Tributaries Consulting


Why History

Desolation Canyon on the Green River. 📷  Alex Scholtz

Desolation Canyon on the Green River. 📷 Alex Scholtz


Welcome to Tributaries Consulting! I’m the founder and principal, Sara Porterfield. I hold a Ph.D. in History from the University of Colorado Boulder, and spend any time I’m not writing, researching, or thinking about water and the Colorado River outside in the American West (often on the Colorado).

I founded Tributaries because I see a need in the water community for a historical perspective, for well-researched and well-written history that doesn’t fall back on old tropes and tired narratives. This kind of history has the power to change the way we see the world around us. It can help us more fully understand how we got to where we are today and help shift how we think about solutions and decision making going forward. What does this look like, in practice? Let’s use one of the most famous figures in Colorado River Basin history to see how history can change our perspective.

John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell

The patron saint of the Colorado River Basin and Western water development is indisputably John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who explored the Colorado River Basin by boat, foot, and horseback between 1868 and 1872. Powell is generally thought of today as a farsighted planner, a man who had the on-the-ground experience to understand and articulate the landscape’s limits. But Powell did not invent this idea of limits out of whole cloth. If we expand our historical lens, we learn that Powell was part of a global conversation about resource use, one that was not limited to the arid American West. This conversation dates to at least to 1864 and a globe-trotting conservationist named George Perkins Marsh. Marsh was the first to articulate many of the concepts central to debates about water in the arid West, including the need for a hydraulic survey, the role of both private enterprise and government control in water development, how irrigation should function, and the thorny question of water rights in an arid landscape. 

George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Marsh

As a diplomat, Marsh traveled throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe between 1849 and 1886. From these travels, he concluded that people all over the world inhabited fragile environments, and their actions degraded the very soil, water, and timber on which they depended. Americans inhabited a unique and fortuitous position, according to Marsh: it was possible to avoid the pitfalls other countries had encountered in their attempts at irrigation by looking to Europe and the policies and practices guiding irrigation there. Europeans, in Marsh’s view, had reacted to the “mischiefs” of unregulated irrigation only after they were very nearly out of control. Armed with this information, however, Americans had the opportunity to undertake irrigation in a proactive way that would circumvent the mistakes Europe had made and create an equitable and sustainable irrigation system in the U.S.

Powell may be a mythic figure for Western Americans who worry about the region’s water supply, but Marsh is equally deserving of attention and credit. Did Powell read Marsh’s publications, in which he argued for a cautious approach to irrigating the arid region? Almost certainly, for Marsh’s book Man & Nature was nearly as popular as Darwin’s Origin of Species at the time—and Powell, ever the scholar and government scientist, would have been apprised of Marsh’s. The lineage in Powell’s thinking is apparent—the most Western of nineteenth century figures had, by way of Marsh, developed his policies for the Colorado River Basin and the American West from the histories of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.  

How does this change our perspective today? First, understanding how Marsh influenced Powell creates a space in which to ask about what other stories and histories we might be missing in the Colorado Basin. If we’ve forgotten about the global dimensions of nineteenth-century water development, what other stories have we overlooked and neglected, and how can they help us better understand the Colorado today? Second, the story of Marsh and Powell helps shift the focus away from the American West as an exceptional place in an exceptional nation and instead helps us to see the response to the region’s aridity as part of a global reaction to resource development. This can help us today approach conversations about water use and development from a place of greater openness and curiosity: if the origins of Western water policy were this much more diverse than we thought, what influences, actors, and examples can we include going forward?  

Do you have a question about water history? Want to learn more about my research? Would you like history to be a part of your organization’s strategy for innovative water solutions? Contact me here, I’d love to work with you.

Sara PorterfieldComment