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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

4.24  ·  Rating Details ·  6,399 Ratings  ·  518 Reviews
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 corruption 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 ruthl ...more
Paperback, Revised Edition, 608 pages
Published June 1st 1993 by Penguin (first published 1986)
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Ray Lynn Absolutely. I read this some time ago and thought it was very informative of California's future. I also read "The King Of California" by J.G.Boswell.…moreAbsolutely. I read this some time ago and thought it was very informative of California's future. I also read "The King Of California" by J.G.Boswell. It was on the same subject and was a great read.
Ray Lynn(less)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Mar 22, 2014 Jon-Erik rated it really liked it
Shelves: water
Why not a fifth star?

"I don't know. That doesn't make sense to me."
—Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), on whether New Orleans should be rebuilt in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Sept. 2, 2005

Because as important and well written as this book is, it is pervaded by a few theoretical flaws in its rhetorical portion. The factual reporting and research are impeccable and at this point, this book is famous in its own right and it deserves that. But:

(1) The Naturalistic Fallacy. If humans do not belong in
Some required retroactive expectation management: Marc Reisner was a journalist, writing for a general audience. Much like Charles Mann and Pollan and other pop-non-fiction writers from the journalistic world, he was less concerned with thorough documentation than he was with persuasion and exposition (even though few things are more persuasive than accurate documentation and logical analysis). With that in mind, I should not have been so utterly enraged by the nearly complete absence of direct ...more
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 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, bu
May 13, 2008 Billy added it
Shelves: boy-interrupted
...just a chapter or two in, i already predict this will be one of the more important books i read this decade
That was a slow read. Very pretty. And the author was very fond of obscure words. Obscure words that I refuse to look up, and I don't think I would have even with an electronic copy. I read this book due to its reference in The Water Knife. It seemed like an awful lot that happened in that fictional book also happened in real world California. I'm not sure I buy this book's title. This book was pretty darn informative but mostly it talked about people acting in their short-term selfish self-inte ...more
Aug 25, 2014 Clint rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
if this doesn't make you want to take Los Angeles and associated farmland and dump it in the ocean - nothing will.

Great history of water development in the west.
Feb 02, 2014 Charlotte rated it really liked it
This was a really, really interesting book. I picked it up, without knowing much about it, because I knew it had been influential in the American environmentalist movement. The focus is on water development, especially dam building, and particularly on water development in the American West and Midwest. It looks at how water policy has effected, over time, an upward redistribution of wealth and power from small family farms to wealthy and corporate farming operations, and at the environmental im ...more
I became interested in reading this book after hearing it referenced in The Water Knife. Parts of it are dry legislative history, but the whole tapestry of how the American West became what it is today is tangled up in the fact that there has never really been enough rainfall west of the 100th meridian, so everything has hinged on dam-building, water rights, and the Bureau of Reclamation (before reading this, I couldn't have even told you what that organization does). So many of the water projec ...more
Jan 17, 2016 Dan rated it really liked it
Shelves: sf-mn-book-club
An amazing book that was too long.

The best synopsis I came upon was on page 484: "illegal subsidies enrich big farmers, whose excess production depresses crop prices nationwide and whose waste of cheap water creates an environmental calamity that could cost billions to solve." He goes into copious detail in the 500 pages. The political system (congress, Bureau of Reclamation, and Army Corp of Engineers) become a vicious cycle that dam and divert rivers as much as they can, whether it makes sense
Richard Reese
Mar 25, 2015 Richard Reese rated it it was amazing
Marc Reisner’s classic, Cadillac Desert, takes us for a walk on the wet side, revealing far more than you ever wanted to know about dams, flood control, irrigation, and municipal water systems — and the serious long-term drawbacks that came along with building thousands of water projects in the frenzied pursuit of short-term wealth and power. It’s a brilliant, funny, and annoying expose of government corruption. It’s an ecological horror story. It’s a collection of powerful lessons for our socie ...more
Aug 24, 2016 Dave rated it really liked it
Fascinating, snarky, and surprisingly readable story of the machinations behind the western states and their use of water. This is in fact a bit less about the disappearing water and more about the misuse and redirection of the little water that's there. From his pro-logic stance, Reisner tells the story of logic constantly being thwarted or ignored by political maneuverings, particularly by the Bureau of Reclamation, whose efforts to provide water to starving farmers instead benefited politicia ...more
Matthew Ciarvella
Dec 14, 2015 Matthew Ciarvella rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2015
I picked up this book after seeing it mentioned in Paolo Bacigalupi's nove "the Water Knife." Having recently moved from Arizona, where I'd lived most of my life, the topic of water in the desert is one that's ever on my mind. I know from personal experience on a backpacking trip gone awry how much water matters when you're in the desert and once you've had an experience like that, the idea of going without water remains a constant background fear.

