Search this site: 


Cadillac Desert:
The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Marc Reisner

New York: Penguin, 1993 [revised edition]. ISBN: 0-14-017824-4. Pp. 582, index, bibliography.

Review © 2005 Branislav L. Slantchev

A book of staggering research, prodigious evidence, and stunning erudition, Cadillac Desert is the definitive work on water politics in the American West from the environmentalist, anti-development perspective. While one may disagree with some of the more pessimistic conclusions, quibble about the racy ad hominem arguments that occasionally mar its otherwise even-handed historical approach, and even take issue with several of the fundamental premises that underpin the line of reasoning, Reisner's book delivers an indictment of government wastefulness, parasitic existence of powerful lobbies, and socially dysfunctional legislative activism that one must come to grips with.

a lot of emptiness amid a civilization whose success was achieved on the pretension that natural obstacles do not exist... Thanks to irrigation, thanks to the Bureau [of Reclamation]... states such as California, Arizona, and Idaho became populous and wealthy; millions settled in regions where nature, left alone, would have countenanced thousands at best... what has it all amounted to?... not all that much. Most of the West is still untrammeled, unirrigated, depopulate in the extreme... Westerners call what they have established out here a civilization, but it would be more accurate to call it a beachhead. And if history is any guide, the odds that we can sustain it would have to be regarded as low (pp. 1-3).

This is how Mr Reisner begins the book and this attitude sets the tone for the entire work. The West is semi-arid and a lot of it is a desert. There are rivers, sure, but they are erratic, with flows that cannot sustain such large masses of people as now live in Southern California, and to a smaller extent, in Arizona and parts of Idaho. Settlement of the landmass of the United States west of the 100th meridian is a history of struggle against the hostile elements, and in particular against the scarcity of water. Now, scarcity would have to be defined a bit more precisely for it's not quite right that there is no water there. In fact, there is plenty, both from rivers and aquifiers. But it's not nearly enough to support so many people and, more importantly, such extensive irrigation-based agriculture (80% of water goes to it in California, 87% in Arizona, close to that in Colorado and New Mexico, and nearly 100% in Kansas, Nevada, Nebraska, North and South Dakotas, and Idaho, p. 9). And so the history of the West is really the story of Americans attempting to force Nature to give them what it has not voluntarily done. In the span of less than a century, people would transform the landscape, build thousands of dams, divert rivers, and bring water that would turn deserts into semitropical landscapes, and would metamorphose dusty sleepy towns like L.A. into sprawling metropolises with economic power that can rival mid-sized nations.

Chapter 1 describes the early exploration of the West by white men: first the Spaniards in the 16th century, and then the Americans. The bulk is dedicated to the Powell 1869 expedition (although one would do better to read Mr Wallace's superb account of it in Beyond the Hundredth Meridian). He then talks about the Homestead Act of 1862 and all the people that "had a stake in retreating deserts" (p. 41). In Chapter 2, Mr Reisner traces what is perhaps the most famous water story of them all: the rapacious appetite of Los Angeles for the stuff, the imperialism of what used to be an insignificant hamlet, the skulduggery, manipulation and outright theft that has secured the water supply that would turn the city in what it is today. It makes for a stirring narrative: how LA stole the Owens River, how it led to the decline of Owens Valley, and so on. One cannot help but notice some inconsistencies in Mr Reisner's take on events though. For example, the aqueduct would have to traverse government-owned lands and so the city had to secure a right of way, which meant that the Reclamation project had to be deauthorized, which in turn meant that land would revert to the public domain and be open to homesteading. On p. 76, Mr Reisner writes "Homesteading in California was another name for graft; half of the great private empires were amassed by hiring 'homesteaders' to con the government out of its land." On p. 83, however, he laments that once the Reclamation Service annulled its project in 1907, "the hundreds of thousands of acres it had withdrawn were not returned to the public domain for homesteading, on Roosevelt's orders... its result was that a handful of rich members of the San Fernando syndicate could continue using the surplus water in the Owens River that thousands of homesteaders might have claimed instead." But if homestead is just graft, then why is this a problem? Not to mention that Mr Reisner offers absolutely no analysis whatsoever on the relative benefits of diversion of the Owens River: was it really better to leave the Valley alone and forego the expansion of LA?

