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Chapter Nineteen. Water Development: The Plot Thickens1

Patty Limerick

Subject History » Environmental History
Study of History » Historiography

Place United States of America » American West

Period 1000 - 1999

Key-Topics natural law, nature

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405156653.2010.00021.x


The history of Western water development follows a simple plot: for a spell, the regional characteristic of aridity defied the demands of conventional American settlement, but that defiance was then followed by submission and surrender. A conglomeration of organizations – private companies, ditch cooperatives, water conservancy districts, municipal utilities, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Corps of Engineers – overpowered the West's constraints of precipitation. By storing spring run-off in reservoirs and releasing stored water in response to demands, engineers made it possible for a substantial population to live in a region that once seemed so unaccommodating. Putting into force the specifications of the vision of a properly vegetated landscape held by the great majority of Americans, an extraordinary investment of capital and hard work turned the West green. Comprehending and appraising this ostensibly simple plot, however, has proven to be another matter, a recognition that has badgered me as I write a history of the Denver Water Department. And yet there is nothing better for the minds of historians than a bout of exactly such badgering. In processes of migration and colonization, people traveled heavily laden with cultural baggage. In the rush of activity, they rarely had occasion to look through this baggage and assess its fit to their new circumstances. When it comes ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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