The Major Urges Water Preservation; Powell Warns Delegates

Bismarck, July 8, 1889

Major John Wesley Powell, the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, has just finished addressing the delegates of the constitutional convention. His theme was water. “The state of North Dakota has a curious position geographically in relation to agriculture,” he pointed out. He predicted that the eastern part of the state will have sufficient rainfall for farming. However, with certainty he maintained that dependence on rain in the western part of the state will ultimately bring problems.

Major John Wesley Powell.

According to the Major, the west will be dependent upon irrigation. He predicted that those who farm in western North Dakota will face difficult times. “For two or three years they will have less rainfall, and there will be failure of crops and disaster will come to thousands of people, who will become discouraged and will leave,” he asserted.

“There are waters rolling by you which are quite ample to redeem your land,” he observed. But he warned, “You must save these waters.” To Powell, preservation of water is the key to North Dakota’s future. In strongest terms, he urged the delegates, “Don’t let these streams get out of the possession of the people. If you fail in making a Constitution in any other respect, fail not in this one.” Raising his even-tempered voice, the Major exhorted the delegates: “Hold the water in the hands of the people.”

Delegates seemed receptive to Major Powell’s address. Martin Johnson, a delegate from Lakota in Nelson County, gave support to Powell’s arguments: “We have found since we came out on these plains that the water supply is not sufficient to make sure a good crop every time. It has apparently diminished during the last few years, and this year we are brought face to face with this great problem of a lack of moisture.”

The convention adjourned for the day, with the Major’s words ringing in their ears.

Editor’s Note: The convention did adopt a constitutional provision that retained possession of possible irrigation waters for the state.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level


Subject Matter

Social Studies, Science

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change