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

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 ...

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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 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.

Irrigation
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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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 projects as ‘‘shameless,’’ ‘‘manipulative,’’ and ‘‘arrogant’’ and sums up the waste saying: ‘‘The point is that despite heroic efforts and many billions of dollars, all we have managed to do in the arid West is turn a Missouri-size section green.’’

One of the devices that Reisner uses is a repeated foreshadowing of doom, which is found in much of environmentalist literature. The immensity of the problem in the West is backed up by numbers; Reisner provides a plethora of statistics in the book as evidence for his analysis. The numbers paint a threatening picture for the western states and the nation as a whole, showing a great discrepancy between the actual and the value-cost of water, the overdraft statistics, and the money spent on projects that would shortly outlive their usefulness. One of his most effective warnings numerically states that ‘‘only one desert civilization, out of dozens that grew up in antiquity, has survived uninterrupted into modern times. And Egypt’s approach to irrigation was fundamentally different from all the rest.’’

Reisner also provides emotional accounts of disasters that have already taken place, as well as terrifying predictions of those that he believes will occur in the future. In his account of the collapse of the Saint Francis Dam in 1928, Reisner uses graphic detail and tells stories of individual tragedy to emphasize his point: ‘‘A brave driver trying to outrace the flood could not bring himself to pass the people waving desperately along the way; his car held fourteen corpses when it was hauled out of the mud.’’ Reisner also hypothesizes about failures of projects and man-made disasters. Even the flow of his sentences suggests the inevitable succession of tragedies along the line of development in the West:

But then catch a flight to Salt Lake City and fly over Glen Canyon Dam at thirty thousand feet, a height from which even this magnificent bulwark becomes a frail thumbnail holding back a monstrous, deceptively placid, man-made sea, and think what one sudden convulsion of the earth or one crude atomic bomb or one five-hundred-year flood (which came close to occurring in 1983 and nearly destroyed a spillway under the dam) might do to that fragile plug in its sandstone gorge, and what the sudden emptying of Lake Powell, with its eight and a half trillion gallons of water, would do to Hoover Dam downstream, and what the instantaneous disappearance of those huge life-sustaining lakes would mean to the thirteen million people hunkered down in southern California and to the Imperial Valley—which would no longer exist.

However, Reisner tempers this with hope and advice for reform, saying that ‘‘the age when [large water projects] might have been built seems to have passed’’ and looks at future projects that could repair some of the damage.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

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 and the American West,’’ in Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1986.

Maranto, Gina, Review in New York Times Book Review, September 2, 1990, p. 17.

Martin, Russell, A Story That Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the West, Henry Holt and Company, 1989.

Further Reading
Davis, Mike, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Vintage Books, 1999. Critically acclaimed author Mike Davis exposes the foibles and wrongheadedness of the city of Los Angeles. Davis’ insight into Los Angeles includes an examination of fictional self-destructions performed by films and novels in the city as well as an awareness of a secret of geology—the center of Los Angeles sits over a large aquifer. In this text, Davis focuses on the way the city deals with nature in the form of mountain lions, fire, and the landscape.

Herbert, Frank, Dune, Mass Market Paperback, 1999. Herbert’s classic science fiction tale revolves around Duke Paul Atreides and his struggle to avenge his father’s death. Atreides exploits the myths of a desert people and leads them to take over the planet. He hopes to realize their dream of making the inhospitable planet into a world of lakes and rivers by releasing the water that the people have condensed from the air over centuries.

Landes, David S., The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Using a global approach to the history of technology and civilization, Landes discusses the reasons behind economic disparity between nations. Such a history stems in part from an unequal distribution of natural resources, like fresh water.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson, Something in the Soil, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. The leading figure of western history revisionism is Patricia Nelson Limerick. In Something in the Soil, Limerick presents a series of essays on ‘‘Great Men,’’ current mining problems, understanding the West, and environmentalist activities.

Compare and Contrast

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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 gathering of biotech scientists.

Media Adaptations

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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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