A Semidesert with a Desert Heart

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"A Semidesert with a Desert Heart"

Book excerpt

By: Marc Reisner

Date: 1986

Source: Reisner, Marc. "A Semidesert with a Desert Heart." Cadillac Desert. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986.

About the Author: American author Marc Reisner (1948–2000) wrote three notable books about water and natural resources. The most widely known is Cadillac Desert, a critical account of the policy, politics, financing, and engineering behind large-scale government water supply projects in the American West. Reisner was born in Minneapolis and earned a degree in political science from Earlham College. He worked for several environmental policy organizations before receiving an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship to support the work that would eventually become Cadillac Desert. Reisner was active in conservation and habitat protection activities with several organizations and served as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California at Davis. He received a Pew Foundation fellowship to work on Pacific salmon issues but was unable to complete the project before his death.


The introduction to Cadillac Desert begins with an account of the barren Western landscape as seen through the window of an airliner on a cross-country flight. Reisner describes the vast and largely inhospitable landscape as a prelude to his critical history of efforts to create a desert civilization by way of water projects heavily dependent upon government subsidies and political maneuvering.

The six hundred pages of Cadillac Desert include accounts of the ethically questionable techniques used to obtain long-term water supplies for Los Angeles, engineering triumphs such as the Depression-era construction (under budget and ahead of schedule) of the Hoover Dam, tragic failures of the St. Francis and Teton dams, the contentious Colorado River Compact, and agribusiness subsidies. An entire chapter is devoted to Floyd Dominy, a former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, who became a lightning rod for critics of federal water policy and was also featured prominently in John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid.

Reisner's history of western water development is set against the early advice of John Wesley Powell (1834–1902), a one-armed American Civil War veteran and the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, who is best known for leading the first river expedition through the Grand Canyon. Based on his observation of western drylands and the hardships suffered by mid-nineteenth century homesteaders, Powell realized that water would always be a limiting factor west of the one-hundredth meridian. This was a significant departure from the prevailing opinions of expansionists, railroads, and land promoters who vigorously maintained that water would quite literally follow the plow. Once the land had been settled and cultivated, rain would come as if by divine providence. Powell suggested smaller settlements than many people envisioned, and emphasized self-reliance, water conservation, and highly localized irrigation works as the keys to successful settlement of the West. Just a few months before Powell's death in 1902, Congress created the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and put into motion a multi-billion dollar program of heavily subsidized and monumental engineering works intended to reclaim the arid West.


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Although it has been criticized as revisionist history, Cadillac Desert continues to stand as a landmark description of highly ambitious, largely unchecked, and economically debatable water development projects and the federal bureaucracy that grew up around them. Reisner points out that a century of intensive effort has managed to irrigate, at great cost, an amount of land roughly equivalent to the size of Missouri. Part of the cost of reclamation has been paid with dollars. The remainder has been paid with lost natural resources such as Glen Canyon (now flooded by a reservoir named in honor of John Wesley Powell), depleted salmon runs, and aquifers that they have permanently lost their ability to yield water. Some lives have been lost and others have no doubt been saved. The benefits have included jobs, inexpensive electricity, desert oases such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, and a multi-billion dollar agricultural business. Reisner's contribution in Cadillac Desert was to bring the debate to the forefront.



Powell, John Wesley. The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. New York: Penguin, 1987 (originally published in 1875).

Worster, Donald. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2000.


Pisani, D.J. "Federal Reclamation and the American West in the Twentieth Century." Agricultural History 77 (Summer 2003): 391-419.

Web sites

National Public Radio. "The Vision of John Wesley Powell." 〈http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2003/aug/water/part1.html〉 (accessed February 12, 2006).

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