Cadillac Desert
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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!

"Beautifully written and meticulously researched."-St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This updated study of the economics, politics, and ecology of water covers more than a century of public and private desert reclamation in the American West.

Customer Reviews:

  • The Western Water Bible
    A beautifully written, thoughtful book about all aspects of western development and overdependence on the scarce water resources in our area. No less important today than the day it was written. Marc Reisner will be missed - he gave voice to this sort of issue like few others could....more info
  • An essential, action-packed story of water policy (yes, you read that right)
    In "Cadillac Desert," Marc Reisner tells the story of how the American West destroyed its rivers with unnecessary dams. Environmentalists are often accused of opposing economic growth, but Reisner shows that the dam-builders - - and not their opponents - - were the ones ignoring economic criteria. As a result of the "beaver complex" of the Bureau of Reclamation and the US Army Corps of Engineers, we have a bunch of money-losing dams providing subsidized water to grow subsidized crops at high prices.

    In other words, the beavers destroy wealth and jobs at the same time they destroy rivers, wetlands, and Indian reservations. Indirectly, they also contribute to the farm crisis in wetter areas such as the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys and the eastern seaboard.

    It would be easy to unleash an army of econometricians to document the phenomenal waste of these dams. However, Reisner manages to provide us with an action narrative of these two out-of-control bureaucracies and a demented, pork-addled legislature. Let me repeat this, because it's the most remarkable feature of the book: an action narrative of two bureaucracies. The man can write.

    He also gives us capsule biographies of leading figures - - including a full chapter on Floyd Dominy, the high priest of dam building. These people destroyed our rivers, not in the pursuit of growth, but in the pursuit of corporate welfare and back-room deals that move wealth around without creating any new wealth. Every environmentalist and anti-environmentalist needs to read the book.

    In short, this is a riveting story, very well told. Not only is it highly recommended, but I join with many other reviewers in saying that this book should be required reading for all American citizens. ...more info
  • Every American needs to read this book.
    Or anyone thinking about moving/living west of the 100th meridian.

    One of the best modern non-fiction books ever written, period....more info
  • The closest to definitive on western water
    Cadillac Desert is as close as there is to the definitive treatment (current to its time, of course, but still highly useful) on how water was manipulated, and civilization imposed, in the American west. It reads like a novel - this is a book on water rights and civil engineering that kept me up until the early hours of the morning.

    It covers the territory too - all the major projects (there have been no new massive ones in some decades) that reshaped the west. All the conflicts, issues and implications are well represented.

    I saw Reisner speak to a regional planning group some years ago in Boise, and he was clearly not just a fine researcher but also a thoughtful analyst. The questions Cadillac Desert raises are many, and Reisner didn't suggest he had all the answers (though he offered a few). But having the history in hand is the first step....more info
  • Incredible read
    Putting to shame the politicians, bureaucrats, ideologies, and cultural ignorances that led to damming nearly every river in the West, this book is brilliantly written--a classic of environmental literature.

    That's all that needs to be said. Please read this. ...more info
  • Cadillac Desert
    Really good read. If blue gold is important to you, this is agreat longitudinal study...more info
  • A Classic Must Read
    This book is a must read for anyone interested in the future of the American West. Mr. Reisner's writing style is engaging and thought-provoking and his grasp of the english language immense (keep a dictionary handy). This lesson in history and human nature serves as a wake-up call that the practices of the past can no longer be tolerated.

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Reisner a few months before his death, and hearing him present his ideas regarding the future of our water resources. His ideas are more relevant than ever; he will be greatly missed....more info

