Drying in the Wilderness

How Unshakable Myths About the West and Its Settlers Helped Lead to California’s Current Environmental Crisis
Discussed: Propaganda for Manifest Destiny, A Proposal for Communal Grazing, Ruinous Aqueducts, Sprinklers, A Vision for the Arid Region, Cocktails with Ansel Adams, Root Causes, Green Ideas, The Endless Deferral of the Eureka Moment

Drying in the Wilderness

Tana Wojczuk
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In 1868, the West was a mythical place, a land associated with boundless acreage for the speculator, infinite glory for the intrepid mountaineer, and rich veins of ore for the prospector. Just a few years before the American centennial, very little was actually known about what lay beyond the 98th meridian. This invisible line––which runs through the heart of Texas and cuts the corners off Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska––was at that time on the far side of America’s western border. Maps depicted the area with a few chicken-scratches for hypothetical mountain ranges and designated it with the words The Great American Desert.

As European explorers ventured into India and Africa, an American self-styled naturalist named John Wesley Powell took it upon himself to map the unexplored territory of the West and catalog its resources. Powell was an unlikely mountain man. Although physically fit, with a barrel chest and the full beard that was his trademark, he’d lost an arm as an officer in the Civil War, and much of his scientific training consisted of reading voraciously from books sold by traveling salesmen. With his characteristic energy, Powell mustered a small group of hunters and former Civil War soldiers, including his brother, to mount a cartographic expedition down the length of the Colorado River. The success of this expedition made Powell, for a brief time, a national hero, and gained him the financial support he needed for his most ambitious undertaking—to map the entire West, including every stream, river, and pool of runoff.

At this time, the American government was in thrall to the expansionist goals expressed in the idea of Manifest Destiny: Americans had the divine right—the ­responsibility—to expand across the continent. The futurist writer and governor of Colorado, William Gilpin, did his part to aid ­Manifest Destiny. A speculator who believed his landgrabs to be divinely sanctioned, he vividly described the West to Eastern newspapermen and eager audiences as a second Eden, a fertile land with bountiful aquifers deep below the desert surface. Gilpin played fast and loose with ­scientific facts, inventing rainfall, diverting streams, and telling anxious farmers not to worry about rumors of aridity, because “the rain followed the plow.”

Powell, however, recognized early on that the West would be inhospitable to traditional large-scale farming, and foresaw that irregular rainfall would create a reliance on irrigation. This meant that the West would come to be defined by water rights. Without government regulation, he warned Gilpin and others in Washington, wealthy speculators would gain complete control over water, creating a feudal system that left farmers in the dust.

Powell published his preliminary findings in a federal report, still believing that there was time to create a plan for sustainable Western development. But while Powell believed he was writing a scientific report, to the government it was a dangerous manifesto. The federal commission had wanted him merely to create a map of irrigable land. But Powell’s report showed far less of that land than was hoped for, and his analysis of the problem and how to solve it resulted in a guide for limited, regulated settlement of the West. The commission responded by slashing Powell’s budget from $720,000 to $162,500. Powell’s report was, as his biographer Wallace Stegner later wrote, “loaded with dynamite.”

It wasn’t merely that Powell had overstepped. His recommendations threatened to undermine the myth of American individualism—a myth that had made many on the government commission very wealthy men. In contrast to the image of the lone cowboy staking claim to his 160 acres, Powell painted a ­picture of collective and socially coordinated settlements. Since rivers and streams were the only dependable source of water, Powell believed they should be cooperatively owned. Since cattle needed far more grazing room in dry, sparsely seeded Western lands, he suggested communally owned land for grazing, with a cooperative roundup (a method later perfected by Mexican ranchers and adopted by Texas cattlemen).

Though Powell argued for collective interests, he was a man alone. His visionary ideas for a sustainably farmed West fell on deaf ears. By 1878, the territory’s water-rich land was already being bought up by wealthy speculators.

As the turn of the century approached, settlement throughout the West continued mostly unimpeded, though few homesteaders knew what they were getting into. Instead of an Eden of fertile plains and hidden springs, they found barren ground and drought. Along the rail-lines, settlers were met with a paucity of timber, and ruinous prices at dry-goods stores.

It’s a credit to the strength of Manifest Destiny, and a testament to the desperation of early settlers, that those who crossed the 98th meridian and didn’t find the Eden they’d expected just kept going west: walking, riding, and often climbing mountains until they ran out of earth. California was settled both by destiny and by default.



