Book Review of "Cadillac Desert" by Marc Reisner

By Jerry Keeney
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 14, Number 3 (Spring 2004)
Issue theme: "Richard Lamm: a life in public service"

Cadillac Desert The American West and Its Disappearing Water (Revised Edition)

by Marc Reisner

New York Penguin Books

582 pages, $11.90

Environmentalist and author Marc Reisner's book Cadillac Desert, originally published in 1986 spurred nationwide awareness of water conservation issues. His book is on the Modern Library list of the 100 most important non-fiction books of the twentieth century.

Cadillac Desert is a social history of the politics of water in the United States and the environmental destruction wreaked by dams. It is a brilliant exposition of how water was delivered to the deserts of the West through political chicanery, especially pork belly legislation and wars between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corp of Engineers. The warnings of John Wesley Powell and the disappearance of the Hohokam civilization were all ignored by those engaged in rampant irrigation and dam building. Reisner's story of delivery of water to Los Angeles through the sheer force of William Mulholland, the chief of the Los Angeles Water Department, is a fascinating piece of history. Bribery, subterfuge and spies are all part of the account not only in the delivery of water to southern California from the Colorado River over 600 miles away, but the ensuing explosion of population it brought to that area.

In 1993 a revised edition was published including an afterword by Reisner. He was reassured to find that the era of massive dam building was at an end and foresaw the future struggle to be between the urban water and agricultural lobbyists.

'Forty years ago, only a handful of heretics, howling at the wilderness, challenged the notion that the west needed hundreds of new dams. Today they are almost vindicated. There is more talk of deconstruction than of construction of minor dams demolished, of big dams made environmentally sound, of marginal acreage retired and water returned to its source of flows bypassing turbines to flush salmon and steelhead to sea. ...The region's population is growing and, in places, exploding. (California has added seven million people since Melones Dam.) More people need more water and power and food. Asia sends its surplus population to California and the Northwest; the Mexican border is porous as a sieve.'

Reisner appears to be connecting water issues with those of population. It is too bad he did not articulate the dangers of over population as he so skillfully delineated the waste of water through highly subsidized agricultural irrigation.

Reisner was interviewed by the National Resources Defense Council in 1997, three years before his death, and was asked,"What was the most worrisome environmental problem?" He replied,

'Overpopulation. There isn't any other problem that approaches it in seriousness. We have far too many people already. We can't possibly sustain the number of people we have on the planet today without completely gobbling up the whole resource base on which all of us depend. My wife and I have just replaced ourselves and we did it pretty late in life, so we have got a leg up there. But the idea of India surpassing a population of one billion is frightening. And the idea of the United States becoming a country of a half a billion people - that's foreseeable given rising birth rates and heavy immigrant pressure - is even worse Americans use resources at a much greater rate than elsewhere in the world.'

If only he could have lived to produce a classic like Cadillac Desert on the population crisis.

About the author

Jerry Keeney is a retired teacher who volunteers to head the Harbor Springs (Michigan) Chapter of North Country Trails and who serves as a Steward with the Michigan Nature Association.

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