Cadillac desert : the American West and its disappearing water

by Marc Reisner

Paperback, 1993




London : Pimlico, 2001, c1993.


The story of the American West is the story of a relentless quest for a precious resource: water. It is a tale of rivers diverted and dammed, of political corruptions and intrigue, of billion-dollar battles over water rights, of ecologic and economic disaster. In Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner writes of the earliest settlers, lured by the promise of paradise, and of the ruthless tactics employed by Los Angeles politicians and business interests to ensure the city's growth. He documents the bitter rivalry between two government giants, the Bureau of Reclamation and the US Army Corps of Engineers, in the competition to transform the West. Based on more than a decade of research, Cadillac Desert is a stunning expos� and a dramatic, intriguing history of the creation of Eden-an Eden that may be only a mirage.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Paulagraph
A year later, I've given CD a second read and must, finally, award it the 5th star (for whatever that's worth) that it so deserves. One of the most scathing, witty and instructive books of political /environmental/economic journalism that I've ever had the pleasure (and horror) to read. I do so
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wish Reisner was still around to bring us up to date on this most vital and fascinating subject. (Afterward to revised 1992 edition is as close to contemporary as CD gets).

Brilliant enough for 5 stars, but it caused me a bit of reader fatigue due to its relentless comprehensiveness. Impeccably researched, Cadillac Desert meets the highest standards of investigative reportage. Which is not to say that Reisner is absolutely objective (always an illusive goal at best) nor sober in his approach. At times, his tone borders on the sarcastic (as if he were saying, you are not going to believe exactly how incredibly stupid this idea was). His account is apolitical in the sense that he depicts Democrats and Republicans, both on the state and national levels, as bipartisan in their promotion and funding of the most suspect (environmentally, socially, economically)dams and water projects, going back at least as far as the New Deal. Reisner takes a close and critical look at the very notion of irrigation farming in a desert, its costs, benefits and long term consequences (depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer; deadly salinity levels of land and water, the making of “wild river” an oxymoron, etc.). An apt secondary subtitle for the book might be “Water flows uphill toward political power and money.” An entirely concrete example of this aphorism would be the California Aqueduct, particularly that section which carries water over the Tehachapis to L.A: “The water is carried across the Tehachapis in five separate stages. The final cyclopean one, which occurs at the A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant, raises the water 1926 feet—the Eiffel Tower atop the Empire State—in a single lift . . . . At their peak capacity, if it is ever reached, the Edmonston pumps will require six billion kilowatts of electricity every year . . . . Moving water in California requires more electrical energy than is used by several states.”
First published in 1986 and subsequently revised in 1993, Cadillac Desert, if less prophetic now than it was 20-25 years ago, remains relevant and instructive. And if you ever thought there might be a silver-lining to pork-barrel politics, it’s a must read. In light of the recent financial system “bail-out,” and with many touting “infrastructure” projects as a solution to our current high unemployment and economic malaise, reviewing the history of perhaps the greatest public works program ever anywhere will give you pause. Dams and water projects (California’s Central Valley Project and the Central Arizona Project are just two examples) can have both intended and unintended consequences that make them less than great ideas. Engineers and “experts” (Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, Water Commissioners, Resource Specialists, etc.) can be as greedy, short-sighted, and blinded by belief in their own expertise and desire for power as anyone else.
Reisner’s description of the proposed Narrows Dam on the Lower South Platte River in Colorado (thankfully, a project that was subsequently abandoned, though it was all too typical of projects that have been built) makes for a good summary:
“Here was a dam that the state engineer said would deliver only a third of the water it promised and could conceivably collapse; a project whose official cost estimate . . . would barely suffice to relocate twenty-six miles of railroad track; a project whose real cost, whatever it turned out to be, would therefore be written off, in substantial measure, to ‘recreation,’ though the water would be unsafe to touch; a project whose prevailing interest rate was one-fifth the rates banks were charging in the late 1970s; a project many of whose beneficiaries owned more land than the law permitted in order to receive subsidized water; a project that might, if the state engineer was correct, seep enough water to turn the town of Fort Morgan into a marsh; a project that would pile more debt onto the Bureau’s Missouri Basin Project; a project that would generate not a single kilowatt of hydroelectric power and would be all but worthless for flood control.”
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LibraryThing member rakerman
Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner is a detailed account of dam construction and water projects in the American West, starting with the explorations of John Wesley Powell in the late 1860s up through to the situation in the early 1990s. It is really incredible that in the short span of time since the
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late 1800s, almost all of the settlement of the desert West has taken place, along with huge associated water projects. From end to end it reads as a chronicle of incredible folly. In the service of greed and a mania for monumental construction, almost unimaginably vast alterations have been made to the natural environment, with giant dams, water pumped over and through mountains, canals across deserts, good land flooded, bad land irrigated, it's an incredible catalog of man versus nature.

