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Cadillac Desert: A classic a quarter century later

  • G. Tracy Mehan III
  • Marc Reisner’s masterpiece Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water is as compelling today as it was on publication in 1986. It was, clearly, advocacy journalism, but journalism of the highest order fortified with a tremendous amount of research, study, and numerous face-to-face interviews. It documented the transformation of John Wesley Powell’s vision of a federal irrigation program into a perverse reality of pork-barrel spending and environmental devastation. Recent scientific analysis has confirmed most of the book’s prognostications.

    The year before Reisner’s untimely death at age 51, Cadillac Desert was 61st on a list of the 100 best nonfiction books in English in the 20th century, as compiled by a panel from the Modern Library, a division of Random House. It was a finalist for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award and inspired an award-winning documentary by the same name which was first broadcast in 1997.

    So much of the waste and destruction perpetrated by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, which were engaged in a dysfunctional competition with each other for decades, were predicated on the “myth of the independent yeoman farmer,” according to Reisner. This Jeffersonian ideal, ultimately, morphed into rank rent-seeking by wealthy growers, big engineering and construction firms and urban water departments— all of whom were adept at “farming the government.”

    States were not without culpability either. Reisner described California’s State Water Project as “one of the country’s foremost examples of socialism for the rich.”

    “With huge dams built for him at public expense, and irrigation canals, and the water sold for a quarter of a cent per ton—a price which guaranteed that little of the public’s investment would ever be paid back—the West’s yeoman farmer became the embodiment of the welfare state, though he was the last to recognize it,” wrote Reisner. “And the same Congress which had once insisted he didn’t need federal help was now insisting that such help be continued, at any cost.”

    Reisner, warming to his theme, continued: “Released from a need for justification, released from logic itself, the irrigation program Powell had wanted became a monster, redoubling its efforts and increasing its wreckage, both natural and economic, as it lost sight of its goal.” Powell’s vision was one of limited bounty on a tiny fraction of land suitable for irrigation. “It is hard to imagine that the first explorer of the Colorado River would have welcomed a future in which there might be no rivers left at all.”

    Having only just read Cadillac Desert, and having learned about it primarily through the writings of conservationists and environmentalists, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised, ecstatic really, by how much of the book is focused on the economic outrages of congressional pork-barrel spending and water projects which were a joke in terms of cost-benefit analysis. And this is before you get to the environmental costs, the removal of Indians from tribal lands, outright graft, and political venality. The book appeals to audiences as diverse as the Sierra Club and the Tea Party.

    Given its origins in the New Deal’s push for public works projects, the reclamation and flood control exertions of the Bureau and Corps soon transformed themselves into a syndrome of monomaniacal dam building as almost an end in itself. Literally, tens of thousands of dams, i.e., “water projects,” many built on the flimsiest of justifications, were routinely ordered up, with the active encouragement of the federal agencies, by politicians across the political spectrum—Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal, green or brown, except for poor Jimmy Carter.

    Having decided, for very sound reasons, that the age of water projects should come to an end, President Carter, in a classic case of political over-reach, drafted an extensive “hit list” of dozens of big dams and irrigation projects for withdrawal of funding. “Carter was merely stunned by the reaction from the East; he was blown over backward by the reaction from the West,” reported Reisner.

    “Of about two hundred western members of Congress, there weren’t more than a dozen who dared to support him,” said Reisner. “One of the projects would return five cents in economic benefits for every taxpayer dollar invested; another, a huge dam on a middling California river, would cost more than Hoover, Shasta, Glen Canyon, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee combined.”

    Carter eventually caved in to Congress. “To build an expensive dam, a spillway, an outlet works, and canals in order to grow grass or alfalfa is not generally an economically rewarding proposition. It can, however, be a politically rewarding one,” noted Reisner wryly. “To paraphrase what someone said about pleasure and pain, economics are an illusion, while politics are real.”

    Writing in his Afterword to the 1993 revised edition of Cadillac Desert, Reisner observed, “If free market mechanisms— which much of western agriculture publicly applauds and privately abhors—were actually allowed to work, the West’s water ‘shortage’ would be exposed for what it is: the sort of shortage you expect when inexhaustible demand chases an almost free good. (If someone were selling Porsches for three thousand dollars apiece, there would be a shortage of those, too.)” Reisner would, no doubt, be pleased with the current movement toward water markets, water trusts, full-cost and conservation-based pricing, water reuse and recycling, not to mention the growing understanding of the implausibility of federal subsidies generally.

    Besides his strong commitment to economic sanity and political integrity, Reisner was, first and foremost, passionate in his commitment to the natural world which pervades the pages of Cadillac Desert. “The cost of all this [federal water development], however, was a vandalization of both our natural heritage and our economic future, and the reckoning has not even begun,” wrote Reisner.

    “Thus far, nature has paid the highest price. Glen Canyon is gone. The Colorado Delta is dead. The Missouri bottomlands have disappeared. Nine out of ten acres of wetlands in California have vanished, and with them millions of migratory birds.”

    In the course of describing the “thorniest desert” in which today’s water lobby finds itself, he highlights the “ecological legacy of its predecessors”: “By erecting thirty thousand dams of significant size across the American West, they dewatered countless rivers, wiped out millions of acres of riparian habitat, shut off many thousands of river miles of salmon habitat, silted over spawning beds, poisoned return flows with agricultural chemicals, set the plague of livestock loose on the arid land—in a nutshell, they made it close to impossible for numerous native species to survive.”

    Reisner was prescient in his warning regarding croplands ruined by salt poisoning from irrigation return flows and the conflicts which, inevitably, arise between high-value municipal and industrial water use and agribusiness’s water uses, which account for a very small part of GDP. Only his predictions on silt build-up threatening the storage capacity of dams has been shown to be slightly less pressing, at least for now.

    In a special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this past December (“Reclaiming freshwater sustainability in the Cadillac Desert”) 15 scientists and researchers, led by Dr. John Sabo, an Arizona State University associate professor, applying modern scientific tools and mapping technologies unavailable during Reisner’s time, found most of his conclusions to be scientifically correct.

    According to Dr. Sabo, “We asked, is it really as bad as [Reisner] said it is in the book, and are we still where we were in 1986?” “Now we know the answer to both those questions: yes.”

    The Sabo team estimated that the equivalent of nearly 76 percent of streamflow in the Cadillac Desert region is currently appropriated by humans, and this figure could rise to nearly 86 percent under a doubling of the region’s population as projected over the next 25–40 years. Moreover, “western cities have much larger virtual water footprints, largely owing to the more arid climate, and western crop lands export at least an equal magnitude of virtual water as cities and croplands east of the 100th meridian.” Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix are the top three urban footprints in the country. Quelle surprise.

    “The cards are stacked high against freshwater sustainability in the West,” says Dr. Sabo. “Something will have to give, and it likely will be the price of water and high quality produce.”

    Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert is truly a magnum opus of American conservation which has provided a model of what sustainability is and is not. It was way ahead of its time, yet timeless in the lessons it taught. It is a book that will be studied for decades to come because of its insight into the environmental consequences of government failure as much as market failure.

    This article originally appeared in The Environmental Forum. Reprinted with permission from the Environmental Law Institute. Visit to learn more.

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