As the nation in the 1700 and 1800s moved West, emigrants encountered land that appeared less and less fertile the farther west they traveled. The progressively drier land seemed to offer little prospect for agriculture.
But about the time that Nevada became a state, the West began enjoying an extended period of relatively wet years. Those who wanted desert reclamation (turning desert into farmland through irrigation) promoted a notion that if the land was plowed and planted, it would increase rainfall.
“(M)ight not the vicissitudes of nature operate a change likewise upon the seasons?” wrote Missouri trader Josiah Gregg.
It was a claim helped along by politicians anxious to tell the public what it wanted to hear. Ferdinand Hayden, director of the U.S. Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories wrote that, “It is my earnest wish at all times to report that which will be most pleasing to the people of the West, providing there is any foundation for it in nature” (1871). So, straining to report good news, he filed a report that “the planting of ten or fifteen acres of forest-trees on each quarter section will have a most important effect on the climate, equalizing and increasing the moisture and adding greatly to the fertility of the soil.” It was a way of explaining why the soil became more fertile as settlers moved West and tilled it.
This notion became known as “rain follows the plow.” And as a cause, desert reclamation became something resembling a religion. Since there was little scientific support for the notion, faith filled in. Reclamationists believed deeply — and “rain follows the plow” became a “science” that everyone “knew” was true.
Of course, vultures like land speculators were there to take advantage of all this, selling desert as agricultural land properties on the assumption that rainfall would increase when the land was tilled. And in the 1800s, expertise was up for grabs. People became experts just by renting a hall and speaking out.
As long as wet conditions prevailed, “rain follows the plow” performed. And as the wet years faded, because the movement (for such it had become) for desert reclamation was based on faith instead of science, there was no decline in support. The believers kept believing.
Congress eventually enacted the National Reclamation Act of 1902, also known as the Lowlands Reclamation Act. Then the failings of “rain follows the plow” showed up fast. The first five federal desert reclamation projects included one in Nevada, the Truckee Carson Irrigation District.
Not only did rain not increase as the West was plowed, but the reclamation projects were disappointments. Oh, farms were created and crops harvested. But the amount of water needed to reclaim the desert proved to be far greater than all the believers had expected. The Truckee Carson district has yet to reach its projected number of farms.
The law led to the use of huge amounts of water, diverted from its natural course, for projects that generated relatively small amounts of produce. And plowing did nothing to rainfall.
By listening to “experts” whose claims were not based in science, the nation was launched on a loony era of unnecessary dam building and foolish water policies to try to make reclamation work. But faith springs eternal, and science continues to come in second to the believers.
Today, it’s a case of taking on faith the falsity of climate change, though the science is entirely on the other side. Skeptics and “experts” like radio talk hosts cherry pick the science to find what they want, or ignore the science altogether to employ ad hominem arguments, or cite the teeny minority of scientists who support their views.
Nevada ranchers are facing serious problems as a result of climate change, such as the loss of grazing land and forage because of warming. Land use, commodity production and the very viability of ranching may be under threat. Listening to self-appointed “experts” today would be just as foolish and risky as listening to the “rain follows the plow” experts of the 1800s.
Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.