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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  9,219 ratings  ·  814 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, 582 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.
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Mar 15, 2014 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
Jennifer (Insert Lit Pun)
What a book. It’s dense and involved and took me forever to read, but it has fundamentally changed the way I view the American West. And Reisner’s writing is entertaining as hell.
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
Paula Koneazny
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
Aug 20, 2010 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.
Nov 22, 2015 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
A simply great book about the past, present and future of water in the U.S. The focus is on the dry side of America, but not just west of the Rockies. The High Plains and the Ogalalla Aquifer, as well as the Upper Missouri, get extended treatment.

So too does the fact that "rugged Westerners" are ultimately usually socialists when it comes to the issue of water and it being supplied to farms at below cost by the federal government, and acreage limits then being broken.

It's not just the lack of wa
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
Jan 07, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this non-fiction book after reading the fiction book, The Water Knife, which mentions Cadillac Desert multiple times. Indeed, Cadillac Desert clearly served as a major motivator behind Bacigalupi's novel. So I figured, hey let's do a one-two, fiction-nonfiction combo.

Okay, so this book is about the water works of the Southeast and the cities and organizations that guided them. Los Angeles, Army Corp of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, etc. It is superbly well-written, with rich detail no
William Liggett
Jan 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
If you read only one book about the role of water in the west, this should be the one. Reisner recounts the complex and often violent history of efforts to control water in this dry land. Only in the last few years has water been allowed to return into the once verdant Owens Valley of California, after it was diverted through subterfuge to supply the needs of southern California. There is so much history to tell about the way the huge dams along the Colorado River were sold to the American publi ...more
Mar 11, 2008 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
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
Brian Griffith
Aug 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Reisner's account of the American West's water wars is massively well researched and dramatically written. He explores the financial, political, and social forces demanding that a watered West be somehow engineered. The water was procured for those who could command it or pay for it, and of course there were losers all over the West. The book captures a whole era in all it's glorious unsustainability, and it was written before the age of great dams was clearly done. The only daunting thing for a ...more
Jul 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is really important and interesting , going over the history of the West, in particular the history of irrigation , aqueducts and water projects in the West . However, it's so depressing that I only made it halfway through the book. Greed, Manifest Destiny, and wishful thinking based on greed... ...more
Jun 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
5 stars because everyone should read this book, now.
Aug 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is about water, money, politics, and the transformation of nature.

I once lived near Cadillac Desert, where an eccentric millionaire buried a fleet of new Cadillacs in the ground. Presumably, he had a point. When I saw a PBS documentary based on the book, I understood why environmentalists and historians of the West mourned Marc Reisner's death. Reisner's book documents the growth of the Bureau of Reclamation, responsible for Hoover, Shasta, and Grand Coulee dams, and its bitter rivalry
Richard Reese
Mar 25, 2015 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
Kate Savage
Dec 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Reisner's big old brick of a book on water in the West was published in 1986. Sadly, the only thing that feels dated about it is some of the ways he writes about Native Americans. The big water questions and absurdities are still fresh. We're still constantly faced with new proposals for bizarre, expensive, destructive dams on every remaining river. We are still overpumping groundwater and turning the soil to salt.

And I also felt a renewed appreciation for the environmental movement and what it'
Aug 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
If you live in the American West, you need to read this. Yes, it's 30+ years old and hasn't been updated in 25 years. Yes, it's depressing as hell. But the central truths remain:

* American water policy, especially in the West, is predicated on the idea that water should flow to where wealth and power are already concentrated. As a result, huge amounts of wealth and power have been pushed—in the form of water, control of water, and subsidized water costs—from the average American taxpayer to an i
Fred Forbes
Aug 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It takes some enormous discipline, research and knowledge to produce a work like this. To say nothing of significant writing skills to keep the subject moving along. Consider. Water moving in from the Pacific drops 150 inches of water on the Pacific Northwest in an average year. Once the storms are blocked by the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains, the rainfall average falls to 4 inches. Consider the demarcation line for the country, the 100th meridian running through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kan ...more
Nov 20, 2012 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

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water - 22 Tapes Unabridged (Part 1 & 2) ~30 hours

From Library Journal: Dams ostensibly provide indispensable economic development through flood control, irrigation, and recreation. Goldsmith and Hildyard, with examples from throughout the world, demolish the common justifications for large dams. They advocate traditional irrigation as environmentally sound and economically beneficial. Reisner focuse
May 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: enviro, history
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
May 22, 2009 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
Feb 21, 2011 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
Mar 04, 2008 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
Max Potthoff
Dec 20, 2013 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
Mar 05, 2007 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
Jason Young
Oct 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2018, audio
One of the most horrifying, dystopic books I've ever read. The asinine bureaucracy and cyclical destruction by way of solution of the early reclamation efforts is so incredibly frustrating and bizarre. The cowboy mind-frame and incessant growth that the American west felt entitled to gave rise to unforeseen, or disregarded, issues we're still dealing with, and will be for generations.

The afterword and postscript to the 2017 version do cast a light at the end of the tunnel. The efforts at the loc
M.J. Groves
Nov 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Alright, so I gave 5 stars to a 30 year old book on the history of water rights in the west. I guess I am really a nerd. It sounded so dreadfully dry I procrastinated reading it for 6 months. But since I’m living in the desert half the year I thought it important I understand water. Actually, now that I’m done, I’m convinced no matter how secure our personal supply seems, we all need be concerned about water.

If you skip over the ridiculous number of people’s names, river names and dam names (an
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Marc Reisner was an American environmentalist and writer best known for his book Cadillac Desert, a history of water management in the American West.

He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of a lawyer and a scriptwriter, and graduated from Earlham College in 1971. For a time he was on the staffs of Environmental Action and the Population Institute in Washington, D.C. Starting in 1972, he wo

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40 likes · 6 comments
“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.” 4 likes
“Reason is the first casualty in a drought.” 2 likes
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