When the newly completed Southern ­Pacific Railroad terminated in California in 1876, it instantly released the floodgates of settlement, turning a trickle of homesteaders into a river. These new settlers quickly exhausted the easy sources of fresh water while wealthy land speculators bought up land and its accompanying water rights. By 1910, Los Angeles had nearly run dry. The solution, put forth by a newly appointed superintendent of water and power named William Mulholland, was rather Roman. Mulholland and his Department of Water and Power built an aqueduct that would funnel water from a system of lakes in Owens Valley, some 230 miles away in the Eastern Sierras.

Farmers in Owens Valley who used the lakes to irrigate their crops were told that the water removed from the lake would be quickly replenished by runoff, but Mulholland’s aqueduct took far more water than he had promised. The lake began to shrink, and soon it was too late to undo the damage. Even an attempt to dynamite the aqueduct was no use. By 1926 Owens Lake was a cracked, dusty crater, and the once-fertile farmland around it was ruined.

Then Mulholland pulled a second trick. Instead of sending the water directly to Los Angeles, he diverted it to property he and his friends had gobbled up in the San Fernando Valley. Now the proud owner of hundreds of acres of newly water-rich land, he had only to incorporate the area into Los Angeles County. Mulholland made Los Angeles an oasis in the desert, and he and his investors made a fortune.

This embodiment of Manifest Destiny had come at great cost. And it survives at great cost—a city of nonnative palm trees, glittering swimming pools, verdant lawns, and three-car garages. On Melrose Place at noon, a few tattooed college kids wander blearily down the street in search of coffee, and the owners of vintage-clothing stores stand outside expectantly, smoking. There are more empty storefronts than stores open for business. Sometimes the mirage falters a little, revealing the city’s desert heart. On the highway between verdant Palos Verdes and bustling Studio City, manicured lawns become threadbare green ribbons along the side of the road and finally shudder into dirt as sprinkler systems

These in-between places are the best reminders of what makes Los Angeles possible—all this water pouring in from elsewhere. And the more that pours in, the more it needs. In the last decade, ­water shortages have resulted in rationing laws (Angelenos can water their lawns only three times a week), and the cost of water has skyrocketed. In 1974 it was discovered that Los Angeles was on the verge of exterminating yet another natural lake (Mono Lake), and the battle that resulted lasted for twenty years. In Los Angeles, the water wars have never really ended.



One hundred years after Powell’s report raised hackles in Washington, his ideas resurfaced in a manifesto written by a group called California Tomorrow. They were a motley crew of architects, city planners, writers, and artists, who hoped to create a comprehensive plan for land and water use that would go beyond Powell’s vision to redefine the cities that had already been established in “the arid region.” In November of 1971, the group gathered in Carmel, California, where Ansel Adams gave a tour of the town’s historical buildings, followed by cocktails at his studio. But this wasn’t a social visit: the group was meeting to put the final touches on its own environmental manifesto, which it called the
California Tomorrow Plan.

A sketch of the California
Tomorrow Plan had already been ­released to the public, which was invited to collaborate on the ongoing revision process. Echoing Powell’s arguments, the plan was based on cooperative resource-use and city planning. The group believed collaboration to be the core value around which sustainable cities could be built.

California Tomorrow brought together experts in infrastructure, resource use, design, and politics to provide a ready-made plan for public use. Social coordination was vitally important to the plan, which named the dislocation of political bodies and lack of cooperative city planning as the primary causes of environmental and social problems in California. The current environmental movement, argued the group’s founder, Alfred E. Heller, was inefficient and short-sighted. It was “beset by loose-leaf, frantic demands to repair one or another busted main in our ancient urban water works.” He believed these problems demanded a “comprehensive approach” made possible by public financing and responsible government.

But California Tomorrow’s comprehensive approach could easily be called utopian, a moniker the group wanted to avoid. Wallace Stegner, in particular, was aware of the negative implications of “utopianism” from his biography of John Wesley Powell (in his 1962 introduction to Powell’s The Arid Lands, he writes that Powell’s book “would eventually be recognized as one of the most important books ever written about the West, and it was understood at once to be loaded with dynamite”), and he wrote to Heller urging the group to tone down the revolutionary narrative of the plan. “Let’s not give the impression,” he wrote, “[that] we expect people to go out and shove a stick of dynamite up the old Essex’s exhaust.”

