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"Cadillac Desert, The American West and its Disappearing Water" is a book by Marc Reisner



This book, published in 1986 and revised in 1992, tells how a small government agency with a legitimate and laudable purpose grew and mutated into a cancerous bureaucracy fueled by greed, politics, and hubris.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation started out helping homestead farmers settling the Great Plains to irrigate their farms.  As people pushed farther and farther west into progressively arid areas their need for supplemental water grew, and the Bureau grew as it took on more projects to provide that water.  The Bureau became focused on damming rivers, building ever larger dams and more ambitious, more comprehensive projects.  Reisner details how the agency began building dams simply for the sake of building dams, using questionable accounting methods to justify enormous expenditures.  Most of the projects were built to provide subsidized water to oversized farms growing surplus crops on marginal lands.  This was all aided and abetted by politicians who were eager to have huge projects bringing Federal dollars into their districts.  A rivalry with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also was in the dam business, though ostensibly more for flood control than irrigation, exacerbated the situation.

There were truly great works built, such as Hoover Dam, but also numerous worthless projects were taken on when all of the "good" projects had been built.  There is a long and fascinating section in the book about how the rich and powerful in nascent Los Angeles spread tentacles throughout the Southwest in order to get the water they needed to grow their sleepy semi-desert town into the sprawling nightmare it became by the end of the 20th century . Reisner draws astute parallels between the growth of the arid Southwest and the rise and demise of previous great civilizations that were dependent on irrigation for growing crops.

The last third of the book covers a number of failed projects, such as the Teton Dam, and projects that would have failed had they ever been allowed to start.  There is some encouraging news about changes in attitude, both among the populace and the politicians, which are helping to keep development in check, but it may well be too little too late.  Reisner explains very well why the damage done by the 60 year orgy of dam building may take centuries to repair, and how drastic changes to land use will have to take place before the repairs can even begin.

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