  • Outstanding
    This was an outstanding book. Filled with a lot of information I had only partially known, and seldom understood. The story of thousands of dams built for no reason other then to keep two Federal agencies in business. Some success and some death causing failures. A must read for anyone west of the Mississippi with a interest in the historical infrastructure of the western states despite the massive mishandling of Federal funds to aid in ecological disaster. A true study in government math at alludes us all. ...more info
  • The continuing fallout of water wars and dam building
    This is the definitive history of water in the American West. A must read for any Californian, this tale of how America brought civilization to the desert is a fascinating look at political power, gargantuan engineering projects, and hubris. The reality is that the 9 million residents of Los Angeles County need to get water from somewhere. Cadillac Desert tells you how it gets there and what price is still being paid....more info
  • never dry!
    The American experiment in democracy has degenerated into a plutocracy, in which wealth and power preempt democracy's ideals of equality and freedom [cf Kevin Phillips' Wealth & Democracy]. While Phillips gives a depressing history of the decline, and its corruption thru the centuries, Cadillac Desert focuses on perhaps the biggest corrupter of all - the sprawling water projects of the American West, in which water is diverted at huge cost to grow crops no one needs, all to support giant corporations that threaten to wipe out the family farms that were the rationale for the projects in the first place. Taken together, these books demonstrate that ideology or the party in power matters little - elections become a charade, masking the control of government by capital and its corporate controllers....more info
  • "whoa, slow down a minute son!"
    I found Cadillac Desert to be a page turner but I also caught myself frowning at times. As someone who has spent his life mostly in California, but also in Texas and now Oregon, I was reasonably familiar with the issues discussed. While I agree with Reisner that great injustices have been wrought on the environment and against the citizens of the western states to the benefit of wealthy corporations, I think that Reisner should let the facts stand for themselves. Instead, (I felt that) he made it a point to mock those whose policies were counter to his own beliefs. Perhaps this makes the book flow, and increases its appeal (re: sells more copies), but I would have preferred to have more substance than, for example, discussions of the sexual appetite of one of Reisner's villains. Such character studies weaken his arguments and stain him with the partisanship of which he seemed so critical. Thus, we get a story of good vs. evil, as if scripted by Disney, and Reisner even leaves us with a happy ending. One other minor issue is that the use of figures did very little to illustrate the magnitudes involved. Though probably few readers are interested in taking the time to truly examine what the numbers mean, I found it difficult to grasp the meaning when he compared the amount of water flowing in one river to the amount of water used by, say, New York City.

    Now then, the comments above notwithstanding, I found myself engrossed with Cadillac Desert and though it was perhaps not as eye opening as it would be to someone from east of the 100th meridian, nevertheless, this was not the stuff taught in California history when I was in school. It also led me to waste time at work - such as I am doing currently - digging for more information about water usage, and I have annoyed my wife, a civil/environmental engineer, with countless questions related to water resources engineering. While I have not given this book a particularly high rating, I think that it is highly enjoyable and a perfect book for anyone who struggles to stomach nonfiction. Mr. Reisner, I apologize to you for asking too much; I was hoping for a book that would serve as a rallying point for all of us concerned about water use manipulation in the West. However, though you are probably dead on accurate on most counts, your obvious passion makes Cadillac Desert too personal to stand as an impartial statement of fact....more info

  • Highly Recommended
    Essential reading for anyone living in the American West or living in the East and subsidizing water rates in the West....more info
  • One of the Great Books
    This book is great because it is a technical book that reads like a novel; this makes it accessible to non-experts, all of whom should read it....more info
  • Required for Southern Californians
    I will never take for granted a car wash or green grass in So. California after reading this book. Excellent read, on par with John McPhee....more info
  • Cadillac Desert
    If you want to see how U.S. government policy and greed has encouraged the wasteful use of water in The West, this is the book you should read. Every politician should read this book so that more rational decisions are made with regard to our national resources. The book is well written and a joy to read even though the information provided will make you wonder why we as a nation are willing to sacrifice the future for our immediate short-term gains....more info
  • Essential reading for our time
    AKA...those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. It's essential reading on the mismanagement of arguably our most critical resource: drinking water.

    Meticulously researched and quite well written, it's rare to find a non-fiction book that can be classified a page-turner, but this it it....more info
  • bona fide page-turner, eye-opener, and mind-blower
    A compelling documentary history on the West's water problems. If the idea of a revisionist history on the West is something new for you, this is as good a place to start as any. Written by a journalist and master storyteller, the book reads like a cross between a documentary, investigative report, and a suspense novel. Reisner writes with a pronounced partisan (pro-environment) bent that is entertaining and provocative, but nonetheless sometimes distracting, even to a reader who embraces his point of view.

    As for content, Cadillac Desert covers a broad range of history and issues across the West, focusing mostly on the construction of the Western dams, and the federal bureaucratic and pork-barrel culture surrounding it, but also covering other stories such as the LA-Owens Valley water battle. It is far from the "definitive" statement in this field; such a work would occupy many volumes. Also, because of its narrative approach, the book offers less in terms of overarching social and economic analysis (Worster's Rivers of Empire is more insightful along these lines). Cadillac Desert's greatest value, however, lies in its compelling presentation -- it may not lay out all the answers, but it is bound to get your juices flowing, wherever your ideological impulses may lie, and spark further interest and investigation....more info

  • Owen Valley, Colorado River, Hoover Dam, Grand Coolee, St Francis
    Water and power are the resources that everyone wants and needs. Cadillac desert is the story of the fight to control hydro electric power, flood control, water to the desert, and the battles between the bureau of reclaimation and the army civil corps.