Cadillac Desert is an amazing book to me simply
May 12, 2016 Justin rated it really liked it
4.5 stars. Epic...
Nov 28, 2015 Tim rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, enviro
As California sweats through a fourth year of drought I thought it might be a good time to read this history of water development in the American West. Although it is often hailed as an environmental classic, Cadillac Desert can also read as a jeremiad against big government. While Reisner does spend some time on the environmental consequences of America's century of dam building and large-scale crop irrigation, what really gets his blood pumping is the corruption and fiscal stupidity of it all. ...more
The message comes through loud and clear. One should not live west of the 100th meridian in the American West. As a result of ten years of research and analysis, Mark Reisner , an environmentalist from Minneapolis, writes about the on-going drought that greeted early settlers there. He details the extreme measures taken by the government and opportune business men to deal with the lack of water in areas where people likely should not have settled in the first place. Los Angeles, the 2nd largest ...more
Max Potthoff
Feb 02, 2014 Max Potthoff rated it it was amazing
Wonderfully engaging overview of the history of water development in the west. If you live west of the Mississippi, drink water, and/or buy food that is produced there, this should be mandatory reading. Reisner is incredibly funny, and pieces together a compelling history of the bloated egos and budgets that led to some of the most short-sighted public projects in the history of the world. It is a tale of hubris, of culture, of the misguided spirit of expansion that made this country "great." It ...more
Jul 17, 2012 Elderberrywine rated it it was amazing
An very readable and immensely detailed history of water projects and dams in the western US. I'm the sixth owner of this well-used paperback (based on the various notes and underlinings and the pile of bar code stickers on the back - a shout-out for the University of Idaho!), but it honestly should be required reading for all residents of this region. From monstrous dams (and a few monstrous dam blow-outs - one just a mile further up the canyon from where I live) to the earliest irrigation proj ...more
May 17, 2008 Heather rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction-misc
this book is a stunning chronicle of the damming of america's rivers, mainly in the west. i felt that i had to wade through far too much detail about the people (politicians, newsmen, townfolk, MORMONS...), and their motives, the paradigms of the old west that contributed, the bills, and the agencies (bureau of reclamation, army corps of engineers...) responsible for these horrors. BUT it was worth it in the end to see the big picture. unfortunately at this point it seems that there is no turnin ...more
Apr 20, 2011 Penni rated it really liked it
This book was dense and hard to keep straight at times (so many people, so many locations), but it is a fantastic history of our country from the point of view of our most precious resource. I do get the feeling it is a bit biased, as the book rails against the Bureau of Reclamation (unendingly), the Army Corps of Engineers, big/factory farms, and many politicians. I couldn't help but agree with everything he said. Government agencies that are only motivated by continuing to create work for them ...more
May 22, 2009 Thomas rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Why would anyone read a 500 page book about irrigation and dam building? If you are curious why Los Angeles has a population of 10 million, and why California has one of the richest economies in the world, this book has the answers. What began as an attempt to deliver water to poor, struggling farmers, became a nearly unstoppable machine that made wealthy men richer, concentrated political power in the hands of a few, and made a mockery of the notion that our country is based on a free-market ec ...more
Apr 22, 2011 Matthew rated it it was ok
Shelves: gave-up
No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't keep with this book.

The first part of the book discusses the manner in which officials from Los Angeles hijack the water from the Owens Valley in order to line the pockets of several businessmen, while ostensibly securing water for the future of Los Angeles. It is a compelling story, but early on, you get the sense that Marc Reisner is writing with a pretty irritated tone.

