This 1986 tour de force examines water and dams in the mostly arid Western US. Topics addressed in detail include, but are not limited to, the Army Corp of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, California Aqueduct, California Water Wars, Central Arizona Project, Colorado River, Grand Coulee Dam, Glen Canyon Dam, Hoover Dam, John Wesley Powell, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Mono Lake, Ogallala Aquifer, Owens Valley, Teton Dam, and William Mulholland.
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.