    Owen Valley project bring water for thousands in the Los Angeles Desert basin. The Owen Valley project illustrates how water became a commodity to be traded, managed, and sold. The Owen Valley project demostrates capitalistic strategy, innovation linking the water costs distributed also to the San Fernando Valley, capture water rights, and building dams using private money.

    Government projects, Colorado river, the Nile of America, the construction of the Hoover Dam and the inspiration to build the Grand Coolee. Hydro electric dams provide the reservoir of water for the inhabitants of the desert. Selling the water and the electricity offset the cost of irrigation for the farmers. The Hoover Dam brought into control and subjugation the mighty Colorado with is million plus cubic foot flow and silt movement.

    Klamath the second nile, the potential no usage of the thousands of acres of land, the destruction of seven cities, and numerous of possible scenarios of piping water to Los Angeles.

    Controlling water is done by building reservoirs which accumulate the water; the resevoir must be built in a location where the maximum amount of run off water converges or other rivers intersect and water volume is high. Reservoir water storage is weighted against the transportation costs of the water to remote desert locations requiring tunneling through mountains, diversion through valleys, and siphoning from one water source into another. The cost to move the water often dictates where the source will be located.

    Desalination is competing for the future. For example, Carlsbad, California is starting to build a $300 million water desalination plant. It will produce 50 million gallons of water a day, enough to supply water for 100,000 homes. World wide there are about 13,080 desalination plants producing more that 12 billion gallons of water a day.

    As runoff slows and water from the Colorado becomes less reliable desalination becomes more feasible.

    Poseidon plans to sell water for $950 per acre foot, 325,851 gallons of water; the plant estimates it will cost $1.10 per 1000 gallons of water to filter.

    How does it work? 1. Seawater enters the plant and filters coarser particles, sand, sediment, and dirt 2. the pretreated water is force under high pressure through semipermeable membrane which separates the salt and minerals from the water 3. fresh water is store in a reservoir for usage 4. The concentrated brine residue is discharged back into the sea.
    ...more info
  • History as entertainment
    Many people often find history to be a boring subject, whether in school, as a TV show, or as dinner conversation. And within the broad subject of history, few are considered as boring as the topic of public works. Wars, great leaders, sex scandals, spy stories, and scientific revolutions are the common topics of history shows and history best-sellers. Yet so few history books are as entertaining or enjoyable as this tome from the now-deceased Marc Reisner. This book's subject matter is man's attempts to control water flow in the US west of the Appalachias. This includes dams, canals, reservoirs, river diversions, and numerous other public works projects related to water. Some mention is made of irrigation by Native Americans, but most of the text is on public works done in the 20th century by the US federal government, and occasionally some state governments. The book explores the politics (local and national) behind various dams and other projects, and shows how these human constructions affected local economies and ecologies. Names like Hoover Dam, Grand Teton Dam, Central Arizona Project, and San Joaquin Valley are covered here. The author also highlights key individuals involved in dams throughout US history; such as LBJ, Floyd Dominy, Carl Hayden, and John Powell.

    The book's chapters flow in a chronological order, with some chapters backtracking in time to cover different regions of the US. The text itself flows quickly and is written very well with the author taking time to include comedy in the form of irony, shortsightedness and outright stupidity on the part of many public servants. Several black and white photos provide the only illustrations. The only drawback of the book is the paucity of maps. Many of the rivers mentioned in the text are not immediately recognizable to the lay reader. But all in all, I consider this one of the best history books of the 1990's. ...more info
  • Ahead of its time
    This was a return engagement to "Cadillac Desert", as I had read the original in the 1980s, amazed at the time, considering it a premier example of thorough history and analysis in a subject about which few people knew much at all. What could have been a "dry" subject was actually quite gripping and informative, and fortunate to have many participants in key moments still available.

    In that sense the author was ahead of his time, documenting essential history that looks all the more important twenty years later. No doubt the book would still be fresh history to many, especially if supplemented by some other source on more current topics. I can only imagine what Mr. Reisner would think of the explosive growth of Las Vegas in the barren Nevada desert in recent years.

    I finally got to the revised edition and certainly feel the loss of Marc Reisner, who would have had plenty of material for another revision or two. The additional material is a plus, although it, too, has been around long enough for either edition to be a worthwhile reference.

    The growth of Los Angeles and the whole situation with the Owens Valley, San Fernando Valley, William Mulholland, the Chandlers, and so on, is exceptional, and can be read almost on its own. Perhaps there is a more definitive history, with more emphasis on some individuals or some other angle. Reisner packs a punch, laying it all out bluntly, including the fraud and corruption along with social and technical aspects.

