Written by: Yazmin Torres


When the first settlers traveled West, they were met with the land of hidden opportunity, overshadowed by the aridity of its landscape. Eventually, however, they could transform the burden of aridity into an endless well that fueled their equally limitless ambitions. With the discovery of dams, levees, and the hydraulic apparatus, the possibility of controlling the rivers became possible. This ability to control water became the cornerstone upon which the empire of the West stood.

Power and wealth followed this newfound ability, and soon the idea of dominating all of the natural worlds seemed within reach. Paradoxically, the exact imperial mentality the settlers fled the East to escape insidiously resurfaced as a fundamental and essential ingredient to the new West’s growth and character. It is ironic that this same imperial mentality, which brought the West to power, may soon prove to be the cause of its downfall.

The shortsighted ambition to conquer nature has created a complicated and tense relationship between the two. Unfortunately for the imperialist, life has and always will be more powerful than man. As long as Westerners continue working against nature, rather than with it, our hopes for an ever-improving human condition will be unobtainable. We will build and build and build until we’ve ravaged and drained all the natural resources that our empire will have no other choice but to crumble. We may well be the empire that destroys itself.

The West, as we recognize it today, bears little resemblance to its original state; it is engineered and manipulated to fit the needs of Westerners self-serving motives, which above all else, is to accumulate wealth. This one-track mindset of the Western world has led it to success, with the unfortunate byproduct of compromising and damaging the environment. As much as Westerners strive for limitless expansion, our sacred, natural resources are limited.

At the current rate of consumption in the West, the practice of free-market capitalism is not capable of providing a sustainable supply of water.

Since its inception, the clash between the Western empire and nature made itself evident through the Westerner’s compelling need to revolutionize it. No one could imagine that it would become the place it is today. The West, in its natural state, is a semi-desert. Yet Westerners, unaware of nature’s original design, call crisis when they receive little rainfall throughout the year. In the book Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs by Wallace Stegner, he describes the lost identity of the West and the new character assigned it. He does so by emphasizing the extremes Westerners have gone to transform the land:

It took a lot of industrial invention to conquer the plains: the Colt revolver, a horseman’s weapon, to subdue the horse Indians; barbed wire to control cattle; windmills to fill stock tanks and irrigate little gardens and hayfields; railroads to open otherwise unlivable spaces and bring first buffalo hides and buffalo bones and then cattle and wheat to market; gang machinery to plow, plant, and harvest big fields. (Stegner 61)

Stegner highlights how the West made technology’s domination over nature an intricate part of daily life. Technology’s ability to transform and simplify Western life strengthened the empire and gave Westerners a glorified and dependent-view of technology. Admittedly, in moderation, the use of technology improves the human condition. However, there is a limit to its charms. Now, it has become a brutal force over nature.

This tyranny, driven by man, sacrifices the environment for power and wealth—each feeding on the other and leaving in their wake destruction, conflict, and chaos. Unfortunately, the West can only alter so drastically before it ceases to be what it is entirely.

In addition to the industrial invention, Westerners conquered the plains by learning how to control their water supply. The ability to control water appeared to have developed into an obsession of the West, as it seemed that “whoever controlled the water controlled the world’s destiny” (Worster 264). This fundamental philosophy in Westerner’s thinking is touched upon by Donald Worster, author of Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West.

Worster explains the compulsive need “water-hustlers” had (and still do) to control water early on in Western development:

Their anxious need to get more water, to expand their manipulation of nature, was so intense it became a kind of totalitarian impulse– a drive to capture and hold on to every single drop that fell on the West, allowing nothing to elude their tight control or stand as a challenge to their supremacy. (Worster 263)

Such a fanatic impulse guided only by free-market capitalism is a recipe for disaster. The Free Dictionary defines free-market capitalism as an economic market in which supply does not usually experience regulation, and when it does it with minor restrictions. Our current system- an attenuated form of free-market capitalism- in conjunction with the power that controlling water affords, has led to the severe depletion of water and many damaged ecosystems.

Therefore, it follows that the continued success of free-market capitalism in the water industry is just as tenuous as the failing ecosystems. It depends on exploiting. This lack of security drives people to extreme measures to reinforce their holdings. Just as the early “water-hustlers” feared losing their power over water, our current officials still have similar worries. The implementation of many unnecessary and inefficient water projects demonstrate this ever-present urgency and insecurity.

As Westerners pursue complete water domination, they exploit this system of water management with little consideration nor government interference of their wrongdoings toward the environment.

