Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

by Marc Reisner
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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

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.

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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 Act
President Ronald Reagan negotiated an end to wrangling over water resources and authorized legislation that had stalled the Army Corps of Engineers and created a backlog of work since 1970. Reagan’s settlement was unprecedented in many ways. Its most important feature was a funding accountability mechanism. Instead of pork barrel authorizations from the federal government, the 1986 Water Resources Development Act demanded steep matching funds from non-federal interests. Projects were categorized and given cost-sharing equations that demanded certain percentages of cash up front and then additional percentages over 30 years, plus interest. This radically altered past systems that demanded land contributions. Addi tionally, the Act automatically eliminated projects from the Corps of Engineer’s backlog that had been without funding for ten years. Further, any projects with authorization after the Act would be eliminated if not funded within five years.

In addition to the new level of stringency, the Act established the importance of wetland mitigation. For the first time, the Corps of Engineers became active in restoring natural water filtration systems as part of its water development mission.

Reports began to flow in the mid-1980s showing nearly 40 percent of the land receiving subsidized water grew crops that were in oversupply. Such reports led to a 1987 self-reassessment by the Bureau of Reclamation. As a result of this assessment, the Bureau concluded it had fulfilled its mission and would focus on maintenance of existing facilities. This change followed an alteration wrought by the Reclamation Reform Act of 1982, which demanded that landholders of more than 960 acres pay the full cost of services.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734

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...

(The entire section contains 1887 words.)

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