Water Planning After the Age of Infrastructure

December 14, 2009
Despite geologic barriers and in the face of scientific advice, huge infrastructure projects of the 20th century brought water to the arid Southwest and fueled the growth of a megaregion. But now that era of infrastructure-enabled growth is over, leaving planners, developers and policymakers looking for new ways to sustain growth and rising demand amid diminishing resources.

With the one arm he had left after fighting for the Union during the Civil War, John Wesley Powell led a team of 10 men and four boats on what was likely the most extreme and adventurous fact-finding mission since Lewis and Clark stumbled upon the West Coast of North America. It was 1869, and this was neither the first nor the last river voyage Powell would command. He and his men sought to document an unexplored section of western waters along the Green and Colorado rivers, and to do so they would battle every ripple and rapid for nearly 1,000 miles from Green River, Wyoming to the convergence of the Colorado and Virgin rivers in Nevada.

After three months and six days of near-starvation, crashed boats, mutiny, abandonment, and many long, cold nights questioning the purpose of the trip and its ever-decreasing likelihood of success, Powell and five of his crew reached the end of their expedition at what is now engulfed by Lake Mead, just north of modern-day Las Vegas. As epically recounted in Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner's 1986 landmark history of water in the West, Powell's journey was the first documented expedition through the Grand Canyon and prefaced the manipulation of the Colorado to fuel the expansion of civilization into the arid West.