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on February 4, 2002
I am somewhat ashamed to have read this book only recently. I should have read this one years ago.
Well, better late than never, and I am pleased to report that it deserves its enduring reputation.
...But let me assume that I am writing this "review" for an audience that is neither familiar with Reisner's book nor aware of the role water development has played in every aspect of the history of the American West, particularly of California.
Briefly, the history of water development contains the whole story of the West, from start to present. Early modern irrigation worked miracles and opened to the plow land previously unavailable for agriculture -- land that now feeds the nation and much of the world. If it were not for these early, massive hydro-projects, not one of the great cities of the West would be even conceivable, millions upon millions of people would and could never have considered settling the western half of the continent. Of course, there was a massive cost accompanying all of these benefits, measurable in human as well as environmental terms, but in those days the cost-benefit analysis was easy.
Building upon early irrigation successes, two government agencies -- the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, may they both live forever in infamy -- garnered unto themselves massive power and independence, which they used to keep on building dam after dam after dam. The problem was not so much (at the time the dams were built) that the environmental costs were higher with every dam, until there now remains no wild river beyond the hundredth meridian of any significance whatsoever, precious little habitat for migratory birds, mass extinctions, etc., etc., tragically etc.; the real problem (at the time the dams were built) was that the new dams brought no benefits whatsoever to stack up against their costs. Each new dam represented gratuitous environmental catastrophe, effected simply because water projects became the currency of pork barrel Congressional politics.
And that's not the worst of it. Except for the Egyptian (the Nile River being a very special case), every civilization founded upon irrigation has always ended -- abruptly -- almost certainly due to the sudden and permanent despoliation of irrigated agricultural soil through concentration of salts, which is the inevitable result of irrigation. No previous irrigation civilization has ever worked on such a grand scale, or with soil already so alkaline, as ours. Death by salinity is happening with alarming rapidity in the American West even now. The end of agriculture as we know it in the West is coming, and coming soon; all the experts know it; nothing is being done.
Reisner doesn't suggest much in the way of solutions. But as history -- explaining patterns of human settlement, the effects of that settlement on the region's geography, the patterns of flow and accumulation of wealth in the West, and what may be the greatest crisis our whole nation is facing and ignoring today -- Cadillac Desert can't be beat.
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on December 2, 2000
I enthusiastically told friends that I was reading a book about "water development in the West" and they blankly would stare back and ask "Why"? Well, I discovered that the story of moving people and water into the West where humans really have no natural right living is quite entertaining. Reisner is the perfect storyteller and he permeates this real drama of pure will, deceit, graft, engineering prowess and the pork barrel with a subtle sarcastic wit I could read all day. He makes a real effort to keep his personal views out of the picture and rely on interviews and statistics. Even though it seems that he likely sees most large water projects as foolhardy and boondoggles he presents both sides - for example highlighting how one of the massive Comubia River dams had the unexpected value of helping us win WWII through power generation. I read this for a book club and the four of us (all California natives) used it as a springboard for literally hours of conversation. This should be required reading for anyone who claims to be an informed citizen living in the American West.
There is also an excellent PBS companion 4 video series of the same name which I found available at my library (or sold through packaged with Chinatown) which I would HIGHLY recommend. It adds a lot thorough interviews, footage of a dam failing, and beautiful scenery that lets you appreciate the natural beauty at stake when considering these large water projects.
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on September 1, 2001
"Cadillac Desert" is one of those books that causes a person to seriously question "the system" (no matter your ideological affiliation). The book exposes the blantant contradictions and hypocrisy that have permeated the history of the West (which history is the history of water and it being reigned in). Take my own situation for example: Over the last couple of weeks I found myself agreeing page after page with the authors' points of view. During those same weeks when I was reading the book and agreeing with the author, I was swimming in, showering in, watering my lawn with, and drinking the very water the author condemned. As if that wasn't bad enough I reflected on my former years when I worked every summer on the family farm which was sustained by CAP and reclamation water. Ouch!!!
