, whom he did not. Nevertheless Powell’s general system of ideas did have an effect, through Elwood Mead, on the Wyoming convention which in September wrote into the constitution the principle tying water rights to land — a principle first enunciated in the Arid Region report — and the Wyoming action in turn ultimately influenced at least half of the other western states.1 Aside from that victory, the summer was about as fruitless as the Committee’s August 20 inspection of the El Paso damsite that was doomed never to be used. The one positive and direct result of the trip was to breed between Powell and Senator Stewart an intense and incurable dislike.

With Senators Reagan and Jones, the others on the Irrigation Committee, Powell maintained the most cordial relations; he and Stewart were a little too positive for each other’s taste, and in addition they represented utterly antithetical points of view. Powell stood for an ideal of public service both dedicated and comprehensive, for the greatest good for the greatest number as disinterested intelligence determined it. Stewart’s notion of public service was as intense as his partisanship, as narrow as his intelligence, and as malleable as his personal ethics, His reason for interesting himself in irrigation was to bring water to his Nevada constituents, or some of them; his grasp of the problem was likely to be bounded by the drainage divides of the Truckee and the Carson. He wanted reservoir sites reserved and irrigable lands designated at once, by rough rule of thumb and without all this time-consuming squinting through theodolites.2 He resented delay, disliked theorists, suspected disinterestedness, and was uncomfortable in the presence of intelligence. By the time the committee returned to Washington the honeymoon was over, though it would still be some months before Stewart would stamp out of the love nest and slam the door. And during the last months of 1889 and the first of 1890 Stewart’s impatience and dislike would be exacerbated by legal developments which no one, not even Powell, had foreseen.

The Joint Resolution of March, 1888, was Powell’s enabling legislation; the rider to the Sundry Civil Bill of October 2, 1888, merely provided him funds to go ahead. But the Joint Resolution carried two amendments, one directing the withdrawal of all lands that the survey designated irrigable, and the other providing that these lands could be restored to settlement under the Homestead Act provisions upon proclamation by the President. The Resolution did not specify how anyone was to tell which lands were irrigable until the survey designated them, and it did not define the boundaries of the region affected.

Trouble had brewed even before the Irrigation Committee started west. In early July, 1889, the Idaho Constitutional Convention complained to the General Land Office that speculators had followed the survey crews and staked out claims within the supposedly reserved reservoir site of Bear Lake.3 The Acting Commissioner, William M. Stone, thought things over for a few weeks and on August 5 directed local land offices to cancel all claims filed after October 2, 1888, on reservoir, ditch, or canal sites. That is, he retroactively ordered the closing of the public lands,4 for no one yet knew where such sites were.

Instantly there was consternation. What? Close all the land offices? Invalidate claims? Refuse the American yeoman his right to free land? And in the midst of the consternation some revelation: The General Land Office according to its own recent ruling should have been out of business in the West since the authorization of the Irrigation Survey, but it had never communicated to its local offices the law closing the entries on irrigable land. Whether it had simply overlooked that detail, which is hardly conceivable, or had misunderstood the law, which was easy enough to do, or had deliberately refused to suspend its operations, it was impossible to know. The Commissioner defended himself by insisting that the Joint Resolution, which had the force of law, had never been certified to his office.

As soon as the land offices were closed by Stone’s order of August 5, 1889, both speculators and bona fide filers of claims who had acted in ignorance of an obscure law cried aloud. Their Congressmen also cried aloud, and shortly they forced a flustered Land Office back into business again: the local offices were told to issue patents to claimants, with the proviso that they might later be found invalid. That expedient pleased nobody, and left both Land Office and claimants hanging in uncertainty. But that was where they were both hanging when Stone gratefully moved over to make way for a new commissioner, L. E. Groff.

Mr. Groff, caught between the law and the wrath of the Congressmen who had passed it, appealed for an opinion to the Attorney General, the Assistant Attorney General, and the Secretary of the Interior. The answer was that as soon as Congress had passed the Sundry Civil Act making funds available for the Irrigation Survey, all irrigable lands whether surveyed or in process of survey or not yet touched were reserved by the amendment to the Joint Resolution. But it was April, 1890, before Groff finally ordered the head office to approve no more title patents on claims filed after October 2, 1888 — that date whose mere mention was now enough to scald Western excitabilities.

