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: 2503

Cecil Andrus Andrus served as Secretary of the Interior in the Carter administration; his lack of negotiating skills disabled Carter’s proposals on water policy.

Wayne Aspinall Aspinall was a Congressman from Colorado who served as chairman of the House Interior Committee in the late 1960s; he denied California and Arizona...

(The entire section contains 2503 words.)

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Cecil Andrus
Andrus served as Secretary of the Interior in the Carter administration; his lack of negotiating skills disabled Carter’s proposals on water policy.

Wayne Aspinall
Aspinall was a Congressman from Colorado who served as chairman of the House Interior Committee in the late 1960s; he denied California and Arizona water projects because they voted against his state’s projects.

David Brower
A hard-core conservationist, Brower strongly opposed dams and repeatedly fought the Bureau of Reclamation. He battled then-Commissioner Floyd Dominy over Grand Canyon dams, and won. He founded Friends of the Earth in 1969.

Edmund G. Brown Jr.
Pat Brown’s son, Jerry, was instrumental in putting together the State Water Project, California’s most expensive water supply system; he hoped it would be environmentally safe.

Edmund G. Brown Sr.
Brown was a California governor who facilitated the State Water Project and later opened a questionable law practice, working for the biggest corporate growers in the state.

Jerry Brown
See Edmund G. Brown Jr.

Pat Brown
See Edmund G. Brown Sr.

Jimmy Carter
President Carter developed a ‘‘hit list’’ of water projects he wanted Congress to eliminate; he made many enemies as a result, including the press, and couldn’t get reelected. Jim Casey
Casey served as deputy chief of planning for the Bureau of Reclamation in the 1960s; he was also crucial in the Texas Water Plan. Casey realized the danger of overusing the Ogallala Aquifer and recruited Texan bankers to support his conservation efforts. Casey left the Bureau because he was disgusted by Floyd Dominy’s leadership.

Harry Chandler
Chandler came to Los Angeles for his health and discovered money-making opportunities; he first acquired newspaper routes, then he became Harrison Otis’ circulation manager for the Times; he used his power in the media to help run the scam that brought the water from the Owens River to Los Angeles. Like his co-conspirators in the plot, he became phenomenally rich.

Wilbur Dexheimer
Dexheimer, the Bureau Commissioner before Floyd Dominy, is described as ‘‘good-natured, somewhat bumbling, uninterested in politics, and therefore inept.’’ Dominy easily pushed him out.

Floyd Elgin Dominy
Commissioner of Reclamation from 1959 to 1969, Dominy was one of the most ruthless, powerful, manipulative, and efficient people in the Bureau’s history. He started out as a county agent in Wyoming during the Depression, where he built 300 small dams to save cattle from drought. Arriving at the Bureau in 1946, he quickly achieved the position of chief of Allocation and Repayment. Hardworking and sharp, Dominy soon became close with top officials. Although he was not an engineer (he had a masters degree in economics), Dominy considered that to be his great advantage in the Bureau; among engineers (mostly pious Mormons who knew nothing about politics) he was eloquent, knowledgeable, and a good politician. His breakthrough happened in 1955 when he testified about the Bureau projects in front of the Appropriations Committee. Immediately thereafter, he became the agency’s contact man for Congress members desiring water projects in their states.

Authoritarian and self-assured, Dominy practically ran the Bureau for three years before he was appointed commissioner. With strong ties to congressmen and a contemptuous attitude that he took with superiors, he soon realized he was indispensable. Dominy eventually became commissioner and ruthlessly competed with the Corps of Engineers for projects. Criticizing governors and politicians as well as engineers, he soon created a few enemies, a few friends, and a large group of supporters that feared him.

Dominy eventually got caught up in the web of corruption: while farmers were ‘‘illegally irrigating excess acreage with dirt-cheap water [to] grow price-supported crops’’ and in the process ruining the Bureau’s standing, Dominy decided to ignore the violations, believing that the protests of the conservation movement would not generate enough attention for substantial problems. He was wrong, and, after losing many battles with environmentalists and tarnishing his own and the Bureau’s reputation, he was fired.

Daniel Dreyfus
The ‘‘house intellectual’’ of the Bureau of Reclamation, Dreyfus was part of the plot to improve the Bureau’s reputation by compromising— which Dominy would not hear of. Dreyfus left the agency embittered about Dominy’s leadership.