My reading this book can basically be translated into the author, Marc Reisner, slapping me in the face and chewing me out and me just sitting there unable to defend myself. The book sets forth examples that are virtually impossible to argue against. However, one point Mr. Reisner failed to mention is the importance agriculture plays in our national security and our ability as a nation to sustain ourselves. This point, though, hardly justifies the irrational decisions made buy both the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers. I mention it here as a kind a weak punch from the canvas in an attempt to justify my existence after being so brutally beaten down by facts and the exposure of the blatant hypocrisy perpetuated by so-called "ideological purists" (which come from both sides of the aisle). The author said it best by stating that when it comes to water there are no Republicans and Democrats, and there are no liberals or conservatives.
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on May 28, 2000
Cadillac Desert should be required reading for every American. On the surface it tells the story of water development and conservation (or lack thereof) in the American west in particular and the nation in general. Throughout the book however, you are given an understanding of how our government actually works. I always wondered why a company in California will contribute heavily to a congressman from New York. Now I know. I also know why our government will spend so much tax money on seemingly wastful projects. Anyone interested in engineering will be fascinated by the construction of the huge dams. Marc Reisner also relates some of the disasters that resulted from poorly constucted or situated dams. This book is well researched and well written and for a book with so much technical information, quite easy and enjoyable to read. Anyone interested in water conservation, irrigation, American government, American history, engineering feats or development of the American west will love this book
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HALL OF FAMEon September 27, 2002
Before beginning this book, note that it is not simply a list of environmental complaints. Marc Reisner has a conservationist background, but here he is acting as a reporter and not an essayist. Hence this book if a political history of water projects in the American west, with little environmentalism to be found, except at a very high level. And what we have is the story of some truly bizarre politics. Most of the west can naturally support very few people, so the US government has forced civilization upon it through irrigation schemes that are mostly made up of more and more dams built to bigger and bigger proportions. How else would you explain the presence of major cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles in the middle of deserts, or lush green farmlands in areas that had been nothing but sand for millennia?
The Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation led the way, starting with a modest program of increasing water supplies to small farmers who were bravely pioneering the Wild West. But in an era of huge pork barrel politics and a paranoid desire to conquer nature, these plans spiraled into megalomania. The Corps and Bureau competed with each other to build the biggest projects, and schemes were designed to keep engineers working and to keep money flowing to the pockets of campaign contributors. Thus projects were built that were ridiculous wastes of money (in some cases, delivering 10 cents of benefit for every taxpayer dollar spent), increased environmental devastation with no benefits, and were not even wanted by the people they were supposed to benefit. Meanwhile the pork barrel politics led to bizarre ideologies, with conservatives demanding subsidies paid by taxpayers to cover the losses of uneconomical schemes (the worst form of Socialism), and Democrats begging for projects that benefited a few wealthy corporate farmers while destroying the livelihoods of vast numbers of regular folks. In the greatest irony of all, Westerners beg the federal government to continue propping up a civilization that has little chance to stand on its own, while continually spouting Western rhetoric about distrusting the Feds back east.
Reisner delivers a compelling political history of these potentially disastrous trends, which will result in little water conservation in the long run, and even encourage more wasteful use. The only problem is that Reisner is a rather arrogant writer, sometimes falling on the wrong side of the fine line between sarcastic-funny and sarcastic-condescending. This book also drifts into repetitive examples of bad water schemes that merely repeat the main points that were laid down long before. But despite those minor problems, this book drives home the point that pork barrel politics is making a natural deficit of water into a potential human catastrophe that is bound to happen sooner or later.
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on May 6, 2006
The importance and currency of this book is inversely and exponentially proportional to the (decreasing) amount of water in the Ogallala Aquifer. I.E. as the water supplies in the U.S. Southwest continue to decline and eventually disappear in the face of demands from Las Vegas (fastest growing city in the US) and Phoenix (everyone likes to live where it's hot), Southern California, and substantial agricultural interests, look out!

