Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

by Marc Reisner
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1071

Cadillac Desert begins with the author’s description of the American West as ‘‘a civilization whose success was achieved on the pretension that natural obstacles do not exist’’—or, as he calls it in the first chapter, ‘‘A Semidesert with a Desert Heart.’’ Reisner introduces the environmentalist agenda through which he explores the history of development in the West, following its major influences individually through time rather than chronologically.

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Discovering and Pioneering the American West
The book’s opening chapters describe the discovery of the American West by the Europeans; the first Spanish explorers searching for El Dorado found the continent hostile and unusable. After the United States purchased the land, they sent in survey expeditions to research and evaluate it. The 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition resulted in an uneasy ambivalence toward the West: every ‘‘fertile prairie’’ stood in stark contrast to a ‘‘forbidding plain.’’

Nevertheless, the perception of the West as ‘‘the Great American Desert’’ drastically changed by the late nineteenth century. John Wesley Powell, after a scientific expedition down the Colorado River in 1869, put forth a program for settlement that imitated the pseudo-socialism of the successful Mormon irrigation systems in Utah. Powell’s advice was ignored. By 1876, Powell could already see the results: ‘‘Speculation. Water monopoly. Land monopoly. Erosion. Corruption. Catastrophe.’’

The warnings of experienced Westerners were ignored as the American West attained the definition of an untouched frontier full of promise. Soon, the settlements began to change the landscape, challenging the harsh desert conditions with the belief that ‘‘rain follows the plow.’’ This slogan was the lead of a promotional campaign with the political goal of making the West more appealing and of encouraging relocation of settlers from Europe and the East. The government sold them land cheaply, and according to the original Homestead Act from 1862, 160 acres was ‘‘the ideal acreage for a Jeffersonian utopia of small farmers.’’

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Reclamation Act of 1902
In the taming of the western plains for agricultural purposes, the Mormons played an important role: they introduced the irrigation system, which was foreign to American farmers, and individual water projects began to pop up all over the hostile land. Soon, the government realized it had to regulate the development of water systems in order to support its desire to settle the arid region; in 1902, the United States Congress passed the Reclamation Act, forming a government agency in charge of water projects in the West. Thus began the ongoing struggle between the ‘‘rugged individualist’’ western states who did not want to be told what to do by Washington, D.C., and the government that had to espouse a cooperative approach in taking care of its land: ‘‘the big growers wanted all of the water for themselves, they wanted the government to develop it for them, and they didn’t want to have to pay for it.’’

Bureau of Reclamation versus Army Corps of Engineers
The two government agencies, ‘‘Rivals in Crime,’’ began to compete against each other as representatives from western states made deals with eastern states to bring as much money as possible to their home districts for water projects; the two rival agencies would spend that money. Both the Bureau of Reclamation (formed in 1923 out of the Reclamation Service) and the Army Corps of Engineers developed into massive bureaucratic machines; within both, there was suspected, or even proven, corruption. These two bureaucracies within the United States government fought to provide dam ‘‘sites for the reservoirs needed to support future growth.’’

The inherent problem, of course, was the idea of growth. A number of dams were built because the site was good; a reservoir would be created and the users enticed into the region to make use of the cheap water. However, the lack of rainfall necessarily made the farmer dependent on irrigation. The cycle would continue, as the users wanted more and more water. This self-manufactured dependency had another downside: the water returned from irrigation systems had a greater concentration of salt, which created two problems. First, the fields became saturated with salt and had to be taken out of production (or given expensive drainage systems), thus ending the land’s agricultural use after only a brief period. Second, the salty water, when returned to the river, would be of little use for those downstream which, in the case of Mexico, led to international disputes over Colorado River water.

The Colorado
The most famous water struggles occurred over the Colorado River. After routing the entire flow of the Owens River for its municipal use, Los Angeles looked to the Colorado to supplement its water supplies. Unlike the western states, where big growers with friends in Congress played the water game, Los Angeles was a booming city inside a populous state with money and legislative representation on its side. Los Angeles chose to grab the Colorado’s water in order to avoid a fight over water supplies with Northern California.

Political struggle ensued over the water in the Colorado River between the states bordering the river. The struggle was won by Los Angeles because it could demonstrate water needs and it could finance the projects—with above- and below-board methods. As a direct consequence, Arizona, a sparsely populated state mostly self-sustaining in its water use, developed a municipal infrastructure in order to claim its legal share of the Colorado River. Thus, a political fight over water led to a boom in Southwestern suburbs, when developers took advantage of that infrastructure, beginning in the late 1970s.

Dams, Dams, and More Dams
Almost a century after the Reclamation Act of 1902, nearly every possible dam site on every river in the West is occupied by a dam generating electricity and supplying water for irrigation; there are ‘‘water developers and engineers who cannot rest while great rivers . . . still run free.’’ The West has enjoyed an economic boom, but there are growing signs of problems. Sinkholes in the region of the largest aquifer in the West, the Ogallala Aquifer, appear with increasing regularity. The dispute with Mexico over the Colorado River ended when the United States finally built a desalination plant and took other measures to guarantee that the river would reach Mexico at all. Further, dams are not long-term solutions to water problems in the arid West because they fill up with silt; Hoover Dam will eventually become a waterfall. More alarmingly, seismic readings in the vicinity of dams and the strain of floods conjure nightmare scenarios of bursting dams.

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