    Another favorite was the early history of the unexplored West, such as John Wesley Powell's prescience and his journey down the virgin Colorado. How much the region has changed in such a short time, and how extensive were our errors.

    This is a first-rate history.


    ...more info
  • Must read
    Loads of information and keep your dictionary at your side. Historic yet witty and engaging,...more info
  • this is what i'd been missing?
    Cadillac Desert is a plodding book that spends more time making sideways remarks about its characters than establishing it's own narrative. Plagued by numerous typographical errors, it reads in fits and starts. While its message of government excess and because-we-can justification for modifying the natural landscape is surely worthwhile, if repetitive, the fact of the matter is that two generations of farmers, ranchers and urbanites in the American West looked to the Bureau of Reclamation as the only organization suited to develop their water resources. The dated material is noticeable at times--who but a civil engineer now knows of the Teton Dam failure? why the concern over the Central Arizona Project that has operated for nearly two decades?--and the treatment of the material is done with an eye toward stirring the reader's emotions more than informing them. Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire deals with much the same material in a more thorough and even-handed, though academic, manner....more info
  • Water deveopment in the Western United States
    The book for me starts slow. The beginning overview that it provides was very helpful to frame the subject of water which is something many may take for granted. I believe the author has a very sophisticated way of writing. As an example I found this passage very interesting; "Everyone liked Sandy--he was amiable, a teddy bear, a sort of irrepressibly cheerful Mr. Micawber." Now if I hand not read Charles Dickens, "David Copperfield" I would not have understood what he was insinuating about this person. For a non-fiction book his building of characters was well done. The story of William Mulholland was interesting and well researched. His accounts of Floyd Dominy seemed bigger than life. And I would have liked to know more about John Wesley Powell. Although the book provides new insights into unrealized areas, the story at times seemed a little drawn out. What really brought it all back together for me was the afterword to the revised edition. It provides some hope for the future with a very human explanation of our governments short comings. Even through some slow passages, this books provides an excellent account of the history of water in the West. ...more info
  • A book with appeal to the Right and to environmentalists!
    "Cadillac Desert" was a poignant, well-researched, thoughtful book that discards traditional "right/left" arguments to demonstrate how complicated the water resource issue truly is. The environmental movement will certainly approve of his damning appraisal of the needless and reckless damming of the West (no pun intended), while conservatives will agree with his assessment that the damns were built by New Deal Democrats whose bureaucratic maneuverings would be the envy of any Soviet planner. Conservatives will also be livid at how much of a tax burden we're bearing over these silly boondoggles. Dams in the west, by and large, were constructed to irrigate wastelands to grow crops that our tax dollars are being spent to subsidize farmers in the arable South, Midwest, and Northeast US to NOT grow! Farmers in the western US pay *peanuts* for their water. So who did/does pay for it? That's correct. You and I! Reisner also makes the connection between cattle ranching and our disappearing water resources. Taking long showers and leaving the tap on while brushing teeth is NOT the root of the water problem in the west. The true culprits are the big corporate cattle ranches, along with crops like alfalfa and sorghum that are used to feed livestock. Politicians are going to have to make some very tough choices, and Americans are going to need to reevaluate their use of cow products if we want to ensure an abundant and cheap supply of fresh water in the future....more info
  • A Glimpse of the Future
    Reisner's supremely researched and very readable account of American's water policy in the western United States represents the very best type of historical writing. It provides a record of the past, the consequences to the present and a glimpse of the future. The impact of too little water for too many uses by an ever increasing number of people clearly demonstrates the need for restraint in area's which American has a voracious appetite - growth and consumption.

    As I write this review the impact of those appetites has come to roost in my hometown - Klamath Falls, Oregon. The worst drought in 100 years, the Bureau of Reclamation reducing irrigation flows by 90%, farmers going bankrupt and water quality eroded. Multiple federal laws colliding - Endangered Species Act, irrigation regulations, treaties with Indian Tribes - and a county sheriff asking the Federal Government to stop guarding the gates that control the flow of what little water is left. All the result of a water policy spun out of control.