I read this book about 10 years ago during a two month driving/hiking sojourn through the SW.

What struck me most about the book was:

1. it is incredibly well researched; absolutely top notch - you learn about the issues, the people and the places important to the story of water in the U.S. (across the US, in fact, not just the SW) and how the story will spill across the Canadian border in the years ahead.

2. It is a darned good read. Some of the characters are larger-than-life and the author runs with it; it is very entertaining. The overall seriousness and importance of the topic is driven home and in no way is it sacrificed for cheap laughs.

3. a great education on the US Dept of Interior, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the amazing politics of water (dams, irrigation, dams, cities, dams, incredible canal systems, dams, etc.).

I can't recommend this book highly enough to anyone who has ever used a tap and thought for a moment where the water comes from and what would happen if all of a sudden it stopped flowing. Even if you've never had a drink in your life, read it!

My fellow Canadians are particularly encouraged to have a read and then wonder what may lie ahead for our water resources.
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on July 15, 1998
A detailed and accurate catalog of our nations projects, poor, bad and horrible, on the water resources of half a continent. Reisner reports the greed, ignorance and arrogance of government agencies without a plan nor a policy nor guidance nor responsibility. How would we be living now, had the COE, USBR or anyone in government had any kind of thoughtful water policy other than dam everything?
Few people are going to read this for fun. Researchers, water, hydroelectric and agricultural pros, folks with their own article or book in mind, political historians; all these are going to use this as a reference. Readers of purpose that may check the bibliography first or at least keep going back to it as they notice items in the text. The problem is that the Penguin edition is missing the bibliography for chapter 8. You may want to check another edition to make sure you've got the complete package.
If you live west of the 100th meridian, drink water and read; the co! ! mplete book should be on your shelf. Put it up next to your copy of J. McPhee's "The Control of Nature".
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on March 25, 2006
As a 25-year resident of the West, I had always understood water's importance but had always taken it for granted. This book explains both why it's so important and why government and agribusiness interests have made it so easy to take for granted. What I didn't really understand were the downsides of these activities, especially on the increasing salinization of the soil and the monumental subsidies that have been passed on to the ostensibly libertarian, free market agribusiness industry. I canme away from this feeling grateful that the desert has been made an oasis, but also understanding that this oasis may have a much shorter lifespan than I ever imagined. Extremely written and factually backed up through interviews with the prople who made all this possible, the book reads like a novel. Sometimes I wished it was fiction.
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on May 12, 2004
The work of a lifetime, Reisner's 500 page expose on the Western Water Machine will change the way any fist-time reader views 1)water 2) the federal government, and 3) the American West.
Reisner's book is of a rare breed: meticulously researched, written with craft and humor and a human touch, and altogether damning mjust by telling the facts.
In essence, and for a longer paraphrase look below, Reisner demonstrates that Los Angeles, California farmers, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers and others worked togther to bend reality in favor of growth and living space. At some level this made sense. Hoover Dam, Reisner writes, helped to win WWII through its desperately needed energy production. However, at some point what was once needed became an imperitive for its own sake. Dams for the sake of building beautiful dams. Water projects for political legacy. Expensive water projects for farmers growing surplus crops. And then America gradually became aware that this Cadillac desert - an artificial oasis where the land once was dry - has come at a staggering environmental and recreational cost.
It's a book that open the reader's eyes and understand a bit more about how U.S.A. works, especially in the arid West.
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on December 5, 2000
I first read this book during graduate school, in a class which covered many subjects in the natural resource management field as well as environmental-economic conflict. At the time, I knew very little regarding the West and its constant conflict regarding water usage and water rights. The book proved to be an excellent primer on the state of affairs regarding the history and present-day usage of water in the American southwest. It gives a remarkably thorough history as well as a very intimate portrayal of its author and his relationship to the geography about which he writes. Other books, as well, complement this one (e.g. "A River No More" -Friedkin). But, none really do so as gracefully as this. Two years after I finished this book, I travelled extensively throughout the West and visited (or, passed-through) many of the locations Reisner discusses in the book. Such an experience only reinforced the significance of the subject-matter and enabled me to appreciate the material even more. This book, most definitely, changed my understanding of the West and its water.
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