Hop in your car on a hot summer day and head steadily west from the Atlantic Ocean, and by about Salina, Kansas, you will experience the unforgettable shift away from the oppressive humidity that plagues the eastern two-thirds of the United States. Your skin will start to tighten, and your craving for water will intensify. By the time you see the inviting peaks of the Front Range shimmering in the summer heat, you will be thoroughly dehydrated and ready for a deep draught of cold, snow-melt water.
You will not be the first, of course. Generations before you, the first non-Native explorers ventured beyond the sleepy Mississippi, onto the arid plains and westward. Land so vast that it paled on the hot horizon, the West beckoned to those with the capacity to envision a home in such an unwelcoming and parched landscape. Rivers flowed ceaselessly from the snow-capped mountains, promising an abundant supply of life-sustaining water, certainly more than anyone could ever need.
With religious enthusiasm and with the wind of the righteous at his back, Brigham Young arrived in Utah and set about claiming the land for his followers, and subsequently irrigation began. By 1902, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation followed the Mormon leader’s example and began to build dams, forever altering the Western landscape and initiating the West’s war for water.
Author Marc Reisner’s book “Cadillac Desert,” a deeply researched examination of the role of water in shaping the West’s history, is useful in understanding how something as basic as water has changed the course of humanity’s history and the ecosystems that all Earth’s life-forms inhabit. Though written in 1986 — with an updated edition in 1993 — the subject matter has not lost its resonance, for of course, if anything, the scarcity of water has increased, reaching critical levels in some regions.
In spite of the massive efforts of more than a century to move water, vast swaths of the Western states are still desert and almost unlivable, though of course that has not stopped cities such as Los Angeles and Phoenix from erupting like thirsty mushrooms after a heavy rain. Reisner argues that, were it not for these Herculean efforts to “manipulate” water, many Western cities would not exist. Now, more than 20 years after his updated edition, states such as California and Arizona are seeing record-setting and devastating droughts, and the West in general is faced with deadly and costly wildfires on a yearly basis. Reisner envisioned a future — one we are speeding toward with abandon — in which the decades of conquering the West’s water will bump up against a day of reckoning, a final battle that the desert will ultimately win.
There have been skirmishes before, the most notable being the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, but modern images of biblical dust storms swallowing Phoenix are not uncommon. With Western expansion, and its Manifest Destiny mindset, came a reckless abandon and a shortsightedness, in which both champions of the free market and cumbersome federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, thoughtlessly blew the lid off a Pandora’s box.
The once mighty Colorado River is at the epicenter of the looming disaster, which is a calamity long in the making. Unfortunately, a large part of the American legacy of expansion has been the exploitation of Native peoples and a landscape with limited resources.
As ranchers, encouraged by the Bureau of Reclamation, spread river water into the Great Basin of the Western Slope, the waters became more saline, picking up minerals and residual salts left from ancient sea beds, making the salt level of the silt-heavy Colorado River ever higher as its waters flowed westward.
Written with great thought and careful research, Reisner’s book begins with this country’s earliest histories — the Spanish, Lewis and Clark and the Louisiana Purchase, great swaths of land that was originally deemed useless, until the discovery of the beaver and the riches the small animal’s pelts could bring. With the greed that drives many came the inevitable corruption and abuse, compelled often by divine notions (the rain would follow the plow) and vast amounts of cash. Unlike the Native Americans, who adapted over centuries to the harsh and unforgiving climate by being nomads, the settlers approached the foreign vistas intent on transforming them into something familiar and “European,” much like the more tempered environs of the original colonies.
It quickly became clear that those who controlled the water controlled the West. The driving force behind the war for water rights in the West was the “use it or lose it” concept, which overshadowed any consideration of conservation.
It is clear that Reisner favored a more introspective approach to water management, and much of the book is spent lambasting the Bureau of Reclamation, which in his mind is the clear villain, and the most abused victim is the Colorado River, which he believed was “to conservationists, the preeminent symbol of everything mankind has done wrong — a harbinger of a squalid and deserved fate.”
Reading “Cadillac Desert” is like reading an oracle’s predictions after they have all come true. The book demands an open mind and a willingness to wade through often-ponderous descriptions of cubic-feet measurements of water delivered and technical explanations of public policy and political gerrymandering. More than a quarter-century has passed since Reisner wrote his prophetic book, and it is up to us whether his efforts will serve as a canary in the coal mine with regard to preserving enough water for the future.
“We set out to tame the rivers and ended up killing them. We set out to make the future of the American West secure; what we really did was make ourselves rich and our descendants insecure.” Prophetic truths, indeed.