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Beehive Archive: John Wesley Powell's Hydraulic West


Maps shape how we see our world. Perhaps no one knew this as well as John Wesley Powell, a late-19th Century scientist who was one of the first to survey the American West. Powell’s famous expeditions through America’s canyons and rivers helped create the U.S. Geological Survey in 1879. As director, he created a nationwide topographic mapping project that is still used by federal agencies today. Despite his clear expertise about the land, Powell’s greatest proposal for the American West was rejected. 

The 1862 Homestead Act provided 160 acres of land to Americans wanting to settle the frontier, but land west of the 100th Meridian is significantly more arid than in the East. Powell knew there would be problems with access to irrigable land. He proposed that the West be settled within natural watershed boundaries to maximize the use of rainfall as it collected in mountains and ran downstream. Central to his vision was his hydrographic map where the square borders of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada were broken up into a vibrant jigsaw puzzle of proposed watershed districts.

When he presented his colorful map to Congress in 1890, Powell hoped to convince them that these districts provided the best way to avoid conflict over water ownership. He envisioned a society where catchment basins were protected by the government to ensure every drop was used and millions of farmers could thrive as a result. Powell’s colorful watershed district map also gives a new way of seeing the West – not by its natural topographic features or arbitrary political borders – but through the waterways that naturally shape it. 

Powell’s map confronted U.S. Senators with a truth they refused to admit: that the West was simply too dry to sustainably uphold the economic interests of exploitative developers. With some Senators serving those businesses, many outright rejected Powell’s ideas about water. As years of legal disputes and droughts plague the West, is time proving that Powell was right?


The Beehive Archive is a project of Utah Humanities, produced in partnership with Utah Public Radio and KCPW Radio with funding from the Lawrence T. and Janet T. Dee Foundation. Find sources and past episodes at Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive.