Must Read Books:
Cadillac Desert

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. by Mark Reisner. NY: Viking, 1986.

Note: The following are notes from the above book. I found the book seminal, eye-opening, life-changing. I recommend that you buy and read the entire book. Only by reading the entire book will you get the whole picture. The following quotes, I hope, will whet your appetite. --Colby Glass


"The point is that despite heroic efforts and many billions of dollars, all we have managed to do in the arid West is turn a Missouri-size section green -- and that conversion has been wrought mainly with nonrenewable groundwater" (5).

"... one runs up against the holiness of the blooming desert. Western congressmen, in the 1970s, were perfectly willing to watch New York City collapse when it was threatened with bankruptcy and financial ruin... But they were not willing to see one acre of irrigated land succumb to the forces of nature, regardless of the cost. So they authorized probably $1 billion worth of engineered solutions to the Colorado salinity problem in order that a few hundred upstream farmers could go on irrigating and poisoning the river" (8).

"... California's very existence is premised on epic liberties taken with water... Most of it is used for irrigation -- 85 percent of it, to be exact. That is a low percentage, by western standards. In Arizona, 90 percent of the water consumed goes to irrigation; in Colorado and New Mexico, the figure is almost as high. In Kansas, Nevada, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Montana; even in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho -- in all of those states, irrigation accounts for nearly all of the water that is consumptively used" (9).

"... all those [dammed] rivers and reservoirs satisfy only 60 percent of the demand. The rest of the water comes from under the ground" (9).

"In the San Joaquin Valley, pumping now exceeds natural replenishment by more than half a trillion gallons a year... a mining operation that, in sheer volume, beggars the exhaustion of oil. How long it can go on, no one knows" (10).

"The vanishing groundwater in Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Nebraska is all part of the Ogallala aquifer, which holds two distinctions: one of being the largest discrete aquifer in the world, the other of being the fastest-disappearing aquifer in the world... some farmer withdraw as much as five feet of water a year, while nature puts back a quarter of an inch" (10-11).

"The states knew the groundwater couldn't last forever... so, like the Saudis with their oil, they had to decide how long to make it last. A reasonable period, they decided, was twenty-five to fifty year" (11).


"In [John Wesley] Powell's day, that passion for wealth had if anything grown more intense. A pseudoscientific dogma, Social Darwinism, had been invented to give predatory behavior a good name... the United State might become a nation of small farmers after all -- which was exactly what most Americans didn't want. For this was the late nineteenth century, when, as Henry Adams wrote, "the majority at last declared itself, once and for all, in favor of the capitalistic system with all its necessary machinery... the whole mechanical consolidation of force... ruthlessly... created monopolies capable of controlling the new energies that America adored"" (50-51).


"When archaeologists from some other planet sift through the bleached bones of our civilization, they may well conclude that our temples were dams. Imponderably massive, constructed with exquisite care, our dams will outlast anything else we have built...

"The permanence of our dams will merely impress the archaeologists; their numbers will leave them in awe. In this century, something like a quarter of a million have been built in the United States alone" (108).

"Why did we feel compelled to build so many? Why five dozen on the Missouri and its major tributaries? Why twenty-five on the Tennessee? Why fourteen on the Stanislaus River's short run from the Sierra Nevada to the sea?" (109).


"By 1890, the third year of the drought, it was obvious that the theory that rain follows the plow was a preposterous fraud. The people of the plains states, still shell-shocked by the great white winter, began to turn back east. The population of Kansas and Nebraska declined by between one-quarter and one-half. Tens of thousands went to the wetter Oklahoma territory, which the federal government usurped from the five Indian tribes to whom it had been promised in perpetuity...

"When statistics were collected a few years later, only 400,000 homesteading families had managed to persevere on the plains, of more than a million who tried. The Homestead Acts... west of the hundredth meridian... were for the most part a failure.. " (111).


"The rapid rise of the federal irrigation movement of the early 1890s... " (112).

"... the American West quietly became the first and most durable example of the modern welfare state...

"The passage of the Reclamation Act of 1902 was... a sharp left turn in the course of American politics.." (115).

"Every Senator.. wanted a project in his state; every Congressman wanted one in his district; they didn't care whether they made economic sense or not" (120).


"The Colorado... has more people, more industry, and a more significant economy dependent on it than any comparable river in the entire world. If the Colorado River suddenly stopped flowing, you would have two years of carryover capacity in the reservoirs before you had to evacuate most of Southern California and Arizona and a good portion of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The river system provides over half the water of greater Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix; it grows much of America's domestic production of fresh winter vegetables; it illuminates the neon city of Las Vegas, whose annual income is one-fourth the entire gross national product of Egypt -- the only other place on earth where so many people are so helplessly dependent on one river's flow. The greater portion of the Nile, however, still managges, despite many diversions, to reach its delta below the Mediterranean Sea. The Colorado is so used up on its way to the sea that only a burbling trickle reaches its dried-up delta at the head of the Gulf of California, and then only in wet years. To some conservationists, the Colorado River is the preeminant symbol of everything mankind has done wrong -- a harbinger of a squalid and deserved fate. To its preeminent impounder, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, it is the perfection of an ideal" (125-6).

"The Colorado... is still unable to satisfy all the demands on it... And though there are plans to relieve the "deficit" -- plans to import water from as far away as Alaska -- the twenty million people in the Colorado Basin will probably find themselves facing chronic shortages, if not some kind of catastrophe, before any of these grandiose schemes is built.. " (126).


"With river-basin accounting... a lot of bad projects -- economically infeasible ones -- created a rationale for building more, not fewer dams. The dams -- all with hydroelectric features, of course -- would be required to compensate for the financial losses of the irrigation projects; the losses would miraculously vanish in the common pool of revenues.

"... On the other hand, it was something akin to a blanket death sentence for the free-flowing rivers in sixteen states" (142).


"The age of dams reached its apogee in the 1950s and 1960s, when hundreds upon hundreds of them were thrown up, forever altering the face of the continent -- but most of those dams were middle-sized, squat, utilitarian, banal. The 1930s were the glory days. No dam after Hoover has ever quite matched its grace and glorious detail" (165).


"The whole business was like a pyramid scheme -- the many (the taxpayers) were paying to enrich the few... And this, as much as the economic folly, was the legacy of the go-go years: the corruption of national politics... Most members [of Congress] who voted for such bills had not the faintest idea what was in them; they didn't care; they didn't dare look. All that mattered was that there was something in it for them" (174-5).


Effect on Indians

"One of the least-known consequences of water development in America is its impact on the Indians who hadn't already succumbed to the U.S. Cavalry, smallposs, and social rot. Although many of the tribes had been sequestered on reservations that were far from the riverbottoms where they used to live...

"The three tribes whom Lewis and Clark encountered along the Missouri River in North Dakota were the Mandan, the Hidatsa, and the Arikara. Perhaps because they were generally peaceful and had helped the explorers (Lewis and Clark spent their first winter with the Mandan, and their adopted Shoshone-Mandan interpreter, Sacajawea, probably saved their lives), the associated Three Tribes were later rewarded with some of the better reservation land in the West: miles of fertile bottoms along the serpentine Missouri, which they used mainly for raising cattle. These were the same lands that the Bureau of Reclamation considered the best winter cattle range in the state, and which it said ought never to be drowned by a reservoir. Under the Corps of Engineers plan, however, the Three Tribes' reservation would sit directly under the reservoir behind Garrison Dam.

"The Corps had, of course, taken extraordinary care not to inundate any of the white towns that were situated along the river... For the sake of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, where the Mandan and Arikara and Hidatsu lived, no such intricate gerrymandering of reservoir outlines was even attempted... Virtually every productive acre of bottom-land the tribes owned would go under" (194-5).

"[According to the new law] The Fort Berthold tribes would not even be permitted to fish in the reservoir. Their cattle would not be allowed to drink from it, or graze by it. The right to purchase hydroelectricity at cost was abrogated. The tribes were forbidden to use any compensatory money they received to hire attorneys. They were not even allowed to cut the trees that would be drowned by the reservoir..." (197-8).

"To eliminate any possibility that Congress or the President might succumb to a tender conscience and eliminate Garrison Dam from the Pick-Sloan Plan, the Corps had already begun work on it in 1945, three years before the agreement with the Indians was signed...

"The Fort Berthold Indians have never recovered from the trauma they underwent" (198).

The project made no economic or environmental sense. ".. the irrigation canals and local storage reservoirs.. consumed nearly as much productive farmland as the irrigation water.. created [at a cost of $1000 per acre] -- in the case of the Garrison Diversion Project, 220,000 acres for canals and reservoirs versus 250,000 new acres irrigated. In addition... 73,000 more acres of superb waterfowl habitat [was to be converted] into farm fields. Not only that, but it could easily have introduced parasitese and competitive trash fish from the Missouri into streams emptying into Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba... The Canadians, in fact, had been screaming objections into the deaf ear of the Bureau for years, and even sent a series of stern diplomatic protests to the State Department" (200).


"No one will know how many ill-conceived water projects were built by the Bureau and the Corps simply because the one agency thought the other would build it first" (209).

"It was difficult to conceive of a more worthless project, but in the 1950s and 1960s projects as dubious as Bowman-Haley had a way of getting built... A lot of tax money had gone for a thimbleful of water" (210).

"...it was typical of the way the Bureau operated. If it had a cash-flow problem, the losers would be the people who had had the bad judgment to own property in the valleys it wanted to flood with its reservoirs" (213).


"Throughout its history, the conservation movement had been little more than a minor nuisance to the water-development interests in the American West. They had, after all, twice managed to invade National Parks with dams; they had decimated the greatest salmon fisher in the world, in the Columbia River; they had taken the Serengeti of North America -- the virgin Central Valley of California, with its thousands of grizzly bears and immense clouds of migratory waterfowl and its million and a half antelope and tule elk -- and transformed it into a banal palatinate of industrial agriculture" (250).


Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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