On May 24th, 1869, the ten men of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition stood at the banks of the Green River in Wyoming prepared to enter into a region of the United States known only as “unexplored territory.” The expedition was to enter into the “Great Unknown,” take scientific measurements, chart the region, and effectively complete our nation’s maps. To John Wesley Powell, unexplored territory was unacceptable and unknowns were opportunities for greater understanding. Powell and his crew traveled over 900 miles from Green River, Wyoming to the mouth of the Virgin River, in present day Lake Mead, through a wild, largely uninhabited system of river canyons. The West was a new and final frontier, ripe for development and lacking only a system for the manipulation of the Colorado River’s water, a subject Powell addressed in his “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States”. By erasing empty space and, in turn, leaving only defined place, Powell’s journey fueled a western migration that continues today.
The unexplored territory of 1869 through which the Colorado River Exploring Expedition was the first to travel in a continuous, deliberate progression continues to be explored by adventurous boatmen and boatwomen. Powell’s unknown has become a highly visited, studied and managed environment encompassing five states, two U.S. Forest Service units, three Bureau of Land Management field offices, three U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges, and five Nation Park Service units The Colorado River Basin also continues to support indigenous groups in five Native American reservations.
In many ways, experiences similar to those of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition are available through the stewardship of public land management agencies. However, our perception of place and the resulting relationship to the environment of the arid West are easily distinguished from Powell’s time. The Colorado River Exploring Expedition embarked from Green River, Wyoming armed with “two sextants, four chronometers, a number of barometers, thermometers, compasses, and other instruments” (Powell 1875, pg. 8) and began a process of complete geographic, geologic, and topographic surveys of the American West. The linear progression of the systematic and methodological utilization of water resources— a process commenced by Powell’s surveys of the arid region of the United States—has led to a contemporary Great Unknown, one in which we have inherited a system of management built upon incomplete scientific knowledge and techniques better applied in more humid regions. This system has begun to show weaknesses and has forced reactive management as pressures increase from climatic uncertainties, increased populations, compact obligations for water allocations, and most recently a move to privatize 640 million acres of public lands. Today, nearly 150 years after Powell, a methodological lineage exists between his systematic inquiry into the unexplored territory of the arid West and the complex plumbing of the modern Colorado River system that supports over 40 million Americans through storage reservoirs, irrigation, and transbasin diversions.
The 150th anniversary of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition offers an opportunity to once again begin a systematic and deliberate expedition into the unexplored territory of Western economies, politics, and ideologies as they relate to the water resources of the Colorado River Basin. Powell was able to travel through a continuous, natural riparian ecosystem. This experience is no longer possible, as the system is now separated into two basins, with three major dams, 15 management areas, and over 20 significant laws governing the allocation of Colorado River water. Because of these major differences, this expedition is not a reenactment of the past, but rather a re-envisioning of our future that engages traditional, historic, and contemporary river ecosystem perspectives to derive proactive management strategies, integrating community values, science, and humanities through an analysis of culture, informed management, and traditional ecological knowledge.