From adventure writer Ross (Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed, 2014, etc.), a new biography of a well-known figure in the history of Western exploration.
John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) was famous in his day as the first Anglo explorer to travel the length of the Colorado River, in two expeditions, and explore the Grand Canyon. His voyages down that wild watercourse are the stuff of legend, especially inasmuch as he managed to scale the rock walls of the canyon with only one arm, having lost the other at the Battle of Shiloh. Less well known is his later career as a scientist. He served as the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey and argued that the federal distribution of homestead land “might well work in Wisconsin or Illinois” but was inappropriate to the arid West, where a tract near water was more fittingly 80 acres and one without it 2,560 acres. Powell’s reports to Congress on the arid lands, containing a daring proposal to encourage self-governance organized by watersheds rather than the straight lines of surveyors, were fervently opposed and suppressed, for he revealed the limits the land placed on growth. The author finds this a useful parable for a time of climate change and lessening availability of water in the West, as Powell’s Colorado becomes the nation’s “most contested and controlled river, every single drop of it allocated to serve more than 36 million people in seven states.” Readers who know of Powell are likely to be sympathetic to Ross’ arguments, but much of the main thrust of his book can be found in Donald Worster’s A River Running West (2000) and Wallace Stegner’s somewhat dated but still iconic Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954). Still, Ross’ view through the lens of the unfolding crisis lends Powell and his arguments new relevance.
A sturdy but not entirely fresh study for readers interested in the fate of Western water and in the settlement of the West and a good place to start learning about a key figure.