Fred Eaton
Coming from a family that founded Pasadena, Eaton was a Los Angeles native who began his career in water projects as superintendent for the city’s Water Company. He was aware of the expanding city’s mounting lack of water resources and, before moving on to a political career, advised his successor William Mulholland to target the Owens River. Eaton eventually became the mayor of Los Angeles; after retiring, he helped Mulholland build the aqueduct.

Dwight Eisenhower
Like most other presidents, Eisenhower tried to get rid of some of the projects pushed by the Bureau and the Corps with his ‘‘no new starts’’ policy, but he failed. The United States Congress forced him to fire then-Commissioner Wilbur Dexheimer so Floyd Dominy could get the job. Despite his conservative principles, Eisenhower had to support the Colorado River Storage Project.

Carl Hayden
A senator from Arizona who held an almost despotic rule over the Bureau’s authorizing com- mittees, Hayden had enough power on the Appropriations Committee to negotiate water deals for his state. Hayden was a part of the group of Western legislators that had a tight grip on Congress and successfully pushed for more dams; Eisenhower often had to support what he opposed in principle because Floyd Dominy was Hayden’s protege.

Harold Ickes
An ex-newspaper man, Ickes ran the Interior Department and the Public Works Administation during FDR’s presidency; he selected Mike Strauss as the new Bureau Commissioner. Under his rule, the Bureau grew into a massive bureaucracy and built several large dams. Ickes also took part in the developing rivalry between the Bureau and the Corps in the late 1930s, fighting many bureaucratic battles with Congress.

Lyndon B. Johnson
Johnson was one of the politicians ‘‘who had climbed to political power up the wall of a dam’’— the Marshall Ford Dam for which he helped get funding. Later, when he became president, and since he was spending a lot of the federal budget on the war in Vietnam and antipoverty programs, LBJ tried to dump water projects that the Bureau and the Corps were both vying for—and failed. He ended up signing into law the Colorado River Basin Project Act, which was ‘‘the most expensive single authorization in history.’’

Clarence J. Kuiper
Recruited from the Corps as a young engineer to work under Mike Strauss in the Bureau, Kuiper witnessed the end of the agency’s era of great projects. He was involved in the Klamath Diversion plan, one of the last big projects; it ultimately did not pass. During the 1970s, while working as the Colorado state engineer, Kuiper became involved in the Narrows Project—the only water project he would ever publicly oppose because it was disastrous.

Joseph B. Lippincott
A young engineer disappointed when he couldn’t join John Wesley Powell’s Irrigation Survey (which was denied funding), Lippincott built a lucrative business in Los Angeles as a consulting engineer. When the Reclamation service was founded in 1902, he was hired as the California district engineer; however, he kept his private business. Through masterful manipulations, such as hiring Fred Eaton as his chief engineer, Lippincott helped Los Angeles get the aqueduct for the Owens River water.

William Mulholland
An Irish sailor, mercenary, and entrepreneur, Mulholland came to Los Angeles and decided to become an engineer after working on a well-drilling crew. He was quickly promoted within the Los Angeles City Water Company and became good friends with Fred Eaton. As the city’s water defi- ciency became apparent, Mulholland preached soil and forest conservation; but with tremendous population growth, he realized that the water from the Owens River was the city’s only solution. With Eaton, he visited the Owens Valley; the city soon purchased enough land in the valley for the aqueduct. Aware of the possible speculation, the Bureau tried to save its reputation, but the city officials always managed to support their project, even by illegal means.

Ambitious, ruthless, and manipulative, Mulholland became one of the city’s most powerful figures; he was instrumental in the creation of the Los Angeles water system, but in thirty years of corruption and political battles, he became a hardcore developer (who would build a dam in the Yosemite Valley to ‘‘stop the g—dd—d waste’’) and became exceedingly harsh in dealing with everyone who went against his agency. By this time, however, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was beyond corrupt, ‘‘using secret agents, breaking into private records, and turning neighbors into mortal foes’’ to reach its goals and get the projects it wanted completed. As an engineer, Mulholland was reckless and arrogant. In 1928, Saint Francis Dam, built under his supervision, collapsed and wiped out everything in the San Francisquito Canyon, killing some 450 people, demolishing 1,200 homes, and stripping the top soil from 8,000 acres of farmland; it also destroyed Mulholland’s career.

Frederick Newell
Newell was the first Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamations; he supported the Owens Valley project as he wanted a guaranteed success.

Richard Nixon
Nixon cared little for water projects; he was mostly interested in foreign affairs. In an attempt to use the budget process for his interests, he placed certain environmental restraints on the Bureau; further, he ran an investigation of the administration’s top officials and, upon receiving a huge file on then- Commissioner Floyd Dominy, immediately fired him. Yet, he had to deal with some projects: when Mexico threatened to bring the United States to the World Court at the Hague for giving them paltry amounts of salty water from the Colorado River, Nixon had to work out a salinity-control treaty to resolve the issue.

