What is the relationship between the federal and state governments in Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert? What are the implications of water redistribution decisions?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Marc Reisner's non-fiction book Cadillac Desert was a landmark in the history of environmental writing, tracing current issues in water conservation in the western deserts to their origins in the nineteenth-century westward expansion of the United States. In this work, Reisner talks about the political and environmental issues surrounding dam building and water redistribution in the arid west.

On a political level, Reisner discusses the relationship between federal and state governments as one in which western states tend to act out of regional self-interest, often seeing water as a scarce resource that they need to secure for themselves in competition with other states. Written at the height of the Sagebrush Rebellion in which local and even state officials rebelled against the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 which attempted to curb and regulate the exploitation of western public lands, Cadillac Desert is especially sensitive to the ways in which the federal government often ended up defending the environment against state and regional governments, albeit not without itself doing substantial harm with massive dam-building projects.

Reisner is especially leery of the long-term consequences of water redistribution, especially for the purposes of irrigation. Water taken out of streams for the purposes of irrigation is returned as runoff carrying alkali salts and agricultural contaminants, and is thus of worse quality than the original water. Dams limit downstream flows or make them irregular, disrupting ecosystems. Most current dams have limited lifespans before their reservoirs fill up with silt, meaning that they are only temporary solutions to water issues. For Reisner, water redistribution is a bad temporary fix to the problem of using more water than is replenished through precipitation, and the book is a plea for the west to live within its hydrologic means. 

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