Marc Reisner’s classic, Cadillac Desert, takes us for a walk on the wet side, revealing far more than you ever wanted to know about dams, flood control, irrigation, and municipal water systems — and the serious long-term drawbacks that came along with building thousands of water projects in the frenzied pursuit of short-term wealth and power. It’s a brilliant, funny, and annoying expose of government corruption. It’s an ecological horror story. It’s a collection of powerful lessons for our society, lessons on how not to live, warning signs.
The western regions of the U.S. tend to be dry. Agriculture is risky where annual rainfall is less than 20 inches (50 cm). Locations like Phoenix, Reno, or El Paso, which get less than seven inches (18 cm), are especially poor places to settle, let alone build cities.
Native Americans in the west were blessed with excellent educations, and they wisely lived in a manner that was well adapted to the ecosystem, for thousands of years, without trashing it. Europeans suffered from dodgy educations that celebrated the magnificent civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, all of which transformed lush oases into moonscapes and went extinct. Almost all of these dead cities were hard-core irrigation addicts.
Around the world, most civilizations arose in arid regions. Desert soils were often highly fertile, because the nutrients were not leached out by centuries of significant rainfall. Desert farmers did not need to clear forests before planting. All they needed to do was add water. Irrigation turned their deserts green, but it also accelerated the growth and demise of their societies.
By the late nineteenth century, Los Angeles was growing rapidly, but it was doing this by mining the groundwater, a practice that had no long-term future. The city finished the Owens Valley project in 1913, which brought in water from 223 miles away (359 km), and included 53 miles (85 km) of tunnels. Drought hit in 1923, and the head of the water department frantically urged the city to stop the growth immediately, even if this required killing everyone in the Chamber of Commerce. They ignored him, so he began pressing for an aqueduct from the Colorado River.
To make a long story short, America built a couple thousand major dams between 1915 and 1975. Many were built during the Depression, to put the unemployed to work. In congress, water projects became an extremely popular form of “pork.” A great way for me to get your support for my bill would be to amend the bill to include a water project in your district. This got out of control, to ridiculous proportions.
Many worthless projects were built at great expense to taxpayers and ecosystems. Corporate America refused to invest in dams, because they were unlikely to pay for themselves, let alone generate reliable profits. So, the west became a socialist utopia, dominated by militant free market conservatives who adored massive government spending in their region, and howled about it everywhere else.
By the time Jimmy Carter came into office in 1976, the national debt was close to a trillion dollars, and inflation was in double digits. It was time to seriously cut spending, and Carter hated water projects, because they were so wasteful. He attempted to terminate 19 water projects, and promptly became the most hated man on Earth. He was a president with above average principles, a serious handicap.
Ronald Reagan took a different principled approach — no more free lunches. He thought that those who benefitted from the welfare should fully repay the government for the generous help they received, both capital costs and operating expenses. States should pay a third of the costs of reclamation projects, up front. Pay? Legions burst into tears. The keg was empty, and the party ended.
I was amazed to learn that Carter was special because of his sense of history. “He began to wonder what future generations would think of all the dams we had built. What right did we have, in the span of his lifetime, to dam nearly all of the world’s rivers? What would happen when the dams silted up? What if the climate changed?”
Well, of course, great questions! As victims of dodgy educations, our graduates do not have a sense of history, a tragedy for which we pay dearly. What right did we have to build 440 nuclear power plants that cannot be safely decommissioned? What right did we have to destroy the climate? What right did we have to leave a trashed planet for those coming after us? A sense of history is powerful medicine, an essential component for an extended stay on this planet.
We know that any dam that doesn’t collapse will eventually fill with silt and turn into an extremely expensive waterfall — no more power generation, no more flood control, no more irrigation. Every year millions of cubic yards of mud are accumulating in Lake Mead, the reservoir at Hoover Dam. Many reservoirs will be filled in less than a century. In China, the reservoir for the Sanmexia Dam was filled to the brim with silt in 1964, just four years after it was built.
We know that irrigation commonly leads to salinization. Salts build up in the soil, and eventually render it infertile, incapable of growing even weeds. This often happens after a century of irrigation. Salinization played a primary role in the demise of the ancient Fertile Crescent civilizations. China’s Yellow River Basin is an exception, because of its low-salt soil. It’s a serious problem in the Colorado River Basin, the San Joaquin Valley, and many other places. It’s sure to increase in the coming decades, following a century-long explosion of irrigation around the world.
We know that the Ogallala aquifer will eventually become unprofitable for water mining. This ocean of Ice Age water lies primarily beneath Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska. Following World War II, diesel-powered centrifugal pumps enabled farmers to pump like there’s no tomorrow. A 1982 study predicted problems after 2020. When the irrigation ends, many will go bankrupt, many will depart, and some will return to less productive dryland farming, which could trigger another dust bowl. Water mining has become a popular trend around the world, a short-term solution.
Stonehenge was built between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, and it was a durable design. It had no moving parts, no electric-powered controls, and it was not required to prevent billions of gallons of water from normally flowing downstream to the sea. How long will our dams last? The Teton Dam did a spectacular blowout two days after it was filled.
Typhoon Nina blasted Asia in the summer of 1975. Near China’s Banqiao Dam, a massive flood resulted from 64 inches (163 cm) of rain, half of which fell in just six hours. The dam collapsed, and the outflow erased a number of smaller dams downstream. Floods killed 171,000 people, and 11 million lost their homes.
In 1983, a sudden rush of melt water blasted into Glen Canyon Dam, damaging one of its spillways. The dam did not fail that day. It did not take out the Hoover Dam downstream with a huge wall of water. It did not pull the plug on agriculture and civilization in southern California.
As we move beyond Peak Oil, and energy production goes downhill, industrial civilization will wither. It won’t be able to make replacement parts for dams, turbines, the power grid, and so on. Will the nation of the United States go extinct some day? The status quo in California is dependent on the operation of many pumping stations, which depend on the operation of hydro-power dams. The Edmonston station pushes water uphill 1,926 feet (587 m), over the Tehachapi Mountains, using fourteen 80,000 horsepower pumps.
As I write, the west coast is experiencing a serious drought. Reservoirs in California are dangerously low. Droughts can last for decades, or longer. There is a good chance that climate change will increase the risks of living in extremely overpopulated western states. So might earthquakes.
A wise man gave this advice to California governor Edmund Brown: “Don’t bring the water to the people, let the people go to the water.”
Reisner, Marc, Cadillac Desert — The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Penguin Books, New York, 1986.