Book Summary: Rivers of Empire by Donald Worster

My Personal Summary

This book is about the history of building dams and canals in the American West to harness rivers for irrigation, which has simultaneously brought great wealth to to the West along with some negative consequences such as centralized control of water and degradation of water quality.

It’s well known that the American West has an abundance of earth and sky, yet a scarcity of rainfall. This means that the only path to irrigation, farming and population growth in the West is to control the flow of rivers since the rivers represent the primary source of water.

The Mormons were the first to successfully irrigate regions in the West near Salt Lake City, Utah in the late 1840’s using somewhat primitive techniques such as building dams with rocks and other natural materials.

Through the late 1800’s, more people migrated West in search of gold, religious freedom, clean air, and a chance to start a new life. Over the years, it became obvious that systematic control over the rivers was the only way that people could thrive in the arid Western regions.

The most powerful engine for developing irrigation was the federal government. In 1902, they passed the National Reclamation Act. This Act provided funds for the construction of dams throughout the West.

Unfortunately, the net effect was that most of these tax dollars subsidized elite western corporate agribusiness in which a few corporations profited immensely while most of the workers received low pay and few benefits.

The Bureau of Reclamation, along with the Army Corp of Engineers, proceeded to dam the Columbia, Colorado, and Missouri Rivers, as well as hundreds of smaller tributaries.

Looking forward, only time will tell if the U.S. is able to control the problem of limited water supply and negative environmental effects.

Book Notes

  • This book is about how humans have altered the flow of rivers in the western United States through canals and dams to allow for irrigation, farming, and population growth in the west that would otherwise be inhospitable.
  • “The American West is blessed with an abundance of earth and sky but cursed with a scarcity of water.”
  • Three modes of water control have appeared in human history:
    • (1) local subsistence mode – humans dig ditches and make small dams with rocks, causing minimal changes to the flow of rivers to utilize water for irrigation for growing crops that remain in the local community. Under this mode, there is no single entity in charge of the water supply and no one attempting to maximize profits.
    • (2) the agrarian state mode in which a large class of peasants worked to clear ditches and build canals, often getting infected with parasites that live in dirty water and ditches, and in which a smaller elite ruling class controlled the water supply.
    • (3) the capitalist state mode – the modern day version of water control that features electric pumps that carry water over entire mountain ranges and concrete dams that create artificial lakes hundreds of miles long.
  • Within the capitalist state mode, water is a commodity people buy, trade, and manipulate like any other, and technology enhances its value. “Where nature seemingly puts limits on human wealth, engineering presumes to bring unlimited plenty.”
  • The first group of people to irrigate the west were the Mormons. In 1847, a committee of Mormons led by Brigham Young walked over 800 miles from Iowa to the future site of Salt Lake City, Utah where they staked out a piece of land, dammed several creeks and dug trenches from it to their new fields. By 1850, there were over 16,000 irrigated acres in what would become the state of Utah.
  • When expanding into the West, few people questioned whether or not dams and canals should be built to bring water into places where it could be made profitable. Instead, under the capitalist mindset, it was assumed that rivers should be used to their maximum economic potential.
  • In the state of California, there was “an abundance of bright sun, fertile soil, and flat, tillable terrain. The rain, however, fell not in the summer growing season as it was supposed to do (as it did in Indiana), but in the winter months, after the crops were all in, failing to water the farmer’s wheat.” For this reason, irrigation from rivers was the only way agriculture could ever occur in California.
  • Because of the nature of rivers, the way people upstream use the river will inevitably affect those farther downstream. Hence the need for some coordinated larger scale apparatus to mediate the conflicts that emerge with water use.
  • “Water in the West, despite its scarcity, was more dependable, if it were captured by irrigation works, than rainfall in the East.”

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