Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert is an extensive, well-detailed history of how Americans made the formerly inhospitable American West habitable by harnessing water, its most valuable and scarce resource. Written with passion and indignation, this work assails the frenzy of dam-building in the twentieth century as an ultimately dangerous folly driven by greed, hubris, and misguided political leadership.
The book focuses mainly on the Bureau of Reclamation’s effect on the West and traces that agency’s construction of numerous dams that provided the water and electricity needed to allow both the population and the economy to thrive. In addition, it takes a sharply critical view of the Bureau’s questionable decision-making, political infighting, and wasteful management. Ironically, says Reisner, the Bureau’s history of massive dam projects has placed the West’s environment in even greater peril, and “the odds that we can sustain it would have to be regarded as low.
Only one desert civilization . . . has survived uninterrupted into modern times” (3). The dams themselves are weakening due to silt buildup, the once-rich soil which the dams helped irrigate is now becoming dangerously salinized, and the West’s massive population growth in the twentieth century has created an insatiable need for water that the region’s rivers may not be able to provide indefinitely. Reisner begins with a brief history of efforts to settle the West, which were thwarted mainly by the region’s aridity.
Next, an important chapter documents John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the then-wild Colorado River and his little-heeded assertion that large-scale Western settlement and agriculture would be unwise without strict, careful government control of its meager water supply. (Politicians and settlers alike ignored Powell’s admonitions, which Reisner deems a major historical blunder that has already started to haunt the overdeveloped region. )
Subsequent chapters examine the political machinations, unbridled greed of politicians and residents alike, and the Bureau’s sometimes-reckless competition with the Corps of Engineers to build dams as quickly as possible, regardless of their necessity or ecological effects. He devotes an extensive chapter to Los Angeles’ “water wars” of the early twentieth century (explained in more detail below), juxtaposing it against the chapter on Powell to show what the wise approach would’ve been and what Americans did instead.
Reisner moves on to explore the Bureau of Reclamation’s creation under the conservation-minded Theodore Roosevelt (who backed development interests while also creating national parks) and its rise during the New Deal, when Franklin Roosevelt dramatically expanded its dam-building activities in order to stimulate the Western economy and generate revenues with the electricity that “cash register dams” generated. Reisner does not spare Roosevelt, condemning this aspect of the New Deal as “a nature-wrecking, money-eating monster that our leaders lacked the courage or ability to stop” (175).
When the environmentally-minded Jimmy Carter tried to halt wasteful dam construction, politicians from both major parties rose against him, aided by wrathful Western business interests dependent on cheap, plentiful water and power. Though the many dams the federal government built had an arguably positive effect on the West by making large-scale agriculture and settlement possible, Reisner makes clear that, “In the West, of course, where water is concerned, logic and reason have never figured prominently in the scheme of things” (14).
Wasteful interagency competition, large numbers of pork-barrel projects, and unbridled greed have combined to leave the West in a more fragile ecological state than ever. Its large population and economy have taxed water and soil to a point where a second Dust Bowl disaster is possible. The last few chapters contain warnings about the consequences of altering the Western environment – its dams are beginning to fail (especially the Fontanelle, Glen Canyon, and Teton) and reservoirs are clogged with silt, creating extremely costly problems for future generations.
Also, desert societies, he warns, have always ultimately failed because nature cannot be contained indefinitely; the West, says Reisner, “is reverting, slowly and steadily, into an amphitheater of natural forces toying with its inhabitants’ fate” (471). His chapter on Los Angeles’ water wars presents a paradigm for how the West has reckoned with its water problem – through creative engineering and political duplicity.
Located on an arid plain with virtually no natural water supply, Los Angeles boomed after 1900, driven by energetic, acquisitive, ruthless figures like Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis and engineer William Mulholland, whose most notorious coup was the acquisition of the Owens River’s water supply. Reisner claims that “Los Angeles employed chicanery, subterfuge, spies, bribery, a campaign of divide-and-conquer, and a strategy of lies to get the water it needed” (65).
As a result, Los Angeles ruined the Owens Valley’s small farmers and ranchers and turned Owens Lake into a mostly lifeless wasteland. Los Angeles was thus able to grow beyond what nature would allow, and this victory in the water wars created a pattern for Western growth; it was driven not by careful government management of water supplies but by entrepreneurs and boosters seeking a fortune and unaware of the environmental implications.
Because the West has been vastly changed since Powell published his report on the Colorado, his ideas about careful, prudent management of both settlement and water usage seem more like a lost opportunity than a blueprint for future efforts to solve the West’s impending ecological problems. The region has become too populous, developed, and dependent on water harnessed in dams to simply revert to the sparsely-settled ranching territory Powell conceived, since economic ruin would follow.
Instead, the government must play a role in managing the West’s growth and pay special attention to the infrastructure it created. The dams and reservoirs are choked with silt and will eventually weaken, and salinization of once-rich soul is a serious threat. However, this creates another quandary – the cost will form part of a huge budget deficit that future generations will have to bear. Regarding compensation to those who lost their water rights, the situation is complicated by the fact that Los Angeles’ theft of the Owens Valley’s water was technically legal.
However, that victory was also tinged by the era’s unrestrained, unethical business practices, political corruption, and irresponsible use of power by a small but powerful oligarchy unrestrained by ethics. Legal or not, the Owens Valley situation and others like it were essentially conspiracies which claimed to help the region at large but really made only a few already-powerful people even richer and more powerful. As far as growth is concerned, slow growth measures alone would not suffice, since the Southwest is already extremely populous and its economy depends heavily on development.
Also, the region’s job growth could not simply be halted immediately; dealing with the region’s growth requires careful management and much more attention paid to how many people the region’s resources could safely sustain. Cadillac Desert is not only an astute, sharply critical history of the West’s most valuable resource; it also asks critical questions about the wisdom of continuing to develop a region unsuited for a large population. Ultimately, Reisner claims, Americans will have to reckon with the folly of altering nature for the sake of political and economic gain, and their great accomplishments may not endure for much longer.