Profits walk on water

When you fly across the United States from the East to the West, things change dramatically as you cross the 100th meridian in central-west Kansas, especially if you are flying to Los Angeles. Look out the window—it starts to get dry. In much of the thousand miles west of the meridian, it is relatively empty and arid.

It was especially so when John Wesley Powell launched his expedition in 1878 to examine the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. We were then an agrarian society, and Powell wanted to find out if there was a way to turn the dry emptiness of the West into something that could support crops and cows.

Powell knew that fewer than 20 inches of rain and no irrigation meant no farming. So, in the West, he envisioned small, irrigated farms and livestock ranches and lots of cooperation. Powell thought it all could happen if everyone worked together with what water was available.

But this man who bravely rode through the Grand Canyon in a rowboat had a fear. He thought farmers and ranchers must always worry about the threat of one thing, and it wasn’t a drought. He feared a monopoly being formed over the vital natural resource the sod busters couldn’t live without: water.

The robber barons and the syndicates in the East were controlling the essentials, like oil, so Powell had reason to be concerned.

But the West grew with government water and irrigation projects, and Powell’s apprehension was unfounded, as the water was handled and dispersed by the federal government, states and municipalities.

Until now.

Huge multinational corporations are taking over what used to be municipal water companies, and in some cases, the for-your-benefit companies have been swallowed up by for-their-profit corporations. (See “Gulp!”)

Portions of the barren, starkly defiant West have changed dramatically, simply by adding water. But that brave explorer’s fear is now founded.