Cadillac Desert

July 19, 2010

I read Marc Reisner‘s 1986 book many years ago mainly because I thought my brother had read it and recommended it to me. Later, when I asked him about it, he said that he had never read the book and hadn’t even heard of it. And that’s exactly where things stood until just a couple of weeks ago when I was eating lunch with a colleague in the economics department. For some reason we got on to the book and she mentioned that our college library owned a videotaped series that PBS had recorded in 1997. She strongly recommended it (she had even watched it with her students) and so I thought it would be interesting to refresh my acquaintance with this material.

The video version consists of four roughly hour-long tapes. The first segment (“Mulholland’s Dream”) tells the story of how Los Angeles obtained water from the Owens Valley, and later on, Mono Lake. Mulholland, the engineer behind the early projects, is a major player in the story. The second segment (“An American Nile”) deals mainly with the taming of the Colorado River, beginning with Hoover dam, and continuing with Glen Canyon dam, but also wanders north periodically to talk about dams on the Columbia River. The third segment (“The Mercy of Nature”) returns to California and the development of the two great water projects in the Central Valley, the federal Central Valley Project, and later on, California’s State Water Project.

The first three tapes stick pretty close to the book, but a great deal of valuable detail is left out. For example, we get only a brief taste of the battles over federal dam projects during the Carter presidency, and the battles between the US Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which competed in Congress for decades to acquire the lion’s share of funding for dam building. These stories, which Marc Reisner documents so expertly in the book, shed considerable light on the political chicanery and maneuvering that seemed to be a standard part of American government (especially where water is concerned).

Another important part of the book, which gets only short shrift in the videos, is the story of groundwater pumping. The rapid pumping of the Central Valley and the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifers, neither of which will be replenished in our lifetimes, and the interplay between pumping and other water projects, are major themes in the book. When one reads the book, one gets the impression that there are communities all across the West that are living on borrowed time, but this impression does not rear its head in the videos.

There are many other discrepancies between the book and the videos (the dams on the Missouri river built for no redeemable purpose, the legal battles between California and its neighbors, the ultimate fate of dams as they silt up, etc.), but it’s been so long since I’ve read the book, I wouldn’t be able to construct a useful list. Let’s just say that the book, while thick, is excellent reading, and I strongly recommend it even if my brother can’t.

That said, the videos make for excellent watching. The photography is amazing. And the narrative and interviews are expertly edited. Each segment seems to follow the same arc: initial effort and optimism followed by conflicts over costs and environmental destruction. The storytelling is strongest when it covers who did what, when, and where. Costs and impacts, while a prominent part of the story, are harder to grasp.

The fourth tape (“Last Oasis”) departs from the book and looks at political and cultural conflicts over vanishing water resources. Three stories are told particularly well: Israeli-Palestinian (Jordanian, Syrian) conflict over water, the destruction of indigenous Colorado River Delta communities in Mexico by America’s extraction of water upstream, and the fight over dams and water resources in Denver.

This final segment emphasizes the universality of water issues and the importance of conservation, but it ultimately deals with these things in a simple-minded way. For example, to take conservation, we are told that agriculture consumes far more water than urban communities, but it never gets mentioned that agriculture largely exists to serve the needs of urban consumers. It would have been helpful to know how each of us consumes water. Is a person’s daily consumption defined more by their use of the water tap or by the purchases they make? And, while conservation is of undeniable importance, how far can it eventually take us and what would that world look like? Cell phones and computers shrink in size and grow in power every few years, but we can’t shrink a peach or a loaf of bread or a bale of cotton, and, even with the best conservation practices, there are real practical limits to how much we can shrink the amount of water needed to grow peaches, wheat, and cotton.

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