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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

4.23 of 5 stars 4.23  ·  rating details  ·  5,335 ratings  ·  428 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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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
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
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
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
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
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.
Richard Reese
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
Max Potthoff
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Will Kelton
This is the only book you need to read about dams. If that doesn't sound exciting, it should. Because the author here explores some inflammatory topics, and he does it well. More or less this is the saga of the war over water in the american west from c. 1900 up to when the book was finished. Reisner is an expert on the subject of water and the fight over it between government interests, private developers etc. and seems to have the inside line on people like the head of the Bureau of Reclamatio ...more
Read this book and you'll never think of water in the same way again.

After recently reading Judith Nies' "Unreal City" I went to the library and checked out the late Marc Reisner's "Cadillac Desert" for a reread. Although it was published in 1987, it has not lost any of it's relevance. If anything, it has gained even more.

This well-written tome of non-fiction should be required reading for all of us, Westerners in particular. It is a richly detailed and impeccably researched history of America's
I read the book called, “Cadillac Desert” by Marc Reisner. I felt like this book was a great book, for it tells the history of Western United States and how we managed to inhabit it like it is today. Marc mostly explains how the main problem for western settlers was the source of water and where to find it in the west. For out west the climate is mostly arid hot climate inside a desert or sub-desert biome, that made farming impossible without a irrigation system of some sort. Overall I thought M ...more
Ted Haussman

I really didn't like this book for the first 200 pages. Reisner's commentary is biting and became for me annoyingly so. I initially viewed the book as a doomsday one, like some of the ones from the arly to to mid-2000s which proclaimed that our demise was imminent as oil was running out. Such was the case with water in the desert, or so that seemed to be Reisner's initial thesis.

But I found I liked the book more and more as I proceeded. He savages the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of
Linda I
Fabulous overview of the development of the water parched west. Complete with a great historical preview, larger-than-life egos, political agendas, miscommunication, and environmental decimation and alteration. Obviously, Reisner has his own agenda with the way information is portrayed, but it's nevertheless a captivating and thought-provoking issue.
Incredibly readable and informative, if missing the last 15 years. Slightly repetitive at points because of the way the information is delivered, but never in an annoying manner - each chapter is simply self-contained. Excellent reading for anyone interested in large scale thinking of populations and economics and food.
An amazing book, an environmental classic (I cannot believe I had not read it earlier. The story of the West, Siuwest, water, dams, and what greed has done to them. Very scary. But so much more makes sense to me now about Western politics and economics, as well as Califonia history. I highly recommend this book!
Harvey Smith
Fascinating book, in that it opened me up to some things I'd never thought about or questioned. Is it really necessary to dam up so very many rivers, to generate electricity, let alone divert water for irrigation?

Turns out that in the beginning, a few of the dams diverted water to the desert, so that cities could grow and prosper out west. Then came irrigation of crops, which took the majority of the diverted water. In effect, the government was selling water to growers at a cheap price, therefo
lyell bark
gr8 history about how the western usa was turned from an arid, unlivable hellscape with no water into an arid, unlivable hellscape with lots of water at great economic and environmental cost. thanks.
Leland William
Gave up 240 pages in. Not sure if I will come back to it. The writing style was enjoyable, but it felt like the author got bogged down in unnecessary details.
You know you're reading a good book when a.) you can't help but read bits of it aloud to a long suffering, but patient significant other, and b.) that significant other actually ends up similarly fascinated with dams, water compacts, salinity levels, and (let's be honest here) the outrageous political shenanigans and corruption of water rights in the American West. This is a great book--one that clearly deserves its classic status. A fascinating history into the legal, political, and economic de ...more
This book details the history of how water rights have been handled (i.e. mishandled) in the arid west, an area that is both desert and semi-desert but has been developed to serve the needs of millions of people and to sustain massive agriculture production.
It's a good primer on how the country pursued the harnessing of the available water sources in the area way beyond what made rational sense. The Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers were the primary culprits, where the drive
Cadillac Desert is intensely interesting and probably more entertaining than a tale of true horror should be. It is possible that Reisner intentionally portrays the West as cynical and doomed to—I don’t know—sell more books, because: drama. Nonetheless, there is a lot to be learned from the book and from where I’m sitting, in the Great Lakes watershed, the 6 decades, following 1920, of water resource development in the West is mind-bogglingly stupid.

In an afterword to the revised edition, writte
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Cadillac Desert 1 20 Jan 27, 2012 05:41PM  
  • Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West
  • Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West
  • The Land of Little Rain
  • Encounters With the Archdruid
  • The Secret Knowledge of Water
  • The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
  • Wilderness and the American Mind
  • The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River
  • The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West
  • The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire
  • Bad Land: An American Romance
  • A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia
  • Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization
  • Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future
  • When the Rivers Run Dry: Water--The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century
  • Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness
  • Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
  • A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest
A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate Game Wars: The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers Overtapped Oasis: Reform Or Revolution For Western Water Overtapped Oasis: Reform Or Revolution For Western Water Alles über die Currywurst: Von Liedern, Literarischem und Lycopin bis zu Curry-Kanzler, Ketchup und Klassenschranken - Wissenswertes über ein Kultprodukt

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