Attorney General Taft ruled that by the terms of the Joint Resolution all claims filed after that date were invalid; in his annual message President Grover Cleveland interpreted the act in the same way. The Land Office promptly withdrew 850,000,000 acres from entry, and now everyone understood what Congress had done in its zeal for irrigation to relieve the drouthy West. It had repealed all the land laws between the 100th meridian and the Pacific, and closed the public domain. More than that, it now appeared that there was no possibility of reopening the land to entry until the Irrigation Survey was completed or until the President proclaimed the restoration of certain districts. The President would obviously not restore any lands until they were certified to him by Major John Wesley Powell. Major John Wesley Powell would not certify any lands until his survey had worked them over. And his survey was apparently going to take forever.

Consternation approached apoplexy in Stewart and others who, having in mind a quick federal look-see at irrigation problems and a quick reservation of the obvious sites, now found that by their own act they had instituted federal planning on an enormous scale, put one man in almost absolute charge of it, and totally fouled up the local water and land interests to whom they were all bound to give a polite if not an obedient ear. What Powell aimed to do, it now became clear, would take years, and while he carried out his plans he had despotic powers over the public domain. His enemies had always said he drew his considerable authority from peculiar and irregular acts of legislation. Now the most peculiar of all had made him, so far as the development of the West went, the most powerful man in the United States. He could dictate, by his location of reservoirs and canals and his selection of the lands to be irrigated, the precise pattern that future settlement would take. He could block water and land companies wanting to accumulate a domain, by holding back lands or delaying their certification until they were ready for settlement by homesteaders. He could practically distribute the nation’s remaining resources of soil and water according to his own plan and philosophy. He could all but command the sun to stand still in the West until he told it to go on.

Until the Attorney General’s ruling in April, 1890, it is doubtful that Major Powell suspected the full power he possessed. At least he had taken the trouble on November 9, 1889, to request the segregation of 8,000,000 acres in the Snake River drainage basin in Wyoming and Idaho 5 — and he would not have asked the withdrawal of a specific tract if he had assumed that the whole public domain was automatically withdrawn. By the spring of 1890 he knew his strength, and he had begun to understand the violence of his opposition.

Yet he seems not to have feared it as much as he might have. Pushed by a combination of accident and public urgency into a control of land policies more complete than he could ever have dreamed of having, he could appreciate the need for haste without wanting to miss the opportunity through letting himself be crowded. He not only pursued his general plan, but he practically incorporated himself in it, and of necessity, when his enemies rallied to attack him, they attacked him through those parts of the plan that were furthest out of line with popular beliefs. He was as busy as he liked to be, trying on the one hand to convert short-range politicians and short-range settlers to long-range thinking, and on the other to balk the water and land companies with plans as long-range as his own, but with somewhat more private than public interest in their success.6 He did not know how much public support he could summon, but he hoped for enough, and for long enough, to let him complete at least the basic essentials of the survey.

The only thing that kept him from being impossibly busy was the very real efficiency of his bureaus and the high esprit of his collaborators. Thanks to careful organization and the combining of the clerical staffs, the Bureau of Ethnology and the Geological Survey could almost run themselves if need be; and the Irrigation Survey complemented the Geological Survey in concrete ways. The foundation of both was the topographical map. Powell accordingly devoted almost eighty per cent of his Irrigation Survey budget to topography, and moved the $200,000 allocated for that purpose in the Geological Survey budget to areas not covered by the Irrigation Survey. Shaping the map was slow; but it was essential, essential enough to justify even the stopping of a process of settlement that had begun with Jamestown. To win the support that would let him get it done, Powell intensified his missionary campaign with Congress and the public.

He explained his plan and the scientific observations upon which it was based in a series of meetings with the House Committee on Irrigation between February and April, 1890.7 He aired it in speeches, wrote it for the magazines, repeated it in his published reports, argued it at dinners, dictated it in patient letters to angry or inquiring or plaintive correspondents. To work through that body of report and polemic is to realize how consistent, by now, his views about the arid region had become, and how widely his plan reached to embrace the related problems of land, water, erosion, floods, soil conservation, even the new one of hydroelectric power; and how behind the plan was a settled belief in the worth of the small farmer and the necessity of protecting him both from speculators and from natural conditions he did not understand and could not combat.

The key ideas 8 were hammered at over and over in an attempt to break down tradition and the feeling that it was unpatriotic in a Westerner to admit that his country was dry. The best and the safest agriculture, and the oldest, was irrigation agriculture. And it was fatal to believe that tillage altered the climate. Tillage brought no more rain than burning the prairies, or sending up balloons, or any of the other schemes. Climate depended on meteorological forces too sweeping to be changed by any local expedients.

