June 21, 2015--Limerick: John Wesley Powell, the original credible heretic (Denver Post)

The time has come for a visionary entrepreneur to launch a start-up: "Credible Heretics, Inc." By common definition, a heretic is a person who holds "an opinion at odds with what is generally conventionally accepted." In 2015, we have an over-supply of not-so-credible heretics, flooding the world with ill-informed, wacky dissent. But heretics situated on a foundation of unmistakable expertise are in short supply. Anyone interested in taking up this understaffed social role may want to begin by contemplating the example set by Maj. John Wesley Powell in 1893. In life and death, Powell has always made life hard for those who have tried to cram him into a simple category. In 1869, he took part in the ultimate Western adventure, leading a party in the descent of the Green and Colorado Rivers; this feat has caused some to see him as the forefather of advocacy for wild and untamed rivers. But, in a characteristic complication, Powell believed in putting water to use in expanding irrigated agriculture, even if that required de-watering the West's streams and rivers. Powell's peak moment as a credible heretic occurred in Los Angeles in 1893, in a context that deepens in meaning every day as the severe drought in California continues. The members of the Irrigation Congress, a group of advocates for the storage and diversion of water to turn the West into farmland, had invited the distinguished Powell to speak at their convention.

"He came to the podium as the grand old man in their midst, the nation's greatest authority on the arid West," the historian Donald Worster writes in his must-read biography of Powell. Listening to the irrigationists, Powell had reached the limits of his tolerance for unrestrained optimism. And so, "tossing aside his more technical speech, he gave them instead a brief, off-the-cuff, sober appraisal of their ambitions." "When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used," he told his audience," ... there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid region." "What matters it whether I am popular or unpopular?" Powell said at the summit of his quotability. "I tell you, gentlemen, that you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands."

As Worster describes the scene, Powell "was speaking like a heretic in a church full of believers." In seconds, the Irrigation Congress delegates "were on their feet, waving hands, interrupting, blurting out angry questions," and failing to recognize their good fortune as witnesses to a glorious episode in the history of bravely stated, future-oriented "opinions at odds with what is generally accepted." To view the full article visit the Denver Post.