Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert covers the history of water in the Western United States. The book looks at the first white explorers to the grand dams, powerplants, and canals of the US Bureau of Reclamation. Reisner took great pains to document the political machinations through 1986. It is a deep dive into the transformation of the American West from a desert not fit for human life to an agricultural and urban behemoth.
Reisner didn’t hide his opinion: “The drought itself, which may end up a more costly disaster than all of these combined, qualifies best as punishment meted out to an impudent culture by an indignant God.” He felt that careerist bureaucrats, bloated land barons, greedy politicians “tamed” the wild rivers of the West in the search for cheap water and money. As the free and plentiful water drew more and more people to the desert, the plenty of it became more and more challenged. Surprisingly, not much has changed in the realm of water & the West in the last 30 years. The issues have gotten more pressing as groundwater depletion worsened through years of drought. The state of California is only now taking some of the ideas in this book into accord. But water remains prioritized to farms. Farms which left to nature would be “reclaimed” by the desert in the blink of an eye. Population growth in the Southwest exacerbate the problem to an immeasurable degree.
What struck me through reading was how little has changed. Through a rigged political system, a few wealthy white men pull strings to make their accounts larger, and work in concert with the to affect outcomes in such a grand scale. While we can give most of the people involved the benefit of the doubt, the problems multiply as they try to solve one water issue. Dams work for so long … and then they don’t. Irrigation of the desert might not have been the country’s finest idea.
So what do we do next?