In addition to this, Worster speaks of three particularly interesting water management principles that governed the West during the Reagan Era. These ideas demonstrate the lack of moral values and beliefs in water management, highlighting the egocentric and ignorant Westerners’ mentality. The three principles outlined by Worster are:

1. The state’s proper role should be to promote the private accumulation of wealth, not seek its dispersal into as many hands as possible; it should be to reward the successful, not the failures.
2. The laws of the marketplace are reason exemplified, and they should be allowed to dictate what size of the farm operation is more desirable, what will work best, what will is efficient.
3. The hydraulic apparatus of the West, an imposing technological triumph, should not be flawed and compromised by an antiquated agrarian ideal that belongs to the horse-and-buggy days. (Worster 302)

The Western models associate accumulation of wealth and success with one another, creating a corrupted free-market capitalist system that disregards concerns not immediately beneficial to the individual. Rather than viewing land dispersal as an indirect positive contribution to water conservation and, therefore, more advantageous to the person’s future accumulation, Westerners view it as a threat to their success. Furthermore, the act of “dictating” the size of their farmland to their “desire” is an immature ideology, centralized around authority and want instead of the carefully considered and balanced pros and cons.

Westerners support their “desire” by stating illogical and inconsistent explanations to rationalize their notions. For example, regarding the hydraulic apparatus, they deem it as a “technological triumph.” On the contrary, the adverse effects suffered because of the hydraulic machinery, some say, belongs to an “antiquated agrarian ideal” of the “horse-and-buggy days.” As much as Westerners wish to follow this ideology, the consequences suffered will eventually be their own when the source of their success– the water supply–is gone.

The consequences of our free-market capitalist ideals are already beginning to show themselves in depleted water levels and destroyed ecosystems and habitats of the West. An example of this is outlined in Bay Area Delta Blues by Susan Zakin. She speaks about the harmful effects that water irresponsibility caused to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. She notes that, according to The Bay Institute, “there once were nine hundred thousand acres of tule marsh… and four hundred fifteen thousand acres of vernal pools in the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds” (Zakin 282).

Now less than five percent of that wetland exists. Unfortunately, that vibrant and flourishing ecosystem has fallen victim to water manipulation (and, by extension, capitalism).

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is a victim of technology. Westerners connected pipes and aqueducts of the Central Valley Water Project and the State Water Project to the Delta without considering the “finite and fragile” nature of water (Zakin 279). These infrastructures send drinking water south to two-thirds of California’s population and irrigation water to farms that grow about thirty-five percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables.

This excessive diversion of water caused irreversible damage to the Central Valley’s salmon spawning habitat within the Delta. In 1990, they were listed as an endangered species when their population declined to only five hundred thirty fish. In addition to this, in 1994, Delta smelt was also listed as an endangered species. The rapid loss of freshwater in the Delta led to the line of saltwater being pulled further into it, severely impacting the smelt; this pushed environmentalists to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for not doing their job and appropriately regulating the water quality of the Delta. After that, the Fish and Wildlife Service began trying to protect the smelt; this threatened the continuation of the Central Valley Water Project and State Water project. Zakin commented about the startling truth uncovered by this crisis:

For the first time, cities and farms in Southern California confronted the possibility that the days of Chinatown were not infinite: long-term water shortages could end a century of empire building. (Zakin 284)

The story of the Sacramento- San Joaquin River Delta depicts the paradoxical relationship between the coexistence of the capitalist state mode and the practice of sustainability. The complicated relationship between these two concepts must involve compromise on both ends. As shown, if the water is solely compromised, the empire will drain water faster than it can be replenished, threatening the entire existence of the realm. As much as the West wishes to dominate nature, we must tread respectfully on her land.

For many years, Westerners have attempted to ease the tension and conflict between sustainability and imperial building that follows free-market capitalist ideals. However, the future of water management remains unclear. We have created programs such as CALFED, a massive undertaking to restore the Delta. Even after many revisions and long legal debates, it is only a small, insufficient solution to the much bigger environmental problems developed in the West.

Wright, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, believes that the future of CALFED is a dead end. He states that “The plan doesn’t have any coherence. It’s just a big, muddled mess so that nobody can get too mad at it” (Zakin 290); this has been the typical outcome for many projects intended to conserve and save our natural water resources.

There is no immediate and straightforward solution to the problem. As stated by Zakin, “California has to face the reality that while the profligate use of water has built empires of astounding proportions, the state’s environmental checking account was badly overdrawn” (Zakin 279). To undo the damage already done, Westerners must take small steps. It’s time to tighten our belts, develop less indulging habits, and more appreciate the natural world.

The process should be gradual and continuous, giving nature time to heal and regain her former self. Maybe then the West will be able to find a piece of itself again. The price of greed is too high.

If something is not agreed upon soon, it will be too late. Just as the first settlers were able to transform the burden of an arid landscape, we must forge a successful solution at this critical time. We must not let the current political landscape overshadow the golden opportunity to rescue the American West.


Works Cited
Stegner, Wallace. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.
Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Miller, Char. Water in the 21st-century West: A High Country News Reader. Corvallis: Oregon State UP, 2009. Print.
“Dictionary, Encyclopedia, and Thesaurus.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, n.d. Web. December 07. 2016.