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Cadillac desert : the American West and its…
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Cadillac desert : the American West and its disappearing water (original 1986; edição 1986)

por Marc Reisner

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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.
Título:Cadillac desert : the American West and its disappearing water
Autores:Marc Reisner
Informação:New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Penguin Books, 1987, c1986.
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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water por Marc Reisner (1986)

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Marc Reisner's book, originally written in 1986, provides a detailed overview of water management (and sometimes mismanagement) in the United States. His primary focus is on the Southwest, since that's the most water deprived region of the Country, and where the need for water is greatest. Reisner begins with an overview of the natural features and climate of the region, and what life was like for the historical peoples prior to the exploration and settlement by Europeans and early Americans. Centuries ago, ancient Native American peoples such as Hohokam or Anasazi, may have been forced to abandon the Southwest due to periods of sustained drought. Smaller Native American settlements continued in the region after the Hohokam disappeared, but those tribes tended to move from location to location to find game and water.

In the early part of the book, Reisner, describes some of the exploits of early European and American explorers of the region, including Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado seeking gold, Lewis & Clarke after the Louisiana Purchase, and Mountain Men such as Jedidiah Smith and Zebulon Pike. He also describes John Wesley Powell's successful exploration of the Colorado River, which is a story in itself. In general, these explorers found the Southwest dry, arid, and basically unsuitable for widespread settlements for farmers or ranchers.

It wasn't until the Mormons began settling in Utah, and then the discovery of gold in the late 1800's, that interest in the region grew. The discovery of gold and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad brought settlers in droves to the region. Railroad representatives encouraged land sales along their right of way, but lack of water limited the suitability for growing crops, grazing cattle, or settlements. Despite that limitation, gold fever swelled the population, exacerbating the need for water. Early settlers along rivers and streams could manage, but water wasn't always available to downstream settlers or those further from the water. And since rain in many areas is infrequent, much of the land remained unsuitable for sustained agricultural use. Because of the lack of adequate surface water, any additional water had to come from underground aquifers. But technology at the time didn't allow for anything more than personal use. It wasn't until much later, when large capacity centrifugal pumps were developed, that underground aquifers could be used for large irrigation projects. But after that happened, those aquifers began to be depleted rapidly. Level drops as high a 5' / year, with replenishment of 0.25" / year was not uncommon, and clearly was not sustainable. Additional sources of water were needed.

While early settlers were hard working and determined, their individual efforts to capture water rarely led to long term success. It became obvious that the scale of reclamation needed to be a collective task. People formed private water companies, or petitioned to their Territories or States to make water available on a wider basis.

Reisner then gives us detailed looks at several early Western water projects, and the people instrumental in bringing them about. For example, he discusses how Los Angeles was able to be transformed from a tiny settlement to the megalopolis of today by the infusion of water from the Owens Valley and other areas. William Mulholland, head of the water district in Los Angeles, envisioned and created the infrastructure that brought water to LA, to the benefit of the Los Angeles citizens and the demise of the people around Owens Lake. Yet even after this mega-project, which allowed Los Angeles to grow, it soon proved to be insufficient, and tapping into the Colorado River was seen as a necessary next step.

The Reclamation Act of 1902, described by Reisner as an early flirtation with socialism, allowed the federal government to spend huge amounts of money creating massive irrigation projects in the Western for the benefit of a few. Once the Government became involved, many dams were built, and water became more available, encouraging settlements. The story of some of the great dam projects, such as the Hoover Dam and the Grand Coolie Dam, makes for interesting reading. But even with the development of early dams, availability of water continued to be an ongoing issue.
Many States were after water from the Colorado River, and a pact among several states was agreed upon in 1922. That pact governs water distribution rights among seven States, specifically California, Nevada, Arizona, known as the lower basis States, and New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, known as upper basin States. The Pact also promises Colorado River water to several Native American tribes as well as to Mexico. The Pact may work well in years of high rain and snowfall, but in dry periods, water availability falls below anticipated amounts. Unfortunately for some, shortages aren't shared proportionally among the states. For example, in periods of drought when available water from the Colorado River runs low, California has senior water rights, and by agreement, Arizona may have to shut off water to ensure California gets allotted amount of Colorado River water.

Today, the Colorado River is probably the most overused River in the West. An additional problem, as pointed out by Reisner, is that when the water compact which governs water use from the Colorada was prepared, it was based on unusually high rainfall periods over the previous years. Thus, the volume of Colorado River water falls short of allotments year after year. So additional sources of water needed to be found to support continued population expansion.

Other western rivers soon were targeted as water sources. Dams in the west were built for flood control by the Army Corps of Engineers and for irrigation projects by the Bureau of Reclamation. Reisner spends quite a bit of time telling us of the squabble between these two entities, and about some of the key individuals managing their efforts. One prominent individual was Floyd Dominy, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation in the 1960's. Dominy was a zealot for irrigation in the West, and fought for a number of great dams and water projects. A flawed individual, but a powerful lobbyist, Dominy was a force in Washington, and got many western irrigation projects authorized and funded by Congress.

Unfortunately, in describing how these agencies built dams in the region, and how they fought for support from Congress for their plans, we see how flawed the system was. Many projects couldn't be justified on a cost / benefit analysis, and many of these projects remain troubled to this day. There are stories of dam failures, how some dams did more harm than good, and how several are rapidly silting up, making them very short lived projects, and how water availability is still inadequate to meet conflicting needs.

Even today, as I read this book, disputes over appropriating water among various users continue. Just this week (mid-February, 2020), President Trump and Department of Interior management rewrote State approved agreements between fishing, environmental, and big farming groups in California. New Federal plans now favor farming interests, diverting water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta region, and sending more water to farming interests in the Central Valley. These new rules are contrary to the plans of the State of California which sought to balance conflicting needs. The new plan was overseen by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who before becoming Secretary of the Interior, was an attorney and lobbyist for the San Joaquin Valley's Westlands Water District. He also previously represented the Water District in a lawsuit that sought to undo court-imposed protections for endangered salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Now, as Secretary of the Interior, he was able to achieve what he couldn't do as a lobbyist, e.g., sacrifice the Bay-Delta and its most endangered species for the financial interests of the President’s political backers and Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s former clients. The fight for water is a continuing battle, especially in the Southwest, and is unlikely to change. But this example shows that not only can water be seen to flow downhill, but water also flows to money and power.

Throughout the book, one reads about a number of unnecessary, even unwanted water projects, but ones which were authorized because of lobbying or special interests. If you have a poor opinion of the way Government and Congress works, reading this book won't do anything to change your opinion. It's filled with examples of "pork barrel" projects, special interests, and parochialism among politicians. Western congressmen may strongly oppose spending money on funding Eastern mass transit projects, but support public spending on western water projects which benefit few wealthy farmers, especially those who are well connected. But of course, eastern politicians do the same supporting their pet projects at the expense of western projects.

In summary, "Cadillac Desert" and the 2017 update is an eye-opener for how water is made available in the western United States, and makes one appreciative on just how important clean, adequate water is to life everywhere. When you read about water shortages, contaminated water, or disappearing lakes around the world, like Lake Chad in Niger, Cameroon, Niger and Chad in Africa, or the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan, Lake Poopo in Bolivia, or Poyang Lake in China, you appreciate how important water management and conservation is to everyone, especially in a world with growing populations and changing climate. ( )
  rsutto22 | Jul 15, 2021 |
Greed and ignorance — the beat goes on. ( )
  LGCullens | Jun 1, 2021 |
Cadillac Desert is a tremendous work of natural science, history, environmentalism, and politics, and despite it having dated somewhat since its publication, it should be considered required reading for anyone interested in those subjects, or who happens to live anywhere west of the hundredth meridian.

It starts off by recounting the history of the exploration and development of the West, with a particular focus on John Wesley Powell, a fascinating figure in his own right. It then moves to the development and settling of the West, in particular the city of Los Angeles, the creation of new institutions to exploit and develop water resources, and the increasingly desperate and deranged water projects that were constructed at the behest of powerful groups who wanted to maintain the explosive growth of the region, and not always with the best interests of the citizenry at heart. An endless series of dams, diversions, and canals were constructed, as various Western states battled with their interest groups, each other, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation to obtain the water they needed to maintain their growth. The book closes with a discussion of the North American Water and Power Alliance, a water engineering project of such ludicrous scope - damming nearly every river in British Columbia and shipping the water to Los Angeles through transcontinental canals - that it would seem preposterous if not for all of the previous projects that came before it, and there's also an epilogue that shows the tangible consequences to salmon fisheries of interfering with the natural flow of water.

It's an extremely well-written book that will teach you a lot about the West, but it's also a polemic that raises a lot of questions about how the West got to be where it is today, and as I was reading it I found myself thinking a lot about the political dynamic on display here. A big chunk of the West is a lifeless, waterless hellhole that has no business being settled at all, much less farmed for crops like cotton or rice. Yet time and time again, extremely right-wing officials went running to the federal government to build them more and more dams and canals with extremely dubious financial or environmental merits, sucking money and people away from perfectly habitable states. As you read 700 pages of this, it's almost enough to make you into a states' rights kind of guy. I'm not keen on that almost meaningless catchphrase at all, but I think most opposition to states' rights comes from Civil War-era social issues like the South's miserable record on discrimination. Would states' rights be more acceptable in a purely economic context, like Canadian provinces? Where would NYC be today if it hadn't had to keep shoveling money into stupid canals across Arizona that were a waste of space, a waste of land, a waste of power, and even more of a waste of water? Weren't the richer states of the Northeast subsidizing selfishness in the Southwest? Is the New Deal vision of infrastructure as progress, the TVAs and LCRAs, simply a mistake?

