Cadillac Desert

In Review

Sometimes, being prescient is no prize. First published in 1986, Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water is, sadly, still relevant. Reisner’s core premise – that the mishandling of dam construction vandalized not only our natural heritage but also our economic future – continues to hold true.

Dams were built on sites deemed unsuitable by geologists, and the pork-barrel system in Congress led to approval of unnecessary projects, providing some of the country’s wealthiest farmers with cheap water for irrigation. With biting wit and extensive knowledge, Reisner describes how the Bureau of Reclamation made these and other regrettable decisions, such as the building of the Colorado River dams. The Bureau, Reisner states, argued that building the dams would allow tourists to better appreciate the beauty of the Grand Canyon by motorboat. Earth Island Institute founder David Brower famously countered: “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?”

The Bureau’s rivalry with the Army Corps of Engineers also contributed to extensive damage. Reisner suggests that “by the late 1960s, the rivalry between the Bureau and the Corps of Engineers had degenerated into an ongoing squabble over needless projects instead of necessary ones” and that not only were the two agencies veering far from their original mandates, but were also conducting their business in geographic territories where they had no business being. The author’s assessment – that the Corps and the Bureau squandered their political capital and billions of taxpayers’ money on their rivalry, and that the Bureau “refused to believe any expert who told it what it didn’t want to hear” – is valid, and the consequences of such misuse of power has ramifications even today. Case in point: Hurricane Katrina and the recent floods in the American Midwest.

In order to avoid making the same mistakes, we must learn from our past transgressions. Reisner retains a journalist’s detachment, largely keeping his personal opinions out of his nonetheless entertaining discourse. He offers no concrete solutions, but by pointing out the glaring flaws in past patterns, leads readers to their own conclusions.

As cities throughout the western US contend with issues surrounding the availability of water and the growth of glittering metropolises in the country’s desert regions, there has never been a better time to read Reisner’s classic book. Cadillac Desert, the backbone for the four-part PBS series of the same name, should be required reading for every American who ever turned on a hose or a faucet and wondered about the costs – economic and environmental – of water politics.

– Robert Gluck

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