Chapter 3 dives into the frenzied dam-building period of the post-Depression era that would lead to the construction of over 250,000 dams, of which several thousand are major works (104). It is here that the necessary role of the federal government becomes obvious, for many of these stupendous projects were beyond the means of private enterprise, or local, municipal, or even state governments (108-9). He traces the impact of the Reclamation Act of 1902 and the Service whose engineers "tended to view themselves as a godlike class performing hydrologic miracles for grateful simpletons who were content to sit in the desert and raise fruit" (114). Chapter 4 goes into detail on the "most fateful" man-made transformation, that of the Colorado River basin. Again we witness the stark contrast of the two opposing views: "To some conservationists, the Colorado River is the preeminent symbol of everything mankind has done wrong---a harbinger of a squalid and deserved fate. To its preeminent impounder, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, it is the perfection of an ideal" (121). The funky basin accounting practices and the plunge of the national government into public power production now produced the first obvious distortions because of subsidies for agriculture. Farmers who could not pay the real price of hydroelectricity would instead get it nearly for free and be able to grow water-hungry crops that some farmers in the east were paid not to grow (141)! This bizarre economic distortion would show up over and over again and must be regarded as among the most unfortunate consequences of government meddling. Still, sometimes bad economics makes for good politics, and so the entire West lined up behind the Colorado River Storage Project of 1956.

In Chapter 5, Mr Reisner tells of the "go-go years" of FDR's administration whose New Deal policies had as much to do with the Great Depression as its water-based implementation in the West had to do with the Dust Bowl. Even though the author speaks of the political motivation behind some of the projects---"by 1933... the Grand Coulee project would have been invented by Roosevelt if someone else hadn't thought of it first" (156)---and even though he is prone to the occasional mystical exaggeration---"it was colossal and magnificent---a purgative of national despair"---Mr Reisner cannot help but grudgingly acknowledge the vital, if unanticipated, role these projects played during the Second World War: how they enabled the U.S. to produce the all important aluminum in vast quantities and even have enough energy capacity to set aside for the development of the atomic bomb. Today we know that the Germans never lost the tactical superiority: the Allies won by essentially clobbering them with a really large hammer they built with their enormous resources. This makes these dams all the more important, and one would do well to remember that. But Mr Reisner ends the chapter on a dismal note yet again: "the whole business was like a pyramid scheme---the many (the taxpayers) were paying to enrich the few... this, as much as the economic folly and the environmental damage, was the legacy of the go-go years: the corruption of national politics. Water projects came to epitomize the pork barrel; they were the oil can that lubricated the nation's legislative machinery" (167-68). A very bleak view that mixes naive romanticism (as if without these water projects national government would not know of the pork barrel) with willful omission (glossing over the benefits qualifies as such).

Chapters 6 and 7 are dedicated to the exuberant skewering of the two agencies involved with building water projects, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation. Mr Reisner's most vehement disapproval is reserved for the former: "if a single entity could be blamed... because it schemed constantly against its would-be confederate, because it sized every opportunity to build any senseless project it could" (171), it would be the Corps. The author goes on in some detail about the Corps' "obsession with humbling the wild Missouri River" that apparently derived "mainly from the fact that Colonel Pick was mad at it" (185), and if that passes for analysis, Freud must be in heaven. However, the disgraceful treatment of the Indian tribes who stood in the way of these developments deserves to be told (190). Unfortunately, in the chapter about the Bureau, Mr Reisner lapses yet again into an ad hominem argument and dedicates most of it to bashing the flamboyant Chief Dominy (240) and a somewhat curious diversion discussing his sexual appetites.

Chapter 8 takes us back to dams, this time in Arizona, especially the various attempts to turn the Grand Canyon into a series of reservoirs. There are some funny stories (like the military expedition of the 158th Infantry Regiment of the Arizona National Guard that was dispatched to thwart yet another Californian attempt to steal water from the Colorado, 258-9), and some inspiring ones as well (like the Sierra Club victory against the seven basin states' attempt to dam the Grand Canyon, 285). There is some discussion of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and its horrible economics and worse politics: the farmers had it right when they thought that Congress would not simply let them go under, but, in a bitter irony, some Indian tribes found themselves in position to dictate terms because of guaranteed water-rights (302).

Chapter 9 deals with the Carter presidency which marked the first (and mostly unsuccessful) attempt to break the Western influence in politics and stop at least some of the worst offenders among the water projects. Carter, the eternal micromanager, the person habitually incapable of delegating authority in any consistent manner, and the president who never seems to have learned how to work with Congress, came up with a "hit list" of projects that would be defunded. This, predictably, created an uproar that he should have been prepared to deal with. Instead, Carter behaved like a political yo-yo threatening vetoes and then signing legislation anyway (320), with the end result that many of his allies abandoned him in disgust and nobody believed him the next time he decided to make a stand. [This is the sort of naivete he exhibited in foreign policy too, so it's not surprising that he had no chances for a second term.]

