Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West

Paperback | September 1, 1982

byDonald Worster

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When Henry David Thoreau went for his daily walk, he would consult his instincts on which direction to follow. More often than not his inner compass pointed west or southwest. "The future lies that way to me," he explained, "and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side." Inhis own imaginative way, Thoreau was imitating the countless young pioneers, prospectors, and entrepreneurs who were zealously following Horace Greeley's famous advice to "go west." Yet while the epic chapter in American history opened by these adventurous men and women is filled with stories offrontier hardship, we rarely think of one of their greatest problems--the lack of water resources. And the same difficulty that made life so troublesome for early settlers remains one of the most pressing concerns in the western states of the late-twentieth century. The American West, blessed with an abundance of earth and sky but cursed with a scarcity of life's most fundamental need, has long dreamed of harnessing all its rivers to produce unlimited wealth and power. In Rivers of Empire, award-winning historian Donald Worster tells the story of thisdream and its outcome. He shows how, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Mormons were the first attempting to make that dream a reality, damming and diverting rivers to irrigate their land. He follows this intriguing history through the 1930s, when the federal government built hundreds ofdams on every major western river, thereby laying the foundation for the cities and farms, money and power of today's West. Yet while these cities have become paradigms of modern American urban centers, and the farms successful high-tech enterprises, Worster reminds us that the costs have beenextremely high. Along with the wealth has come massive ecological damage, a redistribution of power to bureaucratic and economic elites, and a class conflict still on the upswing. As a result, the future of this "hydraulic West" is increasingly uncertain, as water continues to be a scarceresource, inadequate to the demand, and declining in quality. Rivers of Empire represents a radically new vision of the American West and its historical significance. Showing how ecological change is inextricably intertwined with social evolution, and reevaluating the old mythic and celebratory approach to the development of the West, Worster offers themost probing, critical analysis of the region to date. He shows how the vast region encompassing our western states, while founded essentially as colonies, have since become the true seat of the American "Empire." How this imperial West rose out of desert, how it altered the course of naturethere, and what it has meant for Thoreau's (and our own) mythic search for freedom and the American Dream, are the central themes of this eloquent and thought-provoking story--a story that begins and ends with water.

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When Henry David Thoreau went for his daily walk, he would consult his instincts on which direction to follow. More often than not his inner compass pointed west or southwest. "The future lies that way to me," he explained, "and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side." Inhis own imaginative way, Thoreau was imitatin...

Donald Worster, who won the Bancroft Prize for his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (Oxford, 1975), is Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas. He is also the author of The Ends of the Earth, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, and the forthcoming Under Western Skies: ...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:416 pages, 6.14 × 9.25 × 1.06 inPublished:September 1, 1982Publisher:Oxford University Press

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0195078063

ISBN - 13:9780195078060

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"An excellent choice for courses that include readings from the New Western History interpretations."--Thomas L. Charlton, Baylor University