Western Water History Symposium
“Coping with Extremes”
On March 1, 2012, four prominent historians of the American West gathered in the Morgan Library Event Hall for “Coping with Extremes,” a symposium held in conjunction with the Water Resources Archive’s annual Water Tables event.
In a humorous lecture that established the tone for the afternoon, Patty Limerick, a Professor of History at CU Boulder and Director of the Center for the American West, asked audience members to rethink six common assumptions about water and development in the American West. The first, and perhaps most common, was that water supply and population growth are “inherently and inevitably” intertwined. She encouraged the audience to think of the relationship between water and population growth as casual, not causal, and reminded attendees that water issues in the American West confound and contradict precisely because environmental and political conditions vary widely by place.
In some cases, water scarcity can spur action. Louis Warren, the W. Turrentine Professor of Western History at UC Davis, explained how an extended drought in the Great Basin Region helped spark the Ghost Dance of the 1890s. In other cases, water shortage can lead to tragedy. Donald C. Jackson, a professor of history at Lafayette College, detailed how competition over water rights and political corruption caused the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928—a disaster that killed over 400 individuals living outside Los Angeles.
In a lecture that covered natural resources more broadly, Jay Taylor, a professor of history at Simon Fraser University, traced disagreements between preservationists, conservationist, and states’ rights advocates through the life his great-grandfather, Edward T. Taylor (also the architect of the Taylor Grazing Act)—ultimately concluding that the political wrangling of the Progressive Era hindered resource management throughout the twentieth century.
The Public Lands History Center (PLHC) and the Water Resources Archive at CSU Libraries thank Professors Limerick, Warren, Jackson, and Taylor for sharing their work at CSU. The PLHC and Water Resources Archive hope that by gaining a better understanding the past water challenges, that faculty, students, and larger CSU community will continue to work together to ensure sustainable water issue across the Front Range.