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

by Marc Reisner

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Member:ericrumsey
Title:Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition
Authors:Marc Reisner
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (1993), Edition: Revised, Paperback
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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner (1986)

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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, but it caused me a bit of reader fatigue due to its relentless comprehensiveness. Impeccably researched, Cadillac Desert meets the highest standards of investigative reportage. Which is not to say that Reisner is absolutely objective (always an illusive goal at best) nor sober in his approach. At times, his tone borders on the sarcastic (as if he were saying, you are not going to believe exactly how incredibly stupid this idea was). His account is apolitical in the sense that he depicts Democrats and Republicans, both on the state and national levels, as bipartisan in their promotion and funding of the most suspect (environmentally, socially, economically)dams and water projects, going back at least as far as the New Deal. Reisner takes a close and critical look at the very notion of irrigation farming in a desert, its costs, benefits and long term consequences (depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer; deadly salinity levels of land and water, the making of “wild river” an oxymoron, etc.). An apt secondary subtitle for the book might be “Water flows uphill toward political power and money.” An entirely concrete example of this aphorism would be the California Aqueduct, particularly that section which carries water over the Tehachapis to L.A: “The water is carried across the Tehachapis in five separate stages. The final cyclopean one, which occurs at the A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant, raises the water 1926 feet—the Eiffel Tower atop the Empire State—in a single lift . . . . At their peak capacity, if it is ever reached, the Edmonston pumps will require six billion kilowatts of electricity every year . . . . Moving water in California requires more electrical energy than is used by several states.”
First published in 1986 and subsequently revised in 1993, Cadillac Desert, if less prophetic now than it was 20-25 years ago, remains relevant and instructive. And if you ever thought there might be a silver-lining to pork-barrel politics, it’s a must read. In light of the recent financial system “bail-out,” and with many touting “infrastructure” projects as a solution to our current high unemployment and economic malaise, reviewing the history of perhaps the greatest public works program ever anywhere will give you pause. Dams and water projects (California’s Central Valley Project and the Central Arizona Project are just two examples) can have both intended and unintended consequences that make them less than great ideas. Engineers and “experts” (Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, Water Commissioners, Resource Specialists, etc.) can be as greedy, short-sighted, and blinded by belief in their own expertise and desire for power as anyone else.
Reisner’s description of the proposed Narrows Dam on the Lower South Platte River in Colorado (thankfully, a project that was subsequently abandoned, though it was all too typical of projects that have been built) makes for a good summary:
“Here was a dam that the state engineer said would deliver only a third of the water it promised and could conceivably collapse; a project whose official cost estimate . . . would barely suffice to relocate twenty-six miles of railroad track; a project whose real cost, whatever it turned out to be, would therefore be written off, in substantial measure, to ‘recreation,’ though the water would be unsafe to touch; a project whose prevailing interest rate was one-fifth the rates banks were charging in the late 1970s; a project many of whose beneficiaries owned more land than the law permitted in order to receive subsidized water; a project that might, if the state engineer was correct, seep enough water to turn the town of Fort Morgan into a marsh; a project that would pile more debt onto the Bureau’s Missouri Basin Project; a project that would generate not a single kilowatt of hydroelectric power and would be all but worthless for flood control.”
( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
When you finish reading this book, go watch "Chinatown" starring Jack Nicholson.... The book provides the history that illuminates the water wars in southern California, the backdrop to that famous film. ( )
1 vote kday_working | Apr 7, 2013 |
Absolutely essential reading, and entertaining as hell. As true today as when Reisner published it, 25 years back. RIP, Marc. ( )
1 vote mattus | Apr 3, 2013 |
The classic study of the politics behind water in the western US. An incredible work of journalism, history and commentary, that occasionally leaves the reader seething at the cupidity of the Bureau of Reclamation, politicians, agricultural interests -- and us for putting up with them for so long. ( )
  Erwind | Jan 6, 2013 |
A colossal work of investigative journalism focused on the complex and controversial use of the American West's critical water resources. Many humans live and die by the man-made dams in our regions, vacation on the reservoirs they create, and every taxpayer devotes a sizeable chunk of change to their construction, repair, and management, but I dare say that comparatively few of us today give them much thought. Reisner's detailed research would convince just about anyone that we can no longer afford to neglect this important topic and that we must start making plans now to deal with the possible structural compromises and potentially severe shortages (and their associated costs) looming in the not-so-distant future. If you're looking for entertainment, this is not the book, but if you want to understand where your water (plus your food and electricity) are coming from--or where they're going--this book has a lot of the answers. Id' consider this a must-read for civil engineers, water/land/wetland/fishery managers, those in agribusiness, conservationists and environmentalists, plus city and water planners as well as ALL California citizens. ( )
  dele2451 | Sep 14, 2012 |
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For Konrad and Else Reisner
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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.
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:34 -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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