Quinn Rollins's Reviews > Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner
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Feb 13, 12

bookshelves: utah, history, science, favorites, classics
Read in August, 2010

I've lived my entire life in the American West. Most of that time has been in Northern Utah, where it snows all winter long, and then doesn't rain much for the rest of the year. The system of dams and reservoirs that keep irrigation and drinking water flowing to our farms and homes has been a way of life here for more than a hundred years. Looking at the states around us—Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado—all depend more or less on water that's stored and then delivered as needed. I just finished a book that made me rethink this system.

Marc Reisner's 1986 masterpiece is Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. As a lifelong resident of the West and as a teacher of Western History, I found it an enlightening and insightful read. The 582 page book is part history, part biography, part engineering manual, and part environmental science text. The resulting volume could be a mess in other hands, but somehow Reisner is able to shape each section of the book so that it holds together.

The book is roughly chronological, starting with the early efforts of the Mormons in the 1850s to “make the desert bloom like a rose.” That entailed building the first small dams and digging the first irrigation ditches in the valleys of Utah, Idaho, and Southern California. This process worked well for small farming communities according to Reisner, but ultimately it set up unreasonable expectations for the sprawling cities that were to follow. As Reisner follows the development of the dams and reservoirs in the West, he's showing how this house of cards was built—and how it all may eventually collapse.

Reisner looks at several different locations, hundreds of miles and decades apart. This builds an overview of the West that shows the same mistakes repeated over and over again, supported by the federal government, and ultimately subsidizing the “fiercely independent” farmers and ranchers who live out here.

The author spends a lot of time building his case in the Los Angeles basin, once graced with natural aquifers, but as the city sprawled and paved over water sources, they turned to more and more distant sources for their water needs. The California, Los Angeles, and Colorado River Aqueducts were all built to supply water to Los Angeles, taking the water from other valleys and even states to build what even today is an unsustainable city. After building his case in Los Angeles in such detail, Reisner then transfers those lessons to Phoenix, Las Vegas, and other cities.

The people in the book are often larger-than-life. Some of them, like William Mulholland and John Wesley Powell were familiar to me. Many others, like Floyd Dominy, the commissioner of reclamation, were new. Reisner culls conversations from co-workers, wives and underlings to create fantastic anecdotes that are alternately entertaining and horrifying. These personalities coalesce into two sides, as the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers both race to build dams across the West, in a competition that becomes the ultimate in pork barrel spending for members of Congress. These include many dams that shouldn't have been built, some of them risking disaster to do so. The Grand Teton Dam, which I remember breaking more than thirty years ago, was one of these.

This was a huge book about a serious subject, but Reisner makes it very readable. His style of writing, his choice of locations, and his descriptive language all kept me reading, even when I thought the topic might have been dull. He sneaks in sly jokes and witty asides that frequently made me laugh out loud as I was reading. All in all, even though it's a monumental book about an “important” subject, I enjoyed reading it. The connections Reisner makes connect the past of the West to our present and beyond, including issues of why the Western states are so conservative, so Republican, and so resistant to “big government,” even though all of those states rely on the dams, the interstates, and the other services that the “big government” has provided. It was an eye-opener for me, and it managed to do so without being preachy. If you're interested in the history of the American West, in environmental issues or the confluence of government and private rights, this book is a must-read.

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