November 3, 1888: Article in Engineering News–Irrigation in the Arid Region of the United States. “An answer to some of the wild hopes regarding irrigation in the arid regions west of the Mississippi, and an answer also to the wilder misstatements regarding the feasibility of the project, is found in the letter of Maj. J.A. Powell, Director of the Geological Survey, to Secretary [of the Interior] William F. Vilas.
Maj. Powell says that the area of the arid region is about 1,300,000 sq. miles, and that 1,000,000 sq. miles of this only need water to make it productive. At $30 per acre, a moderate estimate for irrigated land, this area would represent the enormous aggregate value of $19,200,000,000. Over this region the annual precipitation ranges from 5 ins. or less on the driest plains, to 30 ins. on the mountains, with an average for the whole region of about 15 ins. If this could be applied to the land, there would be about double the amount required during the growing season….
Under such adverse conditions it is manifest that only a small portion of the rainfall of the region can be made to serve the farmer, and that there is no solid foundation for the opinion sometimes expressed that the greater part of our arid west will ultimately be reclaimed. In 1880 less than 1 per cent of its arable portion had been supplied with irrigation water, and it is not believed that with the most elaborate irrigation works this can be increased to more than 20 per cent….
…the 15 per cent…as capable of improvement by irrigation, while it is now valueless, exceeds by about 20,000 sq. miles the combined area of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and is well worth adding to the revenue producing territory of this country.”
Reference: “Irrigation in the Arid Region of the United States.” Engineering News. 20 (November 3, 1888): 351.
Commentary: This extraordinary document predates the enormous irrigation projects planned and executed by the federal government through the Bureau of Reclamation. Just think of the vision and fortitude that was necessary to make these dreams a reality.