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Western Water Policy in Retrospect

Looking back on the era of reclamation, what is one to make of it? Some, like Marc Reisner, the author of Cadillac Desert cited earlier, regard much of the damming and reclamation work in the west as a giant combination of hubris, delusion, and scandal. But millions of Westerners who like their region and the life they lead in it take a very different view. They will tell you that even if mistakes were made along the way, they are, by and large, pleased with what was done and what it has made possible. Some of them may also tell you that it is not right to judge actions in the past by the sensibilities of today. One should not condemn those who dammed the Colorado and the Columbia in the 1930s because they lacked the particular sensibilities of the Sierra Club members of today.

Projects, some by the Bureau of Reclamation, some by the Army Corps of Engineers, and some by state or municipal public authorities, made the modern U.S. west vastly different than it otherwise would have been. Dams, aqueducts, and canals provided the water for vast metropolitan areas like Los Angeles. Hydroelectric power at a fraction of the cost of fossil fuelgenerated power in the east provided a basis for western industry. Western agriculture is largely a product of public water policy. California is first among the 50 states in value of farm output.17 In California's Imperial Valley rainfall averages two to three inches a year. Without the waters of the Colorado, it would be as dry as the Sahara.

Were it not for the great water projects, the population of the American west would be much smaller than it is, and it would be strung out along the region's rivers. Los Angeles could not exist at anything close to its present scale. Reno and Las Vegas would, at best, be small towns depending on whatever water could be brought up from the wells. The west would be a food-importing rather than a food-exporting region and its industrial base far smaller than it currently is. People would not be able to water-ski on artificial lakes in the desert.

The rest of the nation would be different too. The population of the eastern United States would be substantially larger than it is today, and the centroid of U.S. population would be farther east than it now is, as there would have been much less east-to-west migration.18 The eastern United States would have considerably less forest than it now has, for without so much food production in the west, there would have to be much more land cultivated in the east.

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