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Assessing The Colorado River Through The Eyes Of A 19th Century Explorer

A photo of the Colorado River.
John Wesley Powell is famous for his explorations of the Colorado River in the late 19th century. Scholars today are discussing what he would think about the river and its use.

Renegotiations around the use of the Colorado River are on the horizon for seven western states, including Utah. On Thursday, scholars in the state held a panel to discuss how explorer John Wesley Powell would think about water and land policies today.

Powell is seen as a utilitarian, according to Robert Keiter, a law professor at the University of Utah. He along with U professors Robert Adler and Daniel McCool are contributing authors to a book about Powell, “Vision and Place.”

Keiter said Powell was interested in fully developing western resources but backing up reasoning with science. He said the Colorado River explorer was also a proponent of local management and control of resources.

“Powell was a man of his time,” Keiter said. “He was focused on promoting western settlement and development. He was concerned about establishing a meaningful economy in the region. Water, forests, grass and minerals were the focus of his utilitarian vision for the region.”

Adler, also a law professor at the U, said it’s hard to know how exactly the 19th century explorer would view the dwindling river’s current situation.

He said, on the one hand, we should use every drop of water so none of it runs to the sea,” Adler said. “On the other hand, he said, ‘Look, the weather is not going to change on our behalf.’ He would have said we have to do something to live within our limits right now.”

One of Powell’s speeches about conflicts with water rights and supply got him booed off the stage at the time, according to McCool, a professor emeritus of political science at the U.

He compared Powell’s comments to the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, which has stirred controversy among basin states. The lake that southwest Utah is looking to pipe water from is named after Powell, who mapped the area in the late 1800s.

“If you want to create a heritage of conflict, support the Lake Powell Pipeline because the other basin states have made it very clear,” McCool said. “Although collaboration has been the key to management for the last 100 years, if you try to build this pipeline, we're going to war.”

Colorado River basin states have until 2026 to renegotiate drought management plans for the river.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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