Metropolitan Desert: Irrigation and Ambition in California's Arid Hinterland

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM
Superior Room B (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Eric Steiger, University of California, Irvine
Engineers inspired by a global ethos of arid land development transformed California’s deserts in the late nineteenth century. In so doing they consumed hydraulic engineering expertise forged in the world’s driest countries and laid the groundwork for the United States’ twentieth-century global dominance. Turn of the century irrigationists considered controlling water to be an inherent social good, and the ideological bonds of camaraderie among hydraulic engineers exceeded professional affiliation. My work explores the transformation of California’s dreaded Colorado Desert into a productive agricultural zone between the 1880s and 1910s as a point of intersection between various potent forces: an optimistic global ideology of scientific irrigationism, the changing nature of American nationalist expansion, and conflicting visions of regional growth and power.

Climate and landscape were central to the Colorado Desert’s history, first as an impediment and later as an opportunity for development. The heat and aridity that made the desert a nightmare for travelers and prospectors became assets for irrigators. Beginning in the last decades of the nineteenth century engineers and developers carried the ambitions and capital of Los Angeles into the vast desert basin. The city’s business and technical networks connected economic growth in the desert to a global community of hydraulic experts and capitalists. Apparent success in the desert allowed the engineers to secure a role in the vanguard of U.S. overseas endeavors, in the process making Los Angeles a global center of engineering knowledge. Focusing on the interplay between the desert environment, regional ambition, and engineers’ personal connections and expertise allows us to see that a remote desert in one of the most difficult landscapes in the country was at the forefront of the shift from continental dominance to global involvement.

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