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

Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner
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's review
Apr 18, 11

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction
Read from March 12, 2010 to January 18, 2011

Reisner has a delightful way with language, making this some of the most gripping, page-turning nonfiction I've read. I'm convinced that beyond opposable thumbs, the main thing that sets humans apart from other animals is our unquenchable desire to transform the landscape around us to our own desires instead of conforming to the limitations of nature. Reisner highlights the efforts in that direction, related to water in the western U.S, with an attention to detail and an eye to characterization that makes this book eminently readable, despite the dire subject matter. There are places where humans just aren't meant to survive in large numbers (*cough cough LA, Phoenix cough cough*), but if we build enough infrastructure to transport water, we believe we've outwitted God. And it lasts for a while, until we poison our water and land and ourselves with our water policies. Enjoy the good times while they last!

Fun with vocabulary!
Sesquipedalian tergiversation (71)
Vulpine (92)
Isohyet (148)
Maundered (148)
Anadromous (180)
Orographic (218)
Demesne (218)

Here are some of my favorite passages:
"Nearly all of the time, the creeks that plunge down the ravines of the Grand Canyon will barely float a walnut shell, but the flash floods resulting from a desert downpour can dislodge boulders as big as a jitney bus. Tumbled by gravity, the boulders carom into the main river and sit there, creating a dam, which doesn't so much stop the river as make it mad."(29)

"While Los Angeles moldered, San Francisco grew and grew...Los Angeles, meanwhile, remained a torpid, suppurating, stunted little slum...Had humans never settled in Low Angeles, evolution, left to its own devices, might have created in a million more years the ideal creature for the habitat: a camel with gills."(52)

"The Colorado River was a rampant horse in a balsa corral."(124)

"Though farmers around the world have learned to live with unpredictableness, it is something that California's big growers, accustomed as they are to perfect summer weather and unfailing man-made rain through irrigation, intensely dislike." (175)

"When Emma Dominy, writhing and shrieking, finally evicted her son Floyd, the doctors dumped him on a scale and whistled."(214)

"One of his former aides said Dominy liked people the way we like animals--we like them, but we eat them." (249)

"It was the same multibillion-dollar shell game that the United Western Investigation had proposed: new water from northern California would take care of southern California's needs so that the Colorado could be conserved for the upper basin and Arizona."(274)

"These farmers were about the most conservative faction in what may be the most politically conservative of all the fifty states [Arizona:]. They regularly sent to Congress politicians eager to demolish the social edifice built by the New Deal--to abolish welfare, school lunch programs, aid to the handicapped, funding for the arts, even to sell off some the national parks and public lands. But their constituents had become the ultimate example of what they decried, so coddled by the government that they lived in the cocoonlike world of a child. The farmers had become the very embodiment of the costly, irrational welfare state they loathed--and they had absolutely no idea."(301)

"To a degree that is impossible for most people to fathom, water projects are the grease gun that lubricates the nation's legislative machinery. Congress without water projects would be like an engine without oil; it would simply seize up."(308)

"The phrase 'pork barrel' derives from a fondness on the part of some southern plantation owners for rolling out a big barrel of salted pork for their half-starved slaves on special occasions. The near riots that ensued as the slaves tried to make off with the choicest morsels of pork were, apparently, a source of substantial amusement in the genteel old South. Sometime in the 1870s or 1880s, a wag decided that the habitual efforts by members of Congress to carry large loads from the federal treasury back to heir home districts resembled the feeding frenzies of the slaves. The usage was quite common by the late 1880s; and in 1890 it showed up in a headline in the New York Times, assuring its immortality."(309)

"More than anyplace else, California seems determined to prove that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a lie."(356)

"Don Christenson's crew cut stands up about an inch and a half, like a brush. A three-hundred-pound bear could nest down in that hair for the night and in the morning, after the bear lumbered off, it would spring right back up."(411)

The history of "relocation"--removing people in the way of a project from their land and compensating them for what they lost...followed the same script. They sniffed through the community, smelling out its most avaricious members, those most susceptible to an offer. They spread rumors; they spread lies. They offered extravagant settlements to the first few who bit, then grew less and less spendthrift with the holdouts, both to punish them and to balance the initial extravagance. They played on the social conscience of communities, accusing them of selfishness, of denying the greatest good to the greatest number. And in the final resort--judiciously at first, then more threateningly, then like a defensive line blitzing a quarterback--they invoked the prospect of eminent domain."(425)

"A few hundred million years ago, the waters of the oceans were still fresh enough to drink. It is the earth that contains the mineral salts one tastes in seawater. The salts are in all runoff, leached out of rock and soil. The runoff concentrates in rivers, which end up in the oceans--or, as in the case of Mono Lake and Great Salt Lake, in closed-basin sumps up to seven times saltier than the sea. Once in the ocean, the salts have no place to go; the seas are stuck with them. When the water is evaporated, the salts remain behind; when the water falls as rain and becomes runoff again, a fresh batch of salts washes in...The process is so incredibly slow and immense that, for once, no act of man seems capable of affecting it by the tiniest measurable iota. What is changing--what has changed drastically in the very recent past--is the concentration of salts in some of the world's rivers, and in some of its preeminent agricultural land."(455-6)

"If free-market mechanisms--which much of western agriculture publicly applauds and privately abhors--were actually allowed to work, the West's water "shortage" would be exposed for what it is: the sort of shortage you expect when inexhaustible demand chases an almost free good. (If someone were selling Porsches for three thousand dollars apiece, there would be a shortage of those, too.)"(516)

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03/12/2010 page 99
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