No book on the West could be complete without some more material about California, and so Chapter 10 is all about the dirty water politics in this phenomenal state. As Mr Reisner writes,

The whole state thrives, even survives, by moving water from where it is, and presumably isn't needed, to where it isn't, and presumably is needed. No other state has done as much to fructify its deserts, make over its flora and fauna, and rearrange the hydrology God gave it. No other place has put as many people where they probably have no business being. There is no place like it anywhere on earth. Thirty-one million people (more than the population of Canada), an economy richer than all but seven nations' in the world, one third of the table food grown in the United States---and none of it remotely conceivable within the preexisting natural order (333).

One must forgive me if I read this with admiration rather than the creeping doomsday feel that Mr Reisner intends me to have. Despite all the political machinations, all the lies, and all the manipulation of voters (who are often just as shortsighted as the farmers), one cannot help but wonder at what California has achieved. I have lived in four states now, three of which (Texas, Utah, and California) are mostly reclaimed from nature and made habitable only with much pain and labor. I have seen some of the works first hand, but, perhaps more importantly, I have tasted the results. Mr Reisner is deluding himself if he believes that people will simply give up and go away. He derides the Edmonston report for projecting that "urban communities will always be able and willing to pay the cost of water to meet their municipal needs." Mr Reisner calls this preposterous, "like saying that, because of population pressure, were were bound to settle Mars" (346-7), but I don't quite see the parallel. It's like saying that if we could afford to settle Mars we never would. And we can bring water to the West, at great expense of course, but it can be done. And if it is done in an economically-sound way, then people would conserve and wasteful agriculture would move. The one thing that I loved about this chapter was the description of the California Aqueduct (355-7) with which California "seems determined to prove that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a lie."

In Chapter 11, Mr Reisner turns to scare tactics. After solemnly warning us that "when archaeologists from some other planet sift through the bleached bones of our civilization, they may well conclude that our temples were dams. Intolerably massive, constructed with exquisite care, our dams will outlast anything else we have built" (104), the author now uses the rare instance of dam collapse to paint a horrible picture of what happens when these structures crumble. The Teton's collapse that killed 11 people was hardly the tragedy he makes it out to be (383-8, 409). And for all the sinister overtones of the narrative about the attempt to build the Narrows Dam on the South Platte in Colorado, one must not lose sight of the fact it was never built! For once the system worked despite politics, and although one should not rest comfortably that it paved the way to a brave new world, one should also refrain from falling into the relentless gloom of the book.

Chapter 12 is an interesting, if somewhat odd, entry. Mr Reisner spends some time on the overconsumption of the huge Ogallala Aquifier for irrigation, and the demise of Texan plans to import water from Louisiana (I can't pass the felicitous turn of phrase here: "Arkansas and Louisiana began to talk of their water as if it were their daughters' chastity" 449). The crucial part, however, comes next when he talks about salinization of the soil as a result of intensive irrigation in unsuitable terrain (458-9). Since irrigation "seems inextricably linked" to the ascendance of every ancient civilization, the consequences of rising salinity levels due to this "profoundly unnatural act" must also be linked to their demise. In what has to be the most troubling part of the story, Mr Reisner then lets us onto how much salt has been accumulating in the soil in the West: if there's anything that can really threaten life there, then this must be it, as the deserts of Iraq mutely testify on the forever past glories of Mesopotamian civilizations.

The Epilogue is mostly dedicated to deriding the notion of importing water from Canada, although why Mr Reisner thinks this is such a bad idea is beyond me. The afterword to the revised edition is about the gruesome fate of salmon in California.

The irony in the story of settlement of the West cannot be missed: red-blooded American farmers who would probably swear to the capitalist creed and vote Republican en masse somehow manage to reconcile hatred of the federal government with ungrateful reception of enormous doses of taxpayer largesse. This weird phenomenon of government-assisted self-reliance is not limited to the agricultural lobby, of course---one can see a lot of it in the debates on the Alaskan "bridge to nowhere" these days. While one may be turbo-charged by the iniquity of large farming corporations competing unfairly, wastefully, and rather inefficiently because of these government subsidies, the same arguments would apply to the smaller farmers. Still, one cannot help but wonder if the agricultural lobby's clout would have been so pervasive if the small agrarian Jeffersonian ideal had persisted.