    It's one thing when this scenario plays out in a region of 50,000 people. What will happen when the same thing comes to Denver, or Dallas, or Phoenix, or Las Vegas? It will come - to all of them - and more....more info

  • A great book
    An inspiring piece of work. It makes a rather "dry" subject interesting and entertaining as well. Perhaps my favorite non-fiction book....more info
  • On becoming an informed West-coaster..
    I read this book on the recommendation of several friends and was impressed by its universal scope of the subject matter. I found the historical persepective fascinating: the development of LA, the huge dams that won wars, and the interplay of government agencies with too much power and too little foresight to understand the world they were shaping. Reisner manages to bring a somewhat stale subject to life (bureaucrat battles in D.C.) with convincing character sketches and situation set ups that were immensely entertaining.

    I did however notice a thread of his personal feelings spilling over into some of the discussions that in the middle of the book made me stop devouring wholeheartedly his opinions and summaries of the world he describes. I was getting used to him throwing these facts out there and letting you draw the obvious conclusion but then he loses a bit of that objective voice. But this is a minor issue. Cadillac Desert is one of the most informative and startling books I've come across about the settlement of the American West, and to agree with another reviewer, this should be required reading for those living in that part of the U.S....more info

  • A Neccessary Book of American History
    Marc Reisiner has written a book that should be on every book list to read by the under graduate. I am ordering my third one as I have given the others away. Whether interested in American government or not, this is a must read for everyone. This account of how the Water Laws were used for private gain as well as some put to good use is astounding. I think this book goes hand in hand with the corrupt handling of the BIA as both have provided interesting money and land to politicians....more info
  • America's Growing Deserts
    This book was an alarming, eye-opening account of how the United States is running out of it's own water resources that provide for many of desert urban areas. Why is it that we are settling in areas that are not natural for us as human beings to live in, and depleting our water resources and damaging natural beauty in order to live in seemingly uninhabital areas, such as Las Vegas, and Phoenix? This book looks to address this and much much more. A great read for anyone interested in enviromental politics and issues in the U.S.....more info
  • Great Read
    This book covers an issue that many people are probably aware of but have no idea to what extent this problem reaches. Much of the Western United States, particularly the Southwest and California, is located in a desert ecosystem that gets less than 10 inches of rain per year. The chapters of this book cover a broad spectrum of topics pertaining to water problems in the west. The rapid depletion of the streams and rivers, the history of human life in the west, the environmentally harmful effect that humans have had on the hydrosphere, and the political struggles from state to state over water rights are just some of the important topics touched on by the author, Marc Reisner.
    The growth of the west, especially the booming populations of Phoenix, which went from a population of 65,000 in 1940 to 439,000 in 1960 (p. 269), San Diego, and Los Angeles, which was "growing like a gourd in the night" (p. 129), caused these cities and others to depend on outside water supplies such as the Colorado River. However, this rampant river does not have enough water to support many of the surrounding states which were turning to it for irrigation needs.
    The Colorado River Compact divided the river randomly for seven states to be allotted certain amounts of water. This led to a long, hard fought political struggle between the states. To add to the problem, some of the water needed to be set aside for Mexico in order to avoid legal troubles. The Colorado River became diverted every which way by multiple dams in order to bring water to many of these booming cities that probably did not belong in this arid desert in the first place. The amazing part about this water diversion is that nearly all of the water consumed goes to irrigation; 85% in California, 90% in Arizona, and in many other Western states the figure is closer to 100% (p. 9).
    Throughout the 20th century, the problem concerning this lack of water was in the back of many politicians minds. At the same time, money had to be made and many people thought the need for irrigation outweighed any consequences pertaining to this loss of water. A significant ecological problem that I was previously unaware of is the salinity problem from streams and rivers when using the water to irrigate land with high salinity contents. Many of the rivers that feed the Colorado are filtered through irrigated, saline earth. When the water spreads out into a dammed lake or reservoir, much of the water is evaporated while the salt is left behind on the land. This had become a huge problem in the San Joaquin Valley in California, where this salty water is used to irrigate the crops since it is a very dry region. Once the crops are irrigated, the good water is evaporated, leaving behind the salty water which kills a lot of the crops. This is a difficult problem to solve which has an extremely large economic and ecological effect.
    Another interesting section of this book covers the history of human settlement in parts of Arizona. The Hohokam was a thriving culture that consisted of approximately 400,000 people between about A.D 800 and 1400 (p. 265). Their culture is relatively unheard of by many people yet the study of their culture may have a profound effect on the people living in Arizona today. The Hohokam were sophisticated society in a variety of ways for their time, especially their irrigation techniques that helped them survive in the arid desert. However, for some reason they were suddenly wiped out around 1400, probably due to water problems. Reisner states it superbly, saying that "the disappearance of Hohokam civilization seems linked to water: they either had too little or used too much. And that is the problem that Arizona faces today." ...more info