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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition Paperback – June 1, 1993
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The definitive history of water resources in the American West, and a very illuminating lesson in the political economy of limited resources anywhere. Highly recommended!
"Masterful. . .Among the most influential environmental books published by an American since Silent Spring."
--San Francisco Examiner
"Essential background reading for anyone who cares about the drought ravaging the West and the region's prospects for changing course before it is too late."
--Mark Hertsgaard, The Daily Beast
"Timely and of national interest. . . . Resiner captures Western water history in Cinemascope and Technicolor. . . . lawmakers, taxpayers, hurry up and read this book."
--The Washington Post
"The scale of this book is as staggering as that of Hoover Dam. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, it spans our century-long effort to moisten the arid West. . . . Anyone thinking of moving west of the hundredth meridian should read this book before they call their real estate agent."
--St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"A revealing, absorbing, often amusing and alarming report on where billions of [taxpayers'] dollars have gone-- and where a lot more are going . . . [Reisner] has put the story together in trenchant form."
--The New York Times Book Review
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Underlying the encyclopedic scope of “Cadillac Desert” are two basic themes.
First, the settlers lured to the arid West by the railroads and the US Federal Government in the 19th century needed cheap water to support agriculture on their 160 acre parcels of land, and also for their growing cities such as Los Angeles. Cheap hydroelectric power was often a secondary need, essential to pumping water. This need was met by projects of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers. The projects were generally promoted by local congressmen, who supported each other’s projects. In the long term this endeavor has been subsidized by US taxpayers since return revenues from the projects have generally fallen fall far short of plan.
Second, the projects and dams have been an escalating source of controversy. For the most part the projects have not been economically justifiable, especially the irrigation projects, and especially the more recent projects. Also, the dams have created lasting problems -- salination of irrigated soil; silt accumulation behind the dams; environmental devastation to streams, salmon fisheries, and migratory birds; an overstretched US Federal budget, etc. Cheap hydroelectric power has also enabled groundwater pumping which is depleting aquifers. The taxpayer subsidized benefits of cheap water have often gone to large corporate agriculture, not the small farmers for whom the water was intended. By the later part of the 20th century the public sentiment had largely turned away from building ever more dams, and indeed toward removing some of the existing ones.
The individual chapters of “Cadillac Desert” are often mesmerizing, instilling a sense of outrage in the civic and history minded reader. The chapter on the 1976 Teton Dam failure is a great example. If the leaders and promoters had thoughtfully considered the economics of the dam, or the geology of the site, the dam would never have been built in the first place. But built it was and fail it did. The spectacularly devastating failure is now used as a case study in engineering courses, providing an example of mistakes at all levels and by all of those involved.
While Reisner does seem long winded at times, it is worthwhile staying with “Cadillac Desert” to the end. On one hand, it provides many interrelated perspectives on water and the West. It also ends on a somewhat positive note as the many constituencies involved seem to be converging on a more rational approach to future water usage in the West.
Cadillac Desert is a compelling and often riveting description of Western water history, beginning with Joseph Smith and his Mormon followers who upon arriving in the Great Basin begin almost immediately digging irrigation canals into the surrounding desert. In the introduction, Reisner says, "Confronted by the desert, the first thing Americans want to do is change it." And, he spends the rest of the book documenting in great detail all of the ways in which we (largely through the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers) have attempted to turn an arid environment into one that supports millions of people AND a robust agricultural economy.
This book is anything but dull. Reisner was a great writer and his engaging tale pulls no punches. While the sheer number of dams and water control projects can be virtually mind-numbing, he treats these projects with the deft hand of a good story-teller. Every project gets the analysis and insight of someone trying to solve a mystery and often failing; many of these projects should not have been built. Some of them fail with catastrophic consequences and, in the end, some of them are destroyed.
Reisner lays bare the human hubris required to think of all of this as perfectly normal and beautifully captures its essence in facing his title page with the poem "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
This book was first published in 1986 with a revised edition released in 1993. The value in this is that reading it now (in 2015) the reader can even more easily see the folly in trying to convert desert into farmland and supporting multiple thriving metropolises on very little water.