At any rate, the extent of inefficiency in that sector boggles the mind and one need not be an economist to appreciate the market distortion caused by all this politically-motivated meddling and government welfare. Growing alfalfa on subsidized water to feed cows that are much more cheaply raised in the east is about as apt an illustration of the problem as one can get. Whereas I follow Mr Reisner in this scathing critique of the misuse of water in the West, I think we shall part ways over the proposed solutions.

It seems to me that Mr Reisner has in mind some "return to nature" type of romantic nonsense that utterly ignores reality. If one is to read the book carefully, the implicit message is quite simple really: the arid West is not a place where people should live. Nature has not provided enough water to sustain the type of life we would want, and so communities can only be propped by artificial means whose environmental impact is horrifying. But the conclusion simply does not follow from the premises for the evidence in the book points to misallocation of resources due to largely political reasons. In fact, the most powerful stuff comes from all the instances of sheer economic and social idiocy that has been routinely perpetrated by Congress. In other words, the problem is that water rights have been allocated in a way that is detrimental to our interests.

Now, this is a message that perhaps few environmentalists would like because what I am suggesting here is that the problem is not with people venturing into places where they are not supposed to be but that the legislative acts governing water rights are inappropriate. The problem is not that man makes war upon nature but that the existing property rights encourage overconsumption (depletion of the commons is to be expected when pumping is unregulated), inefficiency (why worry about conservation and appropriate crops when the government will give me an advantage by selling me water at a fraction of its cost), and the resulting mass government intrusion invariably leads to amazingly bad decisions (building monstrous projects with absolutely no economic worth).

All of this suggests an obvious solution: better property rights for water along with a market-based approach to their management. This would ensure the more rational consumption of this resource and would simultaneously wean people from government welfare. Obviously, the federal government would have to play some role in all of this in addition to regulating these markets: some projects are simply beyond the means of local communities, wealthy cities, states, or even groups of states to build. But it will not be the seemingly unlimited source of taxpayer money and pork-laden zeal that has caused such mutilation to our environment and that has encouraged the growth of the very lobby that has then turned around to hold its benefactor hostage.

For all its breathtaking scope (and despite the occasional lapse due to uncritical use of available material), the book in the end suffers from its strong radical environmentalist bend. One must agree with Mr Reisner in his searing account of awful water politics in the West, one has to bow to the convincing argument that it has resulted in racial iniquities (scarcely compensated dislocation of Native Americans, for example), ill-advised boosterism (explosive growth of L.A. and San Diego, for example), environmental degradation (not just the salmon problems), economic oddities (Imperial and Central Valleys come to mind), and a seeming perpetuum mobile of taxpayer money transferred into deep corporate wallets that then open to buy political influence that will repay in more taxpayer money. But then we get to this:

Were it not for a century and a half of messianic effort toward [manipulation of water], the West as we know it would not exist... Confronted by the desert, the first thing Americans want to do is change it. People say that they "love" the desert, but few of them love it enough to live there... Most people "love" the desert by driving through it in air-conditioned cars, "experiencing" its grandeur. That may be some kind of experience, but it is living in a fool's paradise. To really experience the desert you have to march right into its white bowl of sky and shape-contorting heat with your mind on your canteen as if it were your last gallon of gas and you were being chased by a carload of escaped murderers... One does not really conquer a place like this. One inhabits it like an occupying army and makes, at best, an uneasy truce with it (pp. 3-4)

Powerful imagery indeed but not a convincing argument for someone who does not hold an almost mystical reverence for "Nature" as if it were a being who humans must somehow contrive to reason with. All our history shows that we have struggled to exist in a world that does not give a hoot if we live or die one way or the other. Species have come and gone because they had made their peace with Nature and eventually found themselves at its tender mercies. We are different from other animals precisely because we have managed to adapt by transforming our environment rather than hoping that the erratic, unpredictable, and slow process of natural selection will keep us on top of the food chain. I don't believe in returning to a natural "paradise" that has never existed. I don't believe that letting Nature takes its course is the proper way for us to live. I do believe that we can make better use of the resources we have, and I do believe in preserving the aesthetic appeal of the wilderness, as I do believe in not exterminating other species unless absolutely necessary. In other words, I agree with Mr Reisner that we have done a poor job in the West and that things could be made better in the future. But it will be a future where people rule the Western deserts, not vice versa.

November 25, 2005