General Harrison Gray Otis
Arriving in California in search of a comfortable job, Otis found power, riches, and notoriety as a participant in one of the largest scams in United States’ history of land development. Otis admired hustlers and adventurers and decided to make a new start in the then-small town of Los Angeles, where he became a partner in the newspaper Times and Mirror. He soon became the sole owner and, in taking control of circulation routes, befriended Harry Chandler.

A passionate opponent of socialism and the Democratic Party, he engaged in tremendously elo quent brawls with his rivals. Since William Mulholland and Fred Eaton wanted to keep the Owens Valley scheme secret until they worked out the legal details, the Los Angeles newspapers were under a self-imposed gag order; however, Otis could not contain himself and ran the unauthorized story, resulting in protests and trouble for all involved. He supported the project with all his might, and for the first time his opponents were on the same side because everybody in Los Angeles wanted more water. Like the others involved in the project from its very conception, Otis became incredibly rich.

Major John Wesley Powell
Powell, a scientist who in 1869 began a survey expedition into the American West, is described as a Renaissance man. He grew up on the western frontier, acquiring ‘‘a vagabond’s education’’ and reverence for nature, during which he managed to pick up solid knowledge of Greek, Latin, botany, and philosophy. He earned the rank of major in the Civil War, where he lost an arm. After the war, he helped found the Illinois Museum of Natural History.

Powell recorded everything he saw during the expedition (which, despite a mutiny by some of the crew’s members, was a success) and upon return testified to the land’s breathtaking beauty and harsh, but promising, character. However, by 1876, he became convinced that the governmental policies in the settling of the West were turning the place into a land of monopoly, fraud, and corruption. That year, he published A Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah—a documentation of the West’s problems with water that is relevant to this day. He also proposed a revolutionary settling plan, which found icy reception with the Congress because of their imperial drive for expansion. The disasters he predicted have happened and are plaguing the West today.

Ronald Reagan
Reagan had a reputation as a conservative; as a governor, he stalled the Dos Rios Dam for four years. As a president, he threatened to veto many projects, but he was a westerner and the western Congress members expected him to approve their water developments; he eventually joined in the bureaucratic tradeoff.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
During his administration, FDR was one of the most popular public figures in the country’s history and had great power over Congress. Wanting to be remembered as both the greatest conservationist and the greatest developer, FDR favored large water projects: after the Dust Bowl, he had the Bureau take over the Central Valley Project and many dams, including Shasta, Friant, and the projects on the Columbia River. Further, he turned the Bureau into an enormous bureaucratic machine, leaving the actual construction of dams to be contracted out to engineering firms that became rich. Also, the nature of the commissioner changed: FDR wanted a political fighter and a good salesman to push the Reclamation projects, a person he found in Mike Strauss. FDR was instrumental in propelling a ‘‘forty-year binge’’ of federal dam-building programs.

Theodore Roosevelt
A utilitarian conservationist and ‘‘a bugaboo of monopolists,’’ Roosevelt admired John Wesley Powell’s observations on the West but also wanted to make natural resources as efficient as possible; he reformed the Reclamation Act, but the problems with politics and money remained. Roosevelt opposed the aqueduct that would give Los Angeles water from the Owens River; he approved of it only for irrigation purposes.

Michael Strauss
A Bureau Commissioner under FDR, and a former newspaper man with wealth and social connections, Strauss was a good salesman who persuaded many Congress members to approve reclamation projects. During his eight years at the head of the Bureau, he became ‘‘responsible for as many water projects as any person who ever lived.’’

Stewart Udall
Interior Secretary in the Kennedy-Johnson administration, Udall spent his political career attempting to ‘‘reconcile his conflicting views on preservation and development’’ and ended up bargaining a great deal on water projects. As a result, he had a highly strained relationship with Floyd Dominy.

William Warne
California’s director of water resources, Warne was involved in the controversial Central Valley Project and played ‘‘both ends against the middle,’’ acquiring cheap water for his state through many lies and manipulations of the law.

The Watterson Brothers
Brothers Wilfred and Mark Watterson, bankers in the Owens Valley, were the strongest opponents of the Los Angeles plan to take their water; they even participated in blowing up part of the aqueduct. They ended up in jail for embezzlement and fraud after their opponents conducted an investigation of their bank; they had used the bank’s money to fight the water takeover.

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