As Stegner knew, the sweeping nature of Powell’s report was used to discredit his ideas—ironic, considering the tall tales Gilpin was peddling to the newspapers. But the conflict between men like Gilpin and Powell was deeply embedded in the myth of American exceptionalism. While Gilpin believed in man against nature, Powell believed in cooperation between men and between man and nature. Because they clashed with the idea of Manifest Destiny, Powell’s ideas, visionary though they were, were perceived as namby-pamby utopianism. No matter how many times he returned to the wilderness to take measurements, make detailed topographies, and list new species, the cooperative approach he advocated (an approach suggested by his findings) meant that his ideas for reform would continue to be called impractical.

To avoid this, the California Tomorrow Plan began by stating what people already knew: that California was drought-prone and its cities were plagued by urban sprawl. In addition, California was quickly losing its most beautiful land to speculators and hasty development. To the general population, these were radical ideas, and yet to the group they were already one hundred years old. The pattern of reckless growth and deregulation that plagued Los Angeles in 1972 had been dogging the city, largely unnoticed, since its inception.

The California Tomorrow plan identified a series of key environmental problems and sets out the blueprints for a complete systemic overhaul—starting in California, but with designs on America itself. Like Powell had, the members of California Tomorrow focused on the root causes of California’s problems––namely, the lack of a comprehensive plan for sustainable development. To prove that cooperative planning, though it went against the exceptionalist idea that man must conquer nature, was, in fact, the key to “the good life” in California, the plan set the reader down like a piece on a game board. The starting square was California Zero, the California of 1972. California One was the projected product of the current, dislocated form of city planning. California Two, however, was a projection of a city described by Stegner as “coherent, far-sighted, and interrelated rather than partial, desperate, and temporary.”

California One is, by now, familiar––it is what Los Angeles has become. Fires and mudslides eviscerate multimillion-dollar homes, and rising costs drive poorer residents, often artists and minorities, to areas already poisoned by industrial waste. “Slurbia,” as Alfred Heller called poorly planned suburbs, sends the city sprawling into the surrounding landscape, ruining land that might have been used for agriculture or preserved as open space, and siphoning water and cash away from the city center. As a result, downtown areas become riddled with crime, with “worsening water pollution, minimum integration, with prison disorders and with its communities caught more and more in the stranglehold of automobile congestion”

California Two, though, reads like a utopian description of present-day San Francisco, a city that feels more designed than built. California Two would be the invisible city: a practical utopia, designed by artists, writers, and urban planners, that would work like an ecosystem. More people would actually live in the city, but their capital would fund efficient light rail and public transportation. With fewer cars on the road, some streets would be turned into public parks, and community carports would house cars that city dwellers could rent for a day or a few hours to do errands or drive out to the surrounding open space. Waste would be processed near the city, reducing fuel costs, and outlying land set aside for community-sponsored agriculture.

In one major point, however, San Francisco (along with most American cities) fails to live up to the vision of California Two: housing. The plan approached city planning from a European ­perspective, a point of view espoused by one of the group’s earliest members. Catherine Bauer Wurster was a “houser” who advised two presidents on public housing. She had formed the core of her beliefs during a trip to Europe, where she saw that vibrant city centers kept urban sprawl at bay. She deeply influenced Heller in the early stages of the plan, before her untimely death in a fall from a high cliff while ­hiking alone in Northern California.

San Francisco’s friendly size has resulted in some very unfriendly housing practices. With limited housing inside the city, rent control has been essential in keeping the population diverse and avoiding the speculative building that tends to send housing prices sky-high. But during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, the city did little to control new development of urban warehouse districts, resulting in a rash of high-end condominiums and a subsequent gold rush in real estate. Many low- and middle-income families fled the city, creating new urban sprawl and dislocating the workforce, making it more difficult to create an infrastructure to support mass transit. This dislocation also fractured individual communities, undermining local attempts to gain control over development policies or to create organizations that could collectively bargain for better housing practices or public programs.

California Two, on the other hand, created a minimum wage that would allow for residents to remain in the city, and put the management of housing development into the hands of individual communities. These communities could also regulate how they used their green space—for recreation, gardens, community education—and community delegates would collectively determine how city resources would be managed.

