Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

by Marc Reisner

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water Analysis

Historical Context

Environmentalism
During the early 1980s, the energy of the environmental movement took a detour through the peace movement that had begun to undertake direct action against military stations and nuclear missiles. Catastrophes of the mid-1980s and the publication of books detailing the state of environmental degradation, such as the first State of the World Report in 1994, inspired new environmental awareness. The catastrophes of the mid-1980s include the worst industrial accident in history in Bhopal, India, in 1984. The Union Carbide plant exploded and a cloud of gas released from the plant killed 2,500 people. In 1986, a series of catastrophes brought environmentalism to the forefront of media concerns.

The NASA Challenger Shuttle explosion reignited concerns about the deployment of space vehicles—especially those carrying radioactive materials— because they could blow up or fall down, spreading radiation over populated parts of the globe. In the Soviet Union, the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl began decades of suffering amongst the Ukrainian locals as well as sending radioactive fallout over Europe. And then, a chemical spill in the Rhine River erased life from miles of river. In addition to these local events, the global warming debate began as more information was gathered about the hole in the ozone layer, first reported by British scientists studying in Antarctica in 1985.

Water Resources Development...

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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water Literary Style

Personification
In Cadillac Desert, rivers and the land are repeatedly personified in descriptions; this way, Reisner creates more empathy in the reader for nature as it undergoes tremendous change with numerous water projects. For example, when he describes the changes in the Colorado River flow due to silting, Reisner writes that ‘‘the Colorado slipped out of its loose confinement of low sandy bluffs and tore off in some other direction, instantly digging a new course . . . The river went on such errant flings every few dozen years.’’ He then describes the many water projects built on the Colorado River, and sadly notes:

Today, even though [it] still resembles a river only in its upper reaches and its Grand Canyon stretch . . . it is still unable to satisfy all the demands on it, so it is referred to as a ‘deficit’ river, as if the river were somehow at fault for its overuse.

Tone
The tone of Cadillac Desert is set by the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem Ozymandias in the book’s beginning, as well as with the chapter titles: ‘‘A Country of Illusion,’’ ‘‘Rivals in Crime,’’ ‘‘Those Who Refuse to Learn . . ., ’’ ‘‘Things Fall Apart,’’ and ‘‘A Civilization, if You Can Keep It.’’ Reisner sounds didactic throughout, and his rhetoric reveals a strong environmentalist agenda. In repeated evaluations of the American West development, he discusses some benefits of the development but always counterweights them with judgmental statements such as: ‘‘The cost of all this, however, was a vandalization of both our natural heritage and our economic future, and the reckoning has not even begun.’’ He refers to certain key figures in the massive water...

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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water Compare and Contrast

1980s: The cost-sharing component of the 1986 reform (by the Water Resources Development Act) radically constrains construction of new water projects.

Today: Twenty dams are currently being constructed worldwide. Approximately forty dams are being proposed for sites worldwide—the largest proposed enterprise is Brazil’s plan to construct a series of sixteen dams in the Amazon Basin. Meanwhile, six dams are being considered for demolition.

1980s: Environmental concern ushers in an era of dam demolition and wetland mitigation.

Today: Efforts to remove dams in the United States have been stymied, and electrical demand has led to a relaxation of pollution controls and an increase in hydroelectric reliance.

1980s: Disgruntled environmentalists form Earth First!, a radical and direct action oriented group. This group begins a series of direct confrontations with logging and construction companies. They are especially active against road construction in wilderness areas.

Today: Inspired by the Earth First! protest repertoire, groups worldwide attempt to broaden media discussions about globalization. The most famous such action occurred when environmentalists marched with blue collar workers in protest. In 1999, the action, named the ‘‘Battle in Seattle,’’ raised the cost, drama, and violence for any city hosting a globalization summit meeting or conference...

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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water Topics for Further Study

What is the state of the Florida Everglades ecosystem? What happened to the plans for restoration and repair of the Everglades in the 1996 renewal of the Water Resources Development Act?

Beginning with the Water Resources Development Act of 1999, what sort of history can be told about water policy in the eastern United States? For example, what is the state of the Delaware River and what plans exist for this river?

What repercussions have stemmed from the Central Valley Improvement Act of 1992? How did the act come about, and does it address the history of water use in the valley?

Research the impact of turning water into a commodity on the environment. For example, what impact does a bottling plant at the head of the Everglades have on that water system? What are the issues involved with the attempt to sell water from Lake Superior?

What experience do other countries have with their development of water? What kinds of competitions were water engineers engaged in during the Cold War? What is the state of Russian Dams, and what happened to the Aral Sea? How did the Aswan Dam make locals sick? Does water play a role in the Middle East Peace Process? How extensive is water development in China?

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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water Media Adaptations

In 1997, PBS, in association with KCET/Los Angeles, aired a four-part documentary called Cadillac Desert. The first three episodes of the series, ‘‘Mulholland’s Dream,’’ ‘‘An American Nile,’’ and ‘‘The Mercy of Nature,’’ were based on Reisner’s book, while the fourth episode (‘‘Last Oasis’’) was based on the book of the same name by Sandra Postel. The series, a production of Trans Pacific Television and KTEH/ San Jose Public Television, won a Silver Baton for the filmmakers (Reisner, Jon Else, and Sandra Itkoff) at the 1998 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards ceremony.

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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water What Do I Read Next?

Marc Reisner and Sarah Bates, from Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, constructively analyze water policy in the west and suggest changes in Overtapped Oasis: Reform or Revolution for Western Water (1989).

Reisner’s 1991 work Game Wars: The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers investigates the problem of poaching through the experiences of detective Dave Hall, who works the field from Alaska to Louisiana. The book reflects a new interest in the problems of hunting by the public due to growing environmental awareness as well as battles between sportsmen and Indians over Native American treaty rights.

The United States Society on Dams is an organization made up of career dam builders and...

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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Abbey, Edward, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Lippincott, 1975.

Feenberg, Andrew, Questioning Technology, Routledge, 1999.

Gregg, Josiah, Commerce of the Prairies (1844), edited by Max L. Moorhead, University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

Halverson, Guy, ‘‘Conserving the Water-Based Prosperity in Western States,’’ in Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1986.

Hill, Gladwin, ‘‘When the Bill for the Marvels Falls Due,’’ in New York Times, September 14, 1986.

Lichtenstein, Grace, ‘‘How the West Is Watered; Cadillac Desert,’’ in Washington Post, August 3, 1986.

Mann, Dean E., ‘‘Water...

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