Reisner has an excellent paragraph that makes this very point: "The irrigation farmers not only had come to expect heavily subsidized water as a kind of right, allowing them to pretend that the region's preeminent natural fact - a drastic scarcity of that substance - was an illusion. They now believed that if it turned out they couldn't afford the water, the Bureau (which is to say, the nation's taxpayers) would practically give it away. These farmers were about the most conservative faction in what may be the most politically conservative of all the fifty states. They regularly sent to Congress politicians eager to demolish the social edifice built by the New Deal - to abolish welfare, school lunch programs, aid to the handicapped, funding for the arts, even to sell off some of the national parks and public lands. But their constituents had become the ultimate example of what they decried, so coddled by the government that they lived in the cocoonlike world of a child. They remained oblivious to what their CAP water would cost them but were certain it would be offered to them at a price they could afford. The farmers had become the very embodiment of the costly, irrational welfare state they loathed - and they had absolutely no idea."

To that end, I was also struck by the similarity between those farmers, who were often incredibly reactionary oligarchs in their states, and businessmen who make their money off of things like oil, gas, or railroads (and often these were the same people). Is there something inherent to natural resource extraction that encourages plutocrat behavior as opposed to, say, software development? I have an unprovable pet theory about how the different incentives that come from making money off of a rivalrous and legally excludable good like natural resources makes entrepreneurs more likely to be dickheads than someone who gets rich off of developing human capital, but even this weren't true, it's remarkable how the same people who Reisner quotes as saying "Contracts are made to be broken" if the result is cheaper water will lobby their Congressmen for taxpayer-subsidized boondoggles. Reisner again: "In the Congress, water projects are a kind of currency, like wampum, and water development itself is a kind of religion. Senators who voted for drastic cuts in the school lunch program in 1981 had no compunction about voting for $20 billion worth of new Corps of Engineers projects in 1984, the largest such authorization ever. A jobs program in a grimly depressed city in the Middle West, where unemployment among minority youth is more than 50 percent, is an example of the discredited old welfare mentality; a $300 million irrigation project in Nebraska giving supplemental water to a few hundred farmers is an intelligent, farsighted investment in the nation’s future."

And that's another great aspect of the book, where it shows the perversities that this grand construction spree enabled in the federal bureaucracy itself. An astonishing percentage of these public works were built not so much to solve specific problems, but as part of a turf war between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. A dam could be used for flood control, irrigation, navigation/recreation, or drinking water, and there were tons of shell games between those uses so that one agency could steal a project away from the other. Bureau of Reclamation head Floyd Dominy, who was profiled a bit more sympathetically in John McPhee's masterful Encounters With the Archdruid, comes off as an evil civil servant version of LBJ in his ceaseless efforts to maximize his Bureau's budget and prestige regardless of how useless his dams were. He encouraged lots of cool scumbag behavior by Congressmen noted for it, like Jim Wright, the "Representative from American Airlines" who prevented Southwest Airlines from flying out of Love Field in Dallas to all but a few places just to protect American Airlines' headquarters at nearby DFW. Jimmy Carter was the only President to try to take on this system, and Congressmen of both parties and all ideological persuasions laughed in his face. Decades earlier, badass Senator Paul Douglas also tried to stand in the system's way, with a similarly depressing lack of results.

And in a way, it is morbidly fascinating to read about all of the underhanded deals that went down to do things like make LA the metastasized monster it is today. If you've seen the excellent film Chinatown the basic story will be familiar, but it's still impressive to read about William Mulholland's corrupt deals with Joseph Lippincott and diabolical Robert Moses-esque plots to gain Owens Valley's water rights, build aqueduct, and expand the city all at once. Or to see how shady contractors like Bechtel began life with shady contracts to build Boulder Canyon Dam. Or to learn how otherwise iconic stars like Woody Guthrie were hired to propagandize dams for the government in the name of Progress.

And on and on until you're confronted with what's more than an ideological dilemma, but an existential dilemma: what are these pharaonic structures doing to our civilization in the long run? Reisner mentions irrigating cultures like the Hohokam, the Sumerians, and the Egyptians, and how frail they ended up being. China wasn't yet on its dam-building tear in 1986 when the book was published, but he discusses the problems that the construction of the Aswan Dam had already had for Egypt, and how the country was likely to be forced to construct yet more gargantuan works to solve the problems of its earlier ones. He doesn't use this language, but it felt like a sort of Jevon's Paradox for water - each dam you build helps ameliorate groundwater depletion from dumb farming decisions, but that just ends up encouraging even more farming that ends up being a net loss: "illegal subsidies enrich big farmers, whose excess production depresses crop prices nationwide and whose waste of cheap water creates an environmental calamity that could cost billions to solve." In my city of Austin our aquifer seems like it will last a while, but it's always worth pondering the true sustainability of life on the wrong side of the Hundredth Meridian, and this book is one of the best at that you'll find. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
  pszolovits | Feb 3, 2021 |
Cadillac Desert is one of the most important books I have read this year. It provides a comprehensive discussion of the water-related challenges of the American West and it leaves the reader feeling very unsettled and concerned for the future of America. It provides a unique perspective on the history of the American West and illuminates both state and federal government agencies most people have probably ignored up until now. Finally, the book is beautifully written.

The book was originally written in the 1980s but was reissued in 2017 with a new afterword to catch you up in what happened since the book was originally published. ( )
  M_Clark | Nov 14, 2020 |
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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.

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