California Tomorrow described California One as the product of inertia––the choices that led to its problems could be clearly mapped. But running a finger backward along the timeline leads to a crossroads, a place where several possible futures presented themselves. Today, one might visit both futures at once, taking the Coast Starlight train up the California coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco, beginning and ending in different worlds.

In some ways, we are only now catching up to the environmental vision of the 1970s. In a 1972 article in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Stegner explained the challenges a visionary faces by describing the California Tomorrow Plan in the language of the western. “It proceeds,” he wrote, “through country where the profit motive, the unearned increment, political disagreements, centuries of bad environmental habits, and all sorts of special interests lie in ambush. It is wide open to the charge of being idealistic and impractical.” He could be just as easily have been talking about a cowboy—or about John Wesley Powell.



The green ideas of the future are really the green ideas of the past. In a passionate speech in 2008, Al Gore (a man who is difficult to describe as passionate) called for a new space race, to get America to make the shift to clean energy within the next decade. Using JFK-era rhetoric, Gore essentially told Americans to ask not what our planet can do for us, but what we can do for the planet. At the same time, the speech recalled Reagan-era “Star Wars” missile-defense: “There are times in the history of our nation,” Gore intoned, “when our very way of life depends upon dispelling illusions and awakening to the challenge of a present danger.”

Making the kind of broad, systematic change that people like Al Gore, the members of California Tomorrow, and John Wesley Powell envisioned is not so hard. It requires no new technology, and the plans have been around for over a hundred years. In fact, the current focus on technological solutions within the environmental movement does more harm than good: these solutions are generally instituted piecemeal, and in the excitement over the next hot energy-saving technology, potential can be grossly overestimated. One recent example is President Obama’s support of Solyndra, a company whose efficient solar-cell designs promised to be far cheaper to build because they did not rely on expensive silicon. Through his clean-energy initiative, ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency: Energy), Obama’s administration loaned the company $535 million to begin producing mass amounts of cheap solar cells. But when global silicon prices collapsed and the company realized it would be unable to repay the loan, it declared bankruptcy.

As the California Tomorrow Plan argued, technologies may seek to change people’s lives, but it’s the way people live that needs to change. The biggest impacts can be achieved in cities, because city living naturally encourages cooperation, a fact that most city dwellers would find both obvious and surprising. People in cities live one on top of the other, and their survival depends on being able to share public spaces and public amenities. Since city dwellers are used to thinking vertically, cities may also be the perfect places to reevaluate the way we think of innovation. New ideas can be something we build upon rather than something we reach toward into the void. The myth of the eureka moment holds us back just as much as the myth of Manifest Destiny.

Individualism is in fact not reflective of American values. While Americans have fallen behind in many industries, technological innovation has remained a strength. And connectivity, as Bill Gates has argued, is what drives innovation. As one of the major producers of the technology that connects us, America is in a unique position to become a country of collaborators. The American myth of the lonely cowboy was never the whole truth, but it was perpetuated because men like Gilpin and his modern-day counterparts profited from it. A man alone is easy to take advantage of. Families struggling to keep their homes are vulnerable to predatory business practices—whether they are “proving up” to gain title to their land or trying to pay back loans at impossible interest rates. The lonely-cowboy myth benefits most those who profit from chaos, and it has been a rhetorical boon to those who, for over a century and a half, have pushed for deregulation by conflating it with individualism.

My copy of the California Tomorrow Plan, which I got from Columbia University’s architecture library, hadn’t been cracked since 1980. But creativity, it seems, is not linear but recursive—spiraling back on itself to reuse and extend the ideas that came before. The members of California Tomorrow seem now to have seen into the future, but their ideas were based on observations made a century earlier. And while they were, like Powell, ignored in their own time, people looking for the “green ideas of the future” ought to try collaborating with them now. Then John Wesley Powell can be seen not as a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but as a master collaborator, learning from other frontiersmen, like the Mormon missionary and explorer Jacob Hamblin and the many Native American tribes he encountered. It would be easy to look back on Powell as a kind of cowboy—a rugged, one-armed man who would rather be out on the range than in front of a computer. But take a closer look at the image of the cowboy in the white hat and he seems rather a geek—weather patterns, rainfall, and soil samples the material of his day-to-day. Frontiersmen were always, above all, men of science. The myth of the West has always been incomplete. 

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