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Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  345 ratings  ·  22 reviews
When Henry David Thoreau went for his daily walk, he would consult his instincts on which direction to follow. More often than not his inner compass pointed west or southwest. "The future lies that way to me," he explained, "and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side." In his own imaginative way, Thoreau was imitating the countless young pioneers, prospec ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published April 1st 1992 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 1986)
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Kyle
May 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
its been a long time since i read Cadillac Desert so i cant compare the two very well but i remember that book focusing a lot on the california water wars and the reign of floyd dominy at the bureau of reclamation. by contrast worster mentions floyd dominy mainly in passing and the DWP/mulholland only once (in connection to the collapse of the st. francis dam). the two books overlap in discussing the central valley and the insanity of agriculture in california generally. but worster discusses mu ...more
David Bates
Apr 16, 2013 rated it it was ok
In his 1985 work Rivers of Empire Donald Worster studied the political and social implications of the increasingly extensive irrigation works projects that transformed the arid inland valleys of California into agricultural meccas. The intricate, centralized control of water that made the desert bloom had not, Worster argued, done the same for democracy. Agriculture could not exist without water, and from the late 19th century on the expense of constructing and maintaining irrigation projects ha ...more
Rob Bauer
Jan 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is an extended review of this classic and extremely important history of water and the American West.

Occasionally historians use the term hydraulic society to describe the famous civilizations of the ancient world. The empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus River Valley, to name a few, all existed by manipulating water supplies and building irrigation works. Few people identify the American West as having anything in common with these ancient civilizations. We consider the
...more
Billy Marino
Feb 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Review for class. Not my best work, but it's overall message stands:

Worster’s Rivers admirably aims to explain the entire origin and contemporary situation of the American West, which focuses on a generalized version of Americans’ relationship to their environment. Oddly broken into seven convoluted and chronological parts, the book follows three themes, or stages of the American West: “Incipience,” Florescence,” and “Empire.” Worster’s thesis is that the “American West can best be d
...more
Samuel
Mar 29, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Donald Worster recognizes that west of the hundredth meridian, he who has the water rights makes the rules. Or rather, this history of the west posits that the scarcity of water in the arid west made it the most important resource. Therefore, by chronicling how water was controlled and developed by "elites of wealth and technological power," Worster sets out to show how no other factor is more important to the growth and history of the West. Beginning first with a reflection from a ditch in the ...more
Kirk Astroth
Apr 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
This was a difficult book to get into. The beginning chapters were too heavy on philosophy, Marxism, and the ideas of Wittfogel among others. there was an extensive historical review of other civilizations dependent on irrigation. Eventually, though, the writing began to coalesce into a message about democracy in the West versus empires built by a small wealthy elite aided and abetted by the Federal government. Major irrigation projects were undertaken to support small family farms and no farm l ...more
Essie
Sep 20, 2015 rated it liked it
This book is a fascinating perspective on the history of the American West. It's a classic of environmental history, and I can certainly see why. That said, I'm not entirely sure what I think of his narrative style. I love that environmental history tells stories, be Worster quite often goes off on extended metaphors that are sometimes incredibly helpful and sometimes just tiresome. And sometimes his use of tense and narration make it difficult to understand who or when exactly he is talking abo ...more
Brad Eastman
Jun 22, 2019 rated it liked it
Rivers of Empire is a very good history of the development of water resources in the West wrapped in a classically Marxist view of history as pre-determined and layered with a patina of environmentalism. Mr. Worster believes that to understand the history of the Western United States, you need to look at the history of bringing water to arid lands. He argues that the need to engage in large scale projects to irrigate the West determines the social relations between workers, agribusiness and stat ...more
Donald Linnemeyer
This is one of those books that are fascinating or its sheer originality. As an American, I've never really thought about water scarcity, at least not about it actually affecting me. But Worster puts the irrigation history of the west at the forefront of America history, and he places us in that story, still to be decided. Throw in some interesting Marxist analysis of western settlement (water scarcity typically leads to powerful, centralized, oppressive government), and you've got a great read.
Matt Shake
Jul 25, 2010 rated it really liked it
Concentrating less on government corruption and waste than "Cadillac Desert" and more on water allocation as a form of social control, Worster's analysis of Western water projects paints--in my opinion--an even scarier picture of the future of the West than "Cadillac Desert." He points out that in an arid environment like ours, he who holds the keys to cheap water holds great power and control. While I do agree with him on this point, I do not know for sure if this system has created as much pot ...more
Glen
Feb 19, 2014 rated it it was ok
This book is a tough read. It features quite a few pages on Marx and a German philosopher named Wittfogel who write about what it is that big irrigation projects do to the societies that build them. In the end there is a bit of description of how the Western US could have been settled without Hoover dam and the like. Not a lot of take home value in this environmental history. It did give a good context in which to consider water projects that are under consideration today.
Feather
Oct 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Fear the Iron Triangle - the alliance between politicians, businesses and the regulatory offices created to maintain standards of safety, sustainablity and democracy. Political and economic systems reliant on this alliance become anti-democratic, anti-environment, and anti-life in thier amoral and unaccountable pursuit of profit and power.
Patrick
Sep 04, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: the insanely bored/farmers
A scathing critique of farm subsidies in the form of water rights, as well as industrialized irrigation. If the good folks at Toro or Rainbird hear about this...
Socraticgadfly
Feb 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent complement to "Cadillac Desert," with the vantage of writing after the effects of climate change were becoming clearer.

The title itself should tell you part of what you're in for. It was an empire of manifest destiny, believing that the American world could override problems, from ignoring John Wesley Powell on.
Lesley Brown
Oct 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Water. You can drink it; you can swim in it; you can use it to grow crops and even power entire cities. All of this can be done with the use of something as simple and abundant as water. However, as any first grade student can tell you, without clean water to drink, human beings would die. Without sufficient rainfall, crops would not grow. Water may be everywhere, but that doesn't mean we have a drop to drink. Nothing about water is as simple or as abundant as it might seem.

In Donald Worster’s
...more
Michael Phillips
The American West continues to need irrigation resources but as with the Colorado Flood of 2013 water can sometimes overwhelm the people. Wurster is a prolific author and I wish more of his books were in the Corning, Ia library. So many promising writers out there and I've set my goal to read 10 a month and perhaps write one of my own about the freedom people enjoy in the American West and the stark landscape of mountainous arid terrain,
Susie
Jan 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Susie by: Annie
It was really good, even infuriating at times... Although it filled in gaps with stuff I didn't know, if you've read other books on water and dam-building, etc. some of the information is already covered. The conclusion was also pretty far-fetched, but overall a really good book.
Bubba
The author claims that Mormons only settled the great desert in the western US b/c they were under the threat of excommunication from the "shadow theocracy" in Salt Lake. Couldn't have been that they wanted land to farm where they wouldn't be persecuted.
Lorraine Herbon
May 10, 2016 rated it liked it
Not a bad read, all about the making of the American West through water manipulation. But it's a bit gloomy and outdated. Would love to know what this guy thinks after the past four years of drought.
Stephanie
Feb 04, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Comprehensive research but the conclusion is pretty pie in the sky.
Annie
Apr 10, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Dry topic (environmental history), but it was interspersed with several interesting context points.
Avram Primack
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Mar 31, 2014
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Chuck
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Lindsay
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Mar 01, 2011
Benjamin
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Oct 29, 2019
John Caleb Correll
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Jul 21, 2019
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