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Explorer Saw Water Issues That Would Plague the West

Explorer Saw Water Issues That Would Plague the West

If Congress had listened to explorer and scientist John Wesley Powell 125 years ago, the American West today might be an entirely different place.

"We would not have, if Powell's ideas had carried through, any of our huge federal water projects," says Powell biographer Donald Worster. "And we certainly would not have had anything like the massive urban growth that's taken place in the West."

A one-armed Civil War veteran, Powell launched daring expeditions down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, and to Indian and pioneer communities where little rain fell. As NPR's Howard Berkes reports, Powell's knowledge of the region convinced him that water, or the lack of it, would be a major and ongoing problem in America's westward expansion.

"The East is a green America, but the American West was a brown land," Worster says. "People had noticed. They couldn't help but noticing this as they went West in covered wagons. But Powell was the first to ask why did that difference exist and what did it mean for the nation's future."

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