I can't even begin to summarize the scope of a 500-page, indepth work like this in a few paragraphs. I can say that if you have an interest in environmental issues or history you should find this interesting. I could sometimes only manage a chapter at a time as the monumental avarice, deceit, and indifference to the environment that was described, with billions of dollars in government money used to subsidize, amongst other things, poor crops growing in a desert to the benefit of giant corporations, well let's just say if my blood could boil steam would have been coming out of my ears.
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LibraryThing member kday_working
When you finish reading this book, go watch "Chinatown" starring Jack Nicholson.... The book provides the history that illuminates the water wars in southern California, the backdrop to that famous film.
LibraryThing member hmib
The frightening thing about this book is that it was written 20 years ago! We will NEVER learn!!??
LibraryThing member eduscapes
The winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, this is a history of the struggle to discover and control water in the American West. It is the tale of rivers diverted and damned, political corruption and intrigue, billion-dollar battles over water rights, and economic and ecological
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disaster. (lj)
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LibraryThing member tintinintibet
I remember being frustrated with what felt like a disorganized, non-chronological set of chapters, with some material repeated. Since it reads more like history/social science, I think it ought to be more structured than loose. This isn't Edward Abbey, though the author seems to try to be as
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creative with his storytelling as you might find in fiction.
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LibraryThing member Devil_llama
A classic work on water problems in the American west. It seems a bit daunting by its size, but the writing moves along smoothly, and it really isn't difficult to read...only to carry on in the small size bags they allow on airplanes.
LibraryThing member dele2451
A colossal work of investigative journalism focused on the complex and controversial use of the American West's critical water resources. Many humans live and die by the man-made dams in our regions, vacation on the reservoirs they create, and every taxpayer devotes a sizeable chunk of change to
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their construction, repair, and management, but I dare say that comparatively few of us today give them much thought. Reisner's detailed research would convince just about anyone that we can no longer afford to neglect this important topic and that we must start making plans now to deal with the possible structural compromises and potentially severe shortages (and their associated costs) looming in the not-so-distant future. If you're looking for entertainment, this is not the book, but if you want to understand where your water (plus your food and electricity) are coming from--or where they're going--this book has a lot of the answers. Id' consider this a must-read for civil engineers, water/land/wetland/fishery managers, those in agribusiness, conservationists and environmentalists, plus city and water planners as well as ALL California citizens.
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LibraryThing member Erwind
The classic study of the politics behind water in the western US. An incredible work of journalism, history and commentary, that occasionally leaves the reader seething at the cupidity of the Bureau of Reclamation, politicians, agricultural interests -- and us for putting up with them for so long.
LibraryThing member Smiley
This well documented, highly readable account of Western water development will give you a belly ache from both disgust and laughter, but you can't be the same after reading it. Should be required reading in high school. Reisner hedges a bit in the new forward to the latest edition.
LibraryThing member br77rino
A little preliminary pq I'm not even halfway done, but this is a great, well-researched history of the water wars that were touched on in the Jack Nicholson movie "Chinatown." Fascinating stuff about the Owens Valley, Mulholland, Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley fraud that was at its birth, etc.
LibraryThing member rmkelly
There are three reasons I liked this book. One, I learned a lot about water policy in the US. Two, as an aspiring writer, I learned more about how long-form scholarship works and how it can be brought to a successful conclusion. Third, when Reisner brought in the big picture (I mean cosmic time and
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space, as when he compares the irrigation methods of 19th century Californians to those of the farmers of the barely historic era of the Fertile Crescent) I learned more about how the natural world intersects with the manmade.

