(My review on goodreads)

A thorough history of the (mis)management of water in the western US from the early days of the Bureau of Reclamation to the mid 1980s. Waste, fraud, corruption, incompetence, greed: that’s the water lobby in a nutshell. Reisner shows us the competition between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers to build the most expensive and least useful dams. Dams that in many cases serve no earthly purpose and whose construction is sometimes opposed by the very people that the dams are supposed to help - wealthy speculators and industrial farmers, usually. We learn that some of the biggest “farmers” in California are oil companies and insuranve companies, who also just so happen to be the biggest recipients of the enormous subsidies provided by the federal government, while simultaneously taking massive tax writeoffs. We also learn that the water lobby can basically eliminate any politician, including US Presidents, who opposes even the most outlandish of water projects.

Reisner makes it seem that the situation is hopeless. There seems to be no way to stop or even slow the extraction of water from underground aquifers. Aquifers that took thousands of years to fill have been drained in 50 years. The huge and growing population in the southwest are essentially competing with giant irrigated farms for water from the Colorado river, and there simply isn’t enough water to go around. The periodic droughts described by Reisner in the mid 80s will likely become a mega drought lasting decades, partly because that’s what happens in the desert west, and partly because global warming. When that happens, the Colorado river will not be able to meet current “needs” in the southwest and there will have to be big and expensive changes.

And it’s not just the desert southwest. Reisner shows us serious water problems basically everywhere west of the Mississippi river and south of the Columbia.

So I don’t know. I really want to move back to the southwest, but this book and other books and reports I have read in the past few months have convinced me that if I do move back there the first thing I am going to do is install the biggest rain catchment system that I can, and rely as little as possible on river and well water, because that water is just not guaranteed to be there.



Book cover

Metadata Info

  • Title: Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water
  • Author: Marc Reisner
  • Published: 1993
  • ISBN: 0140178244
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 4.0 stars