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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its…

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised… (original 1986; edition 1993)

by Marc Reisner

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1,186216,861 (4.37)49
Title:Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition
Authors:Marc Reisner
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (1993), Edition: Revised, Paperback
Collections:Your library

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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner (1986)


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What an eye-opening and distressful book. Reisner has thoroughly researched the various projects of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Reclamation, and others - so many departments to control so much land. What he discovered is the unbelievable amount of in-fighting and the phenomenal amount of waste and destruction as a result sheer number of dams that have been erected - literally hundreds and hundreds of them affecting every major watershed in our country. He compares the slow time to construction today with 1936 when the four largest concrete dams ever built were built at the same time: Hoover, Shasta, Bonneville and Grand Coulee. The amount of corruption that pervaded these agencies is mind-boggling, even to the most pessimistic of us. The wanton destruction of Indian land is horrific with entire reservations being drowned for the benefit of white farmers on the surrounding lands. We still see these agencies doing the same thing today in the Dakotas, but for gas and oil.
It is clear from the title that so much of the far western lands are geologically deserts that we have spent billions converting to habitable land - but the water is running out, and in the end nature will win, and these deserts will take back the land, and we will have problems of epic proportions because of the shortage of water. This is becoming more and more evident. If you want to understand why water is the next gold, and why the next civil wars will be fought in the courts and on the lands, over water rights, read this book. ( )
  bjtimm | Nov 8, 2016 |
Didn't finish. Very interesting to learn about the founding of Los Angeles as well as the creation of water, but the "characters" and dramas were so hard to keep track of - I'm going to blame that on the writing. Also he had essentially no citations which I found annoying. ( )
  abbeyhar | Nov 8, 2016 |
This is a really amazing book. Here is a history of water management and mismanagement, in sometimes minute detail, that reads like a great novel. 500 pages of dams, reservoirs, and irrigation ditches that ends up being more eye-opening, more interesting, and more a page-turner than it has any right to be --more than it seems it could possibly be.

5 stars, 6 if I was able. ( )
  dcunning11235 | Oct 17, 2016 |
There are three reasons I liked this book. One, I learned a lot about water policy in the US. Two, as an aspiring writer, I learned more about how long-form scholarship works and how it can be brought to a successful conclusion. Third, when Reisner brought in the big picture (I mean cosmic time and space, as when he compares the irrigation methods of 19th century Californians to those of the farmers of the barely historic era of the Fertile Crescent) I learned more about how the natural world intersects with the manmade.

On the third point, although Reisner never says so, there's a theological foundation to his work in that the natural law is taken as the starting and the ending for what works about feeding those on this planet in the ultimate sense of working—sustainability—which is arguably the only sense that matters. This is to say that short-term, utilitarian goals, even common sense political goals generated and justified by positive law, should not be the only consideration in long-term decision making. When we allow a self-serving efficiency and a headstrong rationality to become our be-all and end-all, and when engineering is enshrined above all else, we should not be surprised at the rich harvest of head-scratching folly, moral failings, and paradox cataloged so nicely in "Cadillac Desert."

Reiner's signal achievement is that he took the indignant spark of anger that he no doubt developed working for the Natural Resources Defense Council in the six years or so prior to the publication of the book and banked it into a righteous flame that sustained him during the incredible amount of work necessary for laying the foundation of his argument.

At the hands of a more emotional man the narrative might easily have tottered and collapsed into a foaming-at-the-mouth string of expletives, half-reasoned arguments, and non-sequiters. However, like a mighty arch-gravity dam, he was able to hold it all together. He found a way to bide his time, no doubt through clenched teeth, until he was able to marshal all the facts into a logical, though still stinging, rebuke. For once, the adjective "magisterial" to describe a writer's command of his material does not seem out of place.

The Weather Channel would have loved this man's gift for metaphor. His stragegy of varying his style also worked well. There were long stretches of descriptive writing, as in his sketch of the skirt-chasing Floyd Dominy, and in the passages where he helps us understand how soil, seed, water, wind, and weather patterns work together. But, there were also long stretches of exposition in which he gave his full attention to what might be called the infrastructure of the water industry: the policies, constituencies, results, challenges. The dozens and dozens of individuals, agencies, dams, projects, reports, and incidents, the particularity of all these things, matters enormously, because all were needed, and all 600 pages were needed, in order to make the case.

It is to his credit that even this mind-numbing aspect of the story was accessible, and even interesting. He proved again that an occasional emphasis such as italicizing critical parts of a sentence is no crime in non-fiction writing. On the contrary, italics and the occasional prod of an exclamation point are blessings for tiring readers who need their brains to be goosed back into full consciousness.

By the time a revised edition was put out in 1993 with an epilogue attached, Reisner's ardor had cooled. Though his re-cap is interesting in its own way, it had none of the through line and righteous wrath of the original narrative of 1986, and therefore came as a bit of a letdown.

I gave the book only four stars because although the content was exemplary, there were at least a dozen to a dozen and a half typos in the text. Penguin/Viking, really? This is a modern classic which went through 37 reprints, according to WorldCat. Granted, the Worldcat information is often inaccurate, but it's clear that Penguin, Viking, and a few other publishing houses in the UK made big money on the book. And yet none of them could be bothered to proof it for the countless re-issues, not even for the big one in 1993 or so? How lazy.
  rmkelly | Mar 24, 2016 |
A little preliminary pq I'm not even halfway done, but this is a great, well-researched history of the water wars that were touched on in the Jack Nicholson movie "Chinatown." Fascinating stuff about the Owens Valley, Mulholland, Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley fraud that was at its birth, etc. ( )
  br77rino | Feb 10, 2015 |
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INTRODUCTION: A Semidesert with a Desert Hear

One late November night in 1980 I was flying over the state of Utah on my way back from California.
CHAPTER ONE: A Country of Illusion

The American West was explored by white men half a century before the first colonists set foot on Virginia's beaches, but it went virtually uninhabited by whites for another three hundred years.
A civilization, if you can keep it.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140178244, Paperback)

The definitive history of water resources in the American West, and a very illuminating lesson in the political economy of limited resources anywhere. Highly recommended!

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:28 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

This history of water rights in the American West focuses on the political corruption and intrigue, including the rivalry between the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.s. Army Corps of Engineers.

(summary from another edition)

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