On the third point, although Reisner never says so, there's a theological foundation to his work in that the natural law is taken as the starting and the ending for what works about feeding those on this planet in the ultimate sense of working—sustainability—which is arguably the only sense that matters. This is to say that short-term, utilitarian goals, even common sense political goals generated and justified by positive law, should not be the only consideration in long-term decision making. When we allow a self-serving efficiency and a headstrong rationality to become our be-all and end-all, and when engineering is enshrined above all else, we should not be surprised at the rich harvest of head-scratching folly, moral failings, and paradox cataloged so nicely in "Cadillac Desert."

Reiner's signal achievement is that he took the indignant spark of anger that he no doubt developed working for the Natural Resources Defense Council in the six years or so prior to the publication of the book and banked it into a righteous flame that sustained him during the incredible amount of work necessary for laying the foundation of his argument.

At the hands of a more emotional man the narrative might easily have tottered and collapsed into a foaming-at-the-mouth string of expletives, half-reasoned arguments, and non-sequiters. However, like a mighty arch-gravity dam, he was able to hold it all together. He found a way to bide his time, no doubt through clenched teeth, until he was able to marshal all the facts into a logical, though still stinging, rebuke. For once, the adjective "magisterial" to describe a writer's command of his material does not seem out of place.

The Weather Channel would have loved this man's gift for metaphor. His stragegy of varying his style also worked well. There were long stretches of descriptive writing, as in his sketch of the skirt-chasing Floyd Dominy, and in the passages where he helps us understand how soil, seed, water, wind, and weather patterns work together. But, there were also long stretches of exposition in which he gave his full attention to what might be called the infrastructure of the water industry: the policies, constituencies, results, challenges. The dozens and dozens of individuals, agencies, dams, projects, reports, and incidents, the particularity of all these things, matters enormously, because all were needed, and all 600 pages were needed, in order to make the case.

It is to his credit that even this mind-numbing aspect of the story was accessible, and even interesting. He proved again that an occasional emphasis such as italicizing critical parts of a sentence is no crime in non-fiction writing. On the contrary, italics and the occasional prod of an exclamation point are blessings for tiring readers who need their brains to be goosed back into full consciousness.

By the time a revised edition was put out in 1993 with an epilogue attached, Reisner's ardor had cooled. Though his re-cap is interesting in its own way, it had none of the through line and righteous wrath of the original narrative of 1986, and therefore came as a bit of a letdown.

I gave the book only four stars because although the content was exemplary, there were at least a dozen to a dozen and a half typos in the text. Penguin/Viking, really? This is a modern classic which went through 37 reprints, according to WorldCat. Granted, the Worldcat information is often inaccurate, but it's clear that Penguin, Viking, and a few other publishing houses in the UK made big money on the book. And yet none of them could be bothered to proof it for the countless re-issues, not even for the big one in 1993 or so? How lazy.
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LibraryThing member amerynth
It's funny that a book all about water could be so dry. Marc Reisner has written a tome on water rights in the American West with his book "Cadillac Desert: The American West and its disappearing water" that is overly long. Reisner somehow made John Wesley Powell seem boring, which is absolutely
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crazy because I love a good Powell story.

Reisner actually has some great information packed into this book, but he tends to explore every little detail of every single situation... after a while I ended up just skimming most of the book. I probably would have enjoyed reading an edited, more streamlined version of this book.
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LibraryThing member jonerthon
What this actually is is a chronicle of the history of the Bureau of Reclamation, and the constant flouting of federal rules that its leaders allowed in the name of advantaging certain large landowners. I know, that sounds extremely specific and dull, but it is an important lens for understanding
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the American West in the 20th century. Unfortunately it is a little dated by now (and the author died almost 20 years ago!) but some of it is coming around to timely again, like the federal proposal to move (the somewhat allied federal agency) BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, CO.
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LibraryThing member Steve_Walker
A recent op-ed piece, by a NASA scientist, stated that California has only enough water to sustain the population for one year. In the mean time the drought goes on. In order to understand what led to the problem of water in the west, read this book. It is an eye-opener.
LibraryThing member LGCullens
Greed and ignorance — the beat goes on.
LibraryThing member dcunning11235
This is a really amazing book. Here is a history of water management and mismanagement, in sometimes minute detail, that reads like a great novel. 500 pages of dams, reservoirs, and irrigation ditches that ends up being more eye-opening, more interesting, and more a page-turner than it has any
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right to be --more than it seems it could possibly be.

5 stars, 6 if I was able.
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LibraryThing member sarcher
The finest non-fiction book I have read.



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