Jump to Navigation
Jump to Content

Dusting Off the Blueprint for a Dryland Democracy: Incorporating Watershed Integrity and Water Availability Into Land Use Decisions

April 2005

Citation: ELR 10236

Author: Janet C. Neuman

I. John Wesley Powell's Blueprint for a Dryland Democracy

In 1878, Maj. John Wesley Powell delivered to the Secretary of the Interior his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States in which he outlined his recommendations for surveying and settling the western lands. In his biography of Powell, Wallace Stegner characterized the suggestions as the "blueprint for a dryland democracy." The plan was grounded in the "single compelling unity" of the western lands--the overall lack of precipitation. Powell's recommendations were designed to adapt settlement patterns to the region's aridity, thus assuring the settlers' survival and success.

Powell's suggestions included recognizing not only the fundamental unity of western aridity but also the incredible diversity of western topography, climate, and soil, which affected the ability to take advantage of any available water. In order to accommodate these equally crucial but divergent facts, and to accommodate the needs of settlers, farmers, and ranchers, Powell made several key recommendations. He began by categorizing lands according to the uses they would be most suited for, including irrigated farming, pasturage, or timber or mineral production. He suggested basing the government surveys prior to land disposal on topography rather than on the traditional rectangular grid system. Instead of marching lines straight up and down mountains and valleys, a topographic survey would recognize decidedly nonrectangular watersheds and drainage basins. Such a survey would prevent the monopoly of water sources (and by extension, land) by those lucky enough to have water in their quarter section. The result would be to carve out the maximum number of viable settlement parcels, all with some access to water.

Janet C. Neuman is Professor of Law at Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College, where she is co-director of the Northwest Water Law and Policy Project. Professor Neuman thanks her colleagues at Lewis & Clark Law School, Prof. Eileen Gauna for helpful comments on a draft of this Article, and students Ann Boylan, Eric Deitrick, and Brian Wayson for research assistance. This Article is a version of a chapter by the same name in a new Environmental Law Institute book, Wet Growth: Should Water Law Control Land Use? (Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold ed., Envtl. L. Inst. 2005).

You must be a News & Analysis subscriber to download the full article.

You are not logged in. To access this content: