Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes


Question for Discussion: According to Stegner
and Reisner , how does dryness and the need for water shape the geography and culture of the American West?

Reading: Reisner," A Semi-desert with a Desert
Stegner, "Thoughts in a Dry Land"
; Stegner "Living Dry"
; Nash, " Western Water Wars";
Rudzitis, "Wilderness and the Communities of the West"

Film: Arid West; Water in the West,

Quiz: What do Stegner and Reisner mean when they argue that the West is really "a semi-desert with a
Desert Heart"?

Response Paper : Do you agree with Limerick that studying the American West as a place undergoing conquest is a much stronger approach than studying
the West as a frontier that was settled? (See the
class outline on this debate
(1-2 page paper due on Monday, February 9th.)

Daily Class Web Links

Maps of the Old West

Daily Class Outline

What is the American West?

  1. The West from Space at Night (in-class)

  2. Population per Square Mile in the West (in-class)

  3. NOAA: Annual Rainfall in the United States (in-class)

  4. Average annual Rainfall in the West (in-class)

  5. NOAA: U.S. Drought Monitor (in-class)

  6. USGS National Map Maker: See
    Topographic Map of the West

  7. Federal Government: National Atlas MapMaker

  8. Topographic Map of North America (in-class)

  9. Topgraphic Map of the United States (in-class)

  10. Topographic Map of the American East (in-class)

  11. Topographic Map of the American West (in-class)

  12. "The Great West" Advertisement (in-class)

  13. Worster: The Challenge of the Arid West (in-class)

  14. Solomon Butcher: Photographs of
    Nebraska Homesteaders

  15. Paul Starr's Images of the American West

  16. Wateruse in the USA per day in 2000 (in-class)

  17. Agricultural Water use in the West (in-class)

  18. Reisner, A Semi-Desert with a Desert Heart

  19. Stegner, Thoughts in a Dry Land (in-class)

  20. Stegner, Living in a Dry Land (in-class)

  21. Ruzitis, Wilderness and the Communities
    of the West

  22. Nash, Western Water Wars (in-class)

  23. History of the Bureau of Reclamation (in-class)

  24. Bureau of Reclamation: Dams in the West
    by region

  25. Bureau of Reclamation: Dams in the West
    by state

  26. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lakes
    and Recreation Areas

  27. Damn Nation: Western Dams
    and the Future of Dams in the West

  28. Batchelder Promotes farming in the
    Dakota Territory

  29. The Geography of Development and Water
    in the American West

  30. What has the American West Been:

    The West as the Home of Indian Peoples

    The West as unsettled Wilderness

    The West as Spain

    The West as Mexico

    The West as the United States

    The West as a "Garden of the World"

    The West as the "Great American Desert"

    The West as Frontier

    The West as "Safety Valve"

    The West as "the Wild West"

    The West as Freedom from Society and the Past

    The West as "Free Land"

    The West as under-Developed Region

    The West as a "proces " of Frontier Settlement

    The West a a Place to make your Fortune.

    The West as vast, empty Wasteland

    The West as Property of the Federal Government

    The West as "Borderlands" for diverse peoples

    The West as a distinct region in the United States

    The West as wide-open Spaces

    The West as a Pristine Environment

    The West as untapped Natural Resources

    The West as Tourist and Nature Preserve

    The West as a Place that represents America

    The West as crowded, Urban Centers

    The West as vast Rural Wasteland

    The West as Small Towns and Communities

    The West of Farmers, Ranchers, Miners, and

    The West as a Nuclear and Military Waste Dump

    The West as California

    The West as Arid Land

    The West as our Home for the future

Reisner, A semi-desert with a Desert Heart

"Emptiness. There was nothing down there on the earth-no towns, no light, no signs of civilization at all. Barren mountains rose duskily from the desert floor; isolated mesas and buttes broke the wind­haunted distance. You couldn't see much in the moonlight, but obviously there were no forests, no pastures, no lakes, no rivers; there was no fruited plain. I counted the minutes between clusters of lights. Six, eight, nine, eleven-going nine miles a minute, that was a lot of uninhabited distance in a crowded century, a lot of emptiness amid a civilization whose success was achieved on the pretension that natural obstacles do not exist. "

."The agency responsible for it, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, would build ' the highest and largest dams in the world on rivers few believed could be controlled-the Colorado, the Sacramento, the Columbia, the lower Snake--and run aqueducts for hundreds of miles across deserts and over mountains and through the Continental Divide in order to irrigate more millions of acres and provide water and power to a population equal to that of Italy. Thanks to irrigation, thanks to the Bureau--an agency few people know--states such as California, Arizona, and Idaho became populous and wealthy; millions settled in regions where na­ture, left alone, would have countenanced thousands at best; great valleys and hemispherical basins metamorphosed from desert blond to semitropic green." ." Any place with less than twenty inches of rainfall is hostile terrain to a farmer depending solely on the sky, and a place that receives seven inches or less--as Phoenix, El Paso, and Reno do--is arguably no place to inhabit at all. Everything depends on the manipulation of water­-on capturing it behind dams, storing it, and rerouting it in concrete rivers over distances of hundreds of miles. Were it not for a century and a half of messianic effort toward that end, the West as we know it would not exist."

"In May of 1957, a very dis tinguished Texas historian, Walter Prescott Webb, wrote an article for Harper's entitled "The American West, Perpetual Mirage, " in which he called the West "a semi-desert with a desert heart" and said it had too dark a soul to be truly converted. The greatest national folly we could commit, Webb argued, would be to exhaust the land trying to make over the West in the image of Illinois--a folly which by then, had taken on the appearance of national policy. The editors of Harper's were soon up to their knees in a flood of vitriolic mail from westerners condemning Webb as an infidel, a heretic, a doomsayer."

"Desert, semi-desert, call it what you will. The point is that despite heroic efforts and many billions of dollars,
all we have managed to do in the arid West is turn a Missouri-size section green--and that conversion has been wrought in main with non-renewable groundwater.
But a goal of many westerners and of their federal archangels, the Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers, has long been to double, triple, quadruple the amount of desert that has been civilized and farmed, and now these same people say that the future of a hungry world depends on it, even if it means importing water from as far away as Alaska."

"Very little of this water is used by people, however. Most of it is used for irrigation--80 percent of it, to be exact. That is a low percentage, by western standards. In Arizona, 87 percent of the water consumed goes to irrigation; in Colorado and New Mexico, the figure is almost as high. In Kansas , Nevada , Nebraska , North Dakota , South Dakota , and Idaho-in all of those states, irrigation accounts for nearly all of the water that is consumptively used. "

"The vanishing groundwater in Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Nebraska is all part of the Ogallala aquifer, which holds two distinctions: one of being the largest discrete aquifer in the world, the other of being the fastest-disappearing aquifer in the world. The rate of withdrawal over natural replenishment is now roughly equivalent to the flow of the Colorado River . This was the region called the Dust Bowl, the one devastated by the Great Drought; that was back before anyone knew there was so much water underfoot, and before the invention of the centrifugal pump."

"In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money. And it literally does, as it leaps three thousand feet across the Tehachapi Mountains in gigantic siphons to slake the thirst of Los Angeles , as it is shoved a thousand feet out of Colorado River canyons to water Phoenix and Palm Springs and the irrigated lands around them. It goes 444 miles (the distance from Boston to Washington ) by aqueduct from the Feather River to south of L.A. It goes in man-made rivers, in siphons, in tunnels. In a hundred years, actually less, God's riverine handiwork in the West has been stood on its head. A number of rivers have been nearly dried up. One now flows backward. Some flow through mountains into other rivers' beds. There are huge reservoirs where there was once desert; there is desert, or cropland, where there were once huge shallow swamps and lakes.

It still isn't enough."

"In the West, of course, where water is concerned, logic and reason have never figured prominently in the scheme of things. As long as we maintain a civilization in a semi-desert with a desert heart, the yearning to civilize more of it will always be there. It is an instinct that followed close on the heels of food, sleep, and sex, predating the Bible by thousands of years. The instinct, if nothing else, is bound to persist. "

Stegner, Thoughts in a Dry Land

"Aridity, more than anything else, gives the western landscape its character. It is aridity that gives the air its special dry clarity; aridity that puts brilliance in the light and polishes and enlarges the stars; aridity that leads the grasses to evolve as bunches rather than as turf; aridity that exposes the pigmentation of the raw earth and limits, almost eliminates, the color of chlorophyll; aridity that erodes the earth in cliffs and badlands rather than in softened and vegetated slopes, that has shaped the characteristically swift and mobile animals of the dry grasslands and the characteristically nocturnal life of the deserts. The West, Walter Webb said, is "a semi­desert with a desert heart." If I prefer to think of it as two long chains of mountain ranges with deserts or semi-deserts in their rain shadow, that is not to deny his assertion that the primary unity of the West is a shortage of water. "

  "The consequences of aridity multiply by a kind of domino effect. In the attempt to compensate for nature's lacks we have remade whole sections of the western landscape. The modern West is as surely Lake Mead and Lake Powell and the Fort Peck reservoir, the irrigated greenery of the Salt River Valley and the smog blanket over Phoenix , as it is the high Wind River Range or the Wasatch or the Grand Canyon . We have acted upon the western landscape with the force of a geological agent. But aridity still calls the tune, directs our tinkering, prevents the healing of our mistakes; and vast unwatered reaches still emphasize the contrast between the desert and the sown."

"But the boosters and the politicians always proclaimed that rain followed the plow; free land and movement westward were ingrained expectations. Habit, politics, and real estate boosterism won out over experience and good sense, and that is part of the history of the West, and of western landscape. Even yet the battle, though to some extent won, is not universally understood. There are historians who grow so incensed over the "myth" of the Great American Desert , which began with Pike and Long, that they resent any admission of aridity, as well as all "deficiency terminology " in connection with the short-grass plains."

"Landscape, with its basis of aridity, is both our peculiar splendor and our peculiar limitation. Without careful controls and restrictions and planning, tourists can be as destructive as locusts--can destroy everything we have learned to love about the West. I include you and me among the tourists, and I include you and me in my warning to entrepreneurs. We should all be forced to file an environmental impact study before we build so much as a privy or a summer cottage, much less a motel, a freeway, or a resort."

"Sometimes I wonder if Lewis and Clark shouldn't have been made to file an environmental impact study before they started west, and Columbus before he ever sailed. They might never have got their permits. But then we wouldn't have been here to learn from our mistakes, either. I really only want to say that we may love a place and still be dangerous to it. We ought to file that environmental impact study before we undertake anything that exploits or alters or endangers the splendid, spacious, varied, magnificent, and terribly fragile earth that supports us."

Stegner, Living in a Dry Land
"The West is a region of extraordinary variety within its abiding unity, and of an iron immutability beneath its surface of change. The most splendid part of the American habitat, it is also the most fragile. It has been misinterpreted and mistreated because, coming to it from earlier frontiers where conditions were not unlike those of northern Europe, Anglo-Americans found it different, daunting, exhilarating, dangerous, and unpredictable, and entered it carrying habits that were often inappropriate and expectations that were surely excessive. " "The fact is, it has been as notable for mirages as for the realization of dreams. Illusion and mirage have been built into it since Coronado came seeking the Seven Cities of Cibola in 1540. Coronado 's failure was an early, spectacular trial run for other and humbler failures. Witness the young men from all over the world who fill graveyards in California ’s Mother Lode country. "

"The West is defined, that is, by inadequate rainfall, which means a general deficiency of water. We have water only between the time of its falling as rain or snow and the time when it flows or percolates back into the sea or the deep subsurface reservoirs of the earth. We can't create water or increase the supply. We can only hold back and redistribute what there is.
If rainfall is inadequate, then streams will be inadequate, lakes will be few and sometimes saline, underground water will be slow to renew itself when it has been pumped down, the air will be very dry, and surface evaporation from lakes and reservoirs will be extreme. In desert parts of the West it is as much as ten feet a year.""In spite of the mild coastal climate and an economy greater than that of all but a handful of nations, California fits Walter Webb's definition of the West as "a semi­desert with a desert heart." It took only the two-year drought of 1976-77, when my part of California got eight inches of rain each year instead of the normal eighteen, to bring the whole state to a panting pause. The five-year drought from 1987 to 1991 has brought it to the point of desperation."

"Aridity, and aridity alone, makes the various Wests one. The distinctive western plants and animals, the hard clarity (before power plants and metropolitan traffic altered it) of the western air, the look and location of western towns, the empty spaces that separate them, the way farms and ranches are either densely concentrated where water is plentiful or widely scattered where it is scarce, the pervasive presence of the federal government as landowner and land manager, the even more noticeable federal presence as dam builder and water broker, the snarling states-rights and anti-federal feelings whose burden Bernard DeVoto once characterized in a sentence--"Get out and give us more money"--those are all consequences, and by no means all the consequences, of aridity."

"Aridity arranged all that complicated natural and human mess, too. In the view of some, it also helped to create a large, spacious, independent, sun-burned, self-reliant western character, and a large, open, democratic western society. Of that, despite a wistful desire to believe, I am less than confident, has just as often been a curse. Migrants deprive themselves of the physical and spiritual bonds that develop within a place and a society. Our migratoriness has hindered us from becoming a people of communities and traditions, especially in the West. "

"The principal invention of western American culture is the motel, the principal exhibit of that culture the automotive roadside. A principal western industry is tourism, which exploits the mobile and the seasonal. Whatever it might want to be, the West is still primarily a series of brief visitations or a trail to somewhere else; and western literature, from Roughing It to On the Road, from The Log of a Cowboy to Lonesome Dove , from The Big Rock Candy Mountain to The Big Sky, has been largely a literature not of place but of motion."

"Distance, space, affects people as surely as it has bred keen eyesight into pronghorn antelope. And what makes that western space and distance? The same condition that enforces mobility on all adapted creatures, and tolerates only small or temporary concentrations of human or other life, Aridity."

Nash, Western Water Wars

"The valley below Nevada's Snake mountains should not have much to fear from Las Vegas. Its dun-colored terrain daubed with the green of shrubs, meadow grasses and crops lies some 200 miles north of the roaring, metastasizing metropolis for which the state is most famous. But the 1.7 million people of greater Las Vegas may have designs on the fewer than 1,000 people of Snake Valley--or rather, on their water."

"As one of the fastest-growing population centers in the country, Las Vegas has a powerful thirst. Every month 5,000 to 7,000 newcomers arrive to retire or find jobs, meaning the already swollen population could double in 20 to 30 years. Though water­conservation measures have reduced the city's annual consumption since 2002, they cannot contain such explosive growth. So Las Vegas has gone looking for its water farther from home."

"Even if Las Vegas had not come calling, Great Basin water holes would be in trouble. Across the region, drought, agricultural diversions, and overgrazing have done measurable damage, and there are examples in Snake Valley. "We're worried about southern Nevada because we know what we're doing to ourselves," says rancher Dean Baker. "And that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what they're talking about."

Rudzitis, Wilderness and the Communities of the West

"What do we know about the communities of the American West? Not as much as we should. With 84 percent of its population living in metropolitan areas, the West is an urban region, but that is not its popular image. The image and root of Western culture is contained in its small towns. These towns, surrounded by lots of wide-open spaces is what the West is for many people. The real West is not well represented by Los Angeles , Den ­ ver , Phoenix , Las Vegas , Salt Lake City , Portland , or Seattle."

"Nevertheless, people in the West are a mobile lot. The history of the American West is of continuing migration in and out of places, both large and small. There is the ever-present search for opportunity or flight from some place else. Often the opportunity is based on the fortunes of luck, whether in dredging for gold in the streams and rivers, or playing the slot machines of Las Vegas , Reno , or Laughlin , Nevada ."

"In the interior West predictions of population losses and economic decline as a result of being on the periphery have not come true. Quite the contrary. Along with the South, the interior West is the fastest growing region of the country."

Where is the American West?

  1. Map of the 20th Century American West

  2. Geographical Definitions of the American West

Why Study the American West?

  1. Certificate Program in Western American Studies

    To understand the West as Home

    To understand the past, present, and future
    history of the United States

    To understand the Myths of American History

    To understand the people, culture, and society
    of the American West

  2. Because we want to live-in and protect the West

Daily Class Questions

Daily Class Notes

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18150                   by Chris H. Lewis, Ph.D.

© 2000 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 1 June 2000:  Last Modified: 23 January, 2009
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/west/geowest.htm