And no one should expect to reclaim all the western lands. Twenty per cent was probably an optimistic estimate of what was reclaimable — but even that twenty per cent would total more than all the lands tilled so far in the nation. To reclaim that twenty per cent, water would have to be available, and most of it would have to come from the large rivers. Dams on these rivers would have far-reaching effects. Properly engineered, they would protect from floods instead of causing them as at Johnstown. They would allow the reclamation of arid lands on the headwaters and swamp lands near the mouths, and they would permit a controlled flow that would prevent wasteful runoff. Also, one of the first needs in the utilization of these great rivers was a legal one, for rivers were an interstate, sometimes an international, matter, and as yet there was no clear body of law covering their ownership and use.

The best way to approach that legal question was by first organizing the West into hydrographic basins which would be virtually self-governing and hence able to negotiate with other similar basins, as well as to control their own watersheds clear to the drainage divides. Inter-basin water law would offer a sound basis for the development of interstate water law, whereas to permit development of water by local franchise was to permit monopoly and waste and the peonage of the small farmer. Moreover, no individual or company could afford the enormous engineering works that were necessary for proper development of the great rivers and the maximum use of water. The ideal way was co-operation: he would have supported federal construction only as a preventive of local grabbing. But however the works were to be built, the absolutely necessary first step was a systematic and careful survey, and that was the proper function of the government’s scientific bureaus.

Over and over he repeated and explained and illustrated his thesis that the new conditions of the West demanded new institutions. These he outlined in his three articles for Century in the spring of 1890, he incorporated them in his reports, he used them as a basis of principle from which to answer canal companies demanding to be reassured in their rights or to be told what their rights were, or coyly offering to co-operate with the survey in the selection of reservoir sites. Probably he convinced some, perhaps many. Certainly he did more than his part to air the West’s peculiar problems and emphasize the need for more forethought in its settlement than had gone into the settlement of the East and Midwest. He found himself both a champion and a scapegoat, for Congress, which had closed the public domain and repudiated the myth of the Garden of the World, was looking for someone to blame. There were three House bills and one Senate bill already introduced, all aimed at canceling the Joint Resolution’s provisions. A good deal of Powell’s missionary work was actually self-defense.

Meantime he was doing more than missionary work. By June, 1890, in addition to the nearly 30,000,000 acres of irrigable lands he had tentatively selected,9 he had designated two hundred reservoir sites to the General Land Office for reservation. But before any of the 30,000,000 acres could be certified to the President for restoration to settlement, the titles to all privately held parcels within the large districts had to be checked. Powell still had a dozen clerks over in the General Land Office turning pages, but by the time the appropriations committees got around to him at the beginning of June he had been unable actually to certify a single acre.

Nevertheless the request for funds and the plan of operations that he sent to Secretary Vilas in April 10 was breezily confident. He now asked grandly, on the scale that Stewart and Teller had at first proposed. By now Dutton had trained a staff of hydraulic engineers; there were people to make the survey move. So Powell asked for $720,000, plus another $70,000 for map engraving, cement research, and office rental. The total was more than three times his last Irrigation Survey appropriation. Though Dutton had been skeptical from the beginning about the propriety of devoting so much of the appropriation to topography, Powell looked upon the map as the basis of the whole plan he had submitted to the irrigation clique in 1888.11

He busied himself gathering ammunition for the conversion of the appropriations committees, and while he was doing so the Senate gave notice of its temper by passing a resolution demanding to know how much, if any, of the money appropriated for irrigation surveys had been diverted to topographic work, and if so, “by what authority of law where appropriations are made by Congress for several purposes the money appropriated for one purpose can be diverted and used for another purpose for which an appropriation is also made in the same statute.” 12 The animus and the apoplectic turgidity of the resolution would have told Powell who had got it up. Stewart had found what he conceived to be a loose stone in the Major’s wall, and he was busy digging. If he could cast doubt on the legality of the Irrigation Survey’s topographic work, he would have a chance to bring the whole thing down. Actually Stewart had known from the beginning that Powell based everything upon the topographic map. But he also knew that Powell had been criticized for taking more authority on occasion than the law allowed him. Having fathered it himself, he knew that the enabling law of the Irrigation Survey was irregular and that Powell might be made to seem responsible for it. He would personally take steps in that direction.

The Resolution that Stewart and other Westerners pushed through on May 31, 1890, had as its purpose the repudiation of the irrigation legislation, at least as it presently stood, and the scotching of the man who, having been put in charge, had shown that he would fight for it. But it was not the first action of 1890 that aimed at the vilification of Major Powell. That first action had come at the very start of the new year, when the spies and whisperers, sensing another opportunity and seeing formidable forces attacking Powell from the front, came out from behind the arras with their knives in their hands.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!