That tone persists as Reisner details a series of dam constructions in each sub
Jun 16, 2011 Camille rated it it was amazing
This book is a phenomenal review of California's enormous water infrastructure projects, its battles with neighboring Western and Southwestern States, and the pursuit of greed, industry, and profit. Marc Reisner, a journalist and masterful storyteller, took on years of first person interviews and old-fashioned archival digging to chart the irrigation and development of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas, as well as the role this water development played vis-a-vis preexisting and marginal comm ...more
LeeAnn Heringer
It's easy to grow up in the West, in California, and not know where your food comes from, where your electricity, where your water comes from. It's easy to believe that all the huge water projects, the dams, the aqueducts, are for the big desert cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, that the places in need of power and water and multi-billion dollar federal projects are the urban dwellers, and you would be completely wrong. This book is still as fascinating, hard-hitting, and prone to make you ye ...more
Apr 01, 2007 Amos rated it liked it
Sweeping saga of the history of the water wars in the American southwest. Details the incredible corruption that led to the birth of Los Angeles and its surrounding counties -- a series of lush irrigated oases where Mother Nature intended to be a barren desert. He writes the book to foreshadow the end of empire, not as a warning so much as a blunt statement of fact. Along the way he catalogues all the vices and ill deeds that have been committed in our quest for water.

There is literally nothing
Jun 01, 2013 Christopher rated it really liked it
"The Dams created jobs, made unions happy, enriched engineering and contracting firms, they subsidized the irrigation farmers and made them happy, gave free flood protection to real estate developers and made them happy, the politicians were re-elected and that made them happy. No one lost except the nation at large."

We created huge structures that helped us win World War II, and the suffocating effect of the accumulating silt behind all these dams will eventually bring destruction to the whole
Steven Peterson
Jan 05, 2011 Steven Peterson rated it liked it
An interesting work. Water in the American Southwest is a key issue. The land itself is pretty arid and water is at a premium. Simply, there is not enough water for the many competing demands--from native Americans to water promised Mexico to water in the American West. This work chronicles the struggles for various regions to get the water that they need. It is not always a pretty story (Los Anegeles' thirst for water and some of the tactics used is, at least, unsavory). Sometimes, I think that ...more
Robert Kelly
Mar 24, 2016 Robert Kelly rated it really liked it
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 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 in ...more
Tod Dimmick
Feb 15, 2016 Tod Dimmick rated it really liked it
I took a rare cross-genre leap to this (nonfiction) book because multiple -and fictional- characters in another book (The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi) owned this book. After multiple cameo appearances, I was curious.

Cadillac Desert tells the vivid, compelling, and complicated story of the role of water, and its lack, in the western United States. Despite the grand scale, the detail is granular. Reisner's superlative prose and acerbic wit kept me going, dispiriting and enraging as I found ma
Bill O'driscoll
Feb 14, 2016 Bill O'driscoll rated it it was amazing
A magisterial and almost certainly the definitive book about how water is used and, mostly, misused in the American West. Working at a level of detail that;s nearly incredible (and at times nearly overwhelming), Reisner traces how rivers like the Colorado have been exploited since Euroamericans first set foot in the area. Mostly, it's a story of dams, and hence a story of the federal government, which Reisner convincingly argues has in this matter seldom done anything good, or for the right reas ...more
Jun 24, 2015 T.R. rated it liked it
I've been wanting to read this year for years, but the drought finally forced my hand. The first half of the book of the book is a bit tedious as the Bureau of Reclamation just moves from one river basin to the next building dams that no one bothers to really justify. Classic example is this: dam a river for a few wealthy landowners and your contractor friends, thus flooding out the small farmers or Native Americans in the river valley for the reservoir. Then irrigate the high altitude, poor qua ...more
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Cadillac Desert 1 21 Jan 27, 2012 05:41PM  
  • Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West
  • The Secret Knowledge of Water
  • Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West
  • Encounters with the Archdruid
  • Wilderness and the American Mind
  • The Land of Little Rain
  • Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
  • Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future
  • The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire
  • The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River
  • A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest
  • Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization
  • The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
  • The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West
  • A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia
  • When the Rivers Run Dry: Water--The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century
  • Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature
  • Bad Land: An American Romance

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“In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money. And it literally does, as it leaps three thousand feet across the Tehachapi Mountains in gigantic siphons to slake the thirst of Los Angeles, as it is shoved a thousand feet out of Colorado River canyons to water Phoenix and Palm Springs and the irrigated lands around them.” 1 likes
“Homesteads fronting on streams went like oranges aboard a scurvy-ridden ship.” 0 likes
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