The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1987, Volume 33, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West.

By Donald Worster. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. Maps. Notes. Index. x + 402 Pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by Gregg R. Hennessey, Historian and former Administrator, Research Archives, San Diego History Center.

The history of the American West is driven, in large part, by mythology. One of the most persistent and pervasive myths is that the region was settled by individuals who, free of government retraints, conquered a hostile environment and created an egalitarian society that was the fulfillment of Jeffersonian Democracy. Rivers of Empire, an important and weighty book, sets forth a very different and disturbing view of history west of the hundredth meridian. “The American West is . . . more consistently, and more decisively, a land of authority and restraint, of class and exploitation, and ultimately of imperial power” (p. 4). What has developed in the West in-stead of an equitable and democratic community is a “social order based on the intensive, large-scale manipulation of water . . . ,” resulting in a growing “coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical system, ruled by a power elite based on the ownership of capital and expertise” (p. 7).

Rivers of Empire is a social historical analysis of irrigation in the arid West. It is a long unflinching and disquieting look at the alarming disparity between what irrigation technology promised and what it delivered. Donald Worster, the Meyerhoff Professor of Environmental Studies at Brandeis University, resurrects and revises the thesis of sometimes Marxist scholar Karl Wittfogel regarding ancient “hydraulic societies.” These societies, located around the great rivers in arid places, developed highly centralized and authoritarian political systems as they increased the scale of water use and control. No scholars have applied these ideas to the American West, Worster says. Indeed, the growing body of literature on western water has tended to ignore the larger world experience, ancient or modern. Several excellent historical studies in the last few years have focused on urban water development, water rights, agribusiness politics, and regional water systems. Yet only one, Michael C. Meyer’s Water in the Hispanic Southwest: A Social and Legal History, 1550-1850 (Tucson, 1984), gives ex-tended consideration to the importance of irrigation culture outside the western hemisphere. Worster fills this important gap by making clear that the control of water, not land, has been the determining factor in the development of the arid West. In so doing, the darker implications of irrigation culture and its ancient precedents are brought into American history.

In the middle of the last century individuals and groups of entrepreneurs began river development in the West for small farms and communities. In some ways their progress was fitful, limited as they were by a lack of the necessary capital, technology, and social organization. Nevertheless, these efforts represented an important beginning for irrigation in the significant realm of ideas. Worster’s book focuses primarily on the ideas behind irrigation and their meaning for society.

By the end of the nineteenth century western irrigation had become a crusade. Linked with the imperialism of the period, irrigation and the domination of a hostile environment were infused with patriotic, religious, moral, and economic dimensions, Worster argues. This amalgam of ideas was wrapped in the cloak of agrarian democracy. Irrigationists promised to open the vast arid West to tens of thousands of poor urban and rural families by providing cheap reliable water for small farms. Once again Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmer would rescue and revitalize American democracy. A major leader of the crusade was William Smythe, author, historian, sometimes San Diegan, and founder of the ill-fated Little Landers Colony – an experiment in irrigated agriculture in the Tia Juana River Valley. The irony of the crusade, indeed one of its major flaws, was that despite the preaching of Smythe and others about individuals and democracy overcoming the desert, irrigation in the West, as it was in ancient times, would perforce be a corporate/state undertaking.

Having reached a plateau of development beyond which they could not progress, irrigationists turned ardently and unabashedly to the federal government for help. Following a decade of lobbying Washington responded with the National Reclamation Act in 1902, “the most important single piece of legislation in the history of the West, . . .” (p. 130). Worster shows, through detailed analysis of Congressional debate on the Act pp. 160-69), that contrary to the popular myth that the Act was a victory for the common man, it was in reality designed to strengthen the existing social order, promote power and profit within the ruling class, and provide a means to control the landless and the working class. In addition, a new emerging class of irrigation engineers concerned with making nature more “rational” (read economically productive) used the Act to dam the West and ensure their place in the rising power structure. Despite its hubristic start, federal reclamation was a dismal failure by 1930. Astronomically higher building costs than anticipated and fewer people than hoped for to amortize those costs were a near fatal blow to the whole scheme.

Ironically, the Bureau of Reclamation found salvation in the Great Depression. In the Imperial and Central valleys of California the Bureau, in violation of the spirit, intent, and letter of the 1902 Act, cut deals with large land owners by providing the water they desperately needed. In return, the farmers relinquished local autonomy for centralized control by the Bureau over water resources. An additional concession to agribusiness was the virtual abandonment of the provision that federal water only be supplied to resident farmers owning a maximum of 160 acres. The acreage limitation was the raison d’etre of the Bureau. Its purpose was to ensure the creation of homes for the homeless and perpetuate the values of the family farm. In reality, however, the Bureau set about saving and expanding corporate agriculture in the arid West. As in the ancient hydraulic societies, a small group — large land owners and federal technocrats — rose to dominate the new hydraulic empire in America. As Worster appropriately concludes, “Water had indeed made this desert bloom, and the crop was oligarchy” (p. 206).

Western rivers have been used to create an empire but this domination of nature has also created a host of problems, as it did in ancient times. Social, economic, and environmental problems are the darker legacy of American irrigation. A permanent under class of poorly paid, mostly non-white agricultural workers has been created to service the corporate needs of agribusiness, while receiving few of its benefits. Public taxes — primarily urban — built and maintain the irrigation system whose water is passed on at ridiculously low rates to produce surplus crops that enrich corporate farmers. Finally, major environmental problems such as declining supply, toxic pollution, and salinization have emerged that threaten the entire system and the region itself. Worster makes a strong plea for people to reclaim control of western rivers in hopes of bringing economic equality, social justice, and environmental balance back to the region. Yet the dissenters and protesters he points to with hope seem puny and over-whelmed by the behemoth that surrounds them. Whether this will be a David and Goliath battle or a Don Quixote tilt remains unclear.

Worster’s arguments are firmly grounded on an extensive array of primary and secondary sources. The secondary material is especially impressive ranging through such areas as law, ecology, engineering, ancient history, literature, and political theory. His ideas are challenging — even provocative — and his writing has an urgency and style to match. Readers looking for leads and source materials must check the notes carefully as, un-fortunately, the book has no bibliography. Beyond interpreting western water development, Rivers of Empire has wider implications. As scholars focus increasingly on the modern West a new and important understanding about the relationship between capitalism and the federal bureaucracy has emerged. Contrary to the old idea that the two could not coexist and flourish, several new studies have demonstrated convincingly that big business and big government have usually worked together to each other’s benefit. In addition to water development such areas as transportation, military installations, resource management, urban growth, and even recreation have been significantly affected by the strong symbiosis of government and business.

The West was created by the federal government and its development in every important sense has been possible only with government involvement. The hydraulic West is being overused and misused and the technical solutions offered by government and business only create more problems. To use the engineer’s own phrase, there is no “angle of repose” (a natural and balanced resting point of material) in society’s attempts to dominate nature. Wallace Stegner, award winning western author and historian, recently wrote that everything he loved about the West and that made it so distinctive from other regions, came from aridity. He characteriszed the West’s spoilage by irrigationists as Original Sin. The question now before us is whether or not redemption is possible.