Reflections on Cadillac Desert

William Mulholland, pointing. (Image source: LA Times)

by Jay Lund

In 1986, when Mark Reisner published his book Cadillac Desert, I had just begun professing on water management. The book went “viral,” before the word viral had its present-day internet-intoxicated meaning.  The book offered a compelling revisionist history and understanding of water development in the American West, based on economic self-interest, ideology, and Floyd Dominy’s personal drives.  Since then, Cadillac Desert has been a “must read” book for Western water wonks.

Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner

Cadillac Desert fell in the tradition of Muddy Waters (1951), Dams and other Disasters (1971), Rivers of Empire (1985), and Water and Power (1983), all written by giants in the field critical of Western water development, but was much better written and marketed (though less scholarly) and the time was ripe for publication of such a thoughtful, popular work.  The era of large dam and water projects in the US had clearly ended, and needed a punctuation mark.  Mark Reisner provided an exclamation mark.

Main lessons at the time

The main lessons from the book (for me) were:

  • The 50-year era of building large regional and multi-state water projects was largely over (by 1987).
  • Why do we expect anything as important as water to not be political? The individuals, sociology, economics, and politics behind the era of large water infrastructure construction were fascinating and important. In fact, they proved to be more important than traditional engineering (my field) in shaping water management.  But contemporary and likely future politics and economics can no longer support continued traditional water project development.
  • The public institutions responsible for the successes and failures of the big infrastructure era were incapable of adapting to new conditions. The large federal and state agencies have largely lacked political and financial support needed to develop new talented and ambitious people to effectively lead these institutions in better adapted directions.
  • The West’s large water infrastructure systems have profoundly transformed and damaged the natural environment and pre-existing rural communities, particularly Native American communities.
  • In many ways, the water infrastructure of the Western US was over-developed, or at least mal-developed for contemporary society’s water management objectives.

Becoming conventional wisdom

Marc Reisner’s themes are now conventional wisdom.  Although these ideas were not new to well-read scholars, they were timely, well-written, and influential.  Almost all books and scholarship following Cadillac Desert have adopted or been underlain by these themes (such as The Great Thirst, 1992, The King of California, 2005, and Managing California’s Water, 2011).

But much has changed since Cadillac Desert was written (and revised in 1992).

Federal and State agencies no longer drive major water project construction.  The additional water deliveries from new major dam or canal projects are typically small and expensive.  The cheapest sites with the most capacity to deliver water already have water projects.  Remaining potential reservoir sites are usually much less cost-effective.

The economic and political drivers of Western water also have changed in fundamental ways.  The West is wealthier and much less agricultural.  Agriculture’s diminishing role in the West’s economy (now less than 5% of GDP and employment) and the steady urban water conservation efforts have made regional economic prosperity much less dependent on cheap and abundant water supplies.

Environmental laws and regulations now greatly hinder the development of new projects, and impinge on the operation of existing projects.  There is now great uncertainty and concern for the ability to preserve native aquatic species.

Federal and state budgets no longer have substantial funds available for large water infrastructure projects anyway.  There remains little political appetite to fund large federal and state water projects.

Floyd Dominy (Image source: LA Times)

Federal and State water agencies have become financially and intellectually impoverished and, tragically, have substantially lost most of their sense of mission.  Without a strong sense of mission, they often become mired in internal procedures and policies – and suffer greatly reduced effectiveness.  A Floyd Dominy would be completely hamstrung in today’s large agencies.

So where is Western Water going?  And where should we as professionals and interests work to make it go?  What should we teach students, the public, and policy-makers about Western water as it moves well beyond Cadillac Desert?

Emerging from the Desert

Cadillac Desert is now a bit dated in its lessons for the present and future water management and policy in the American West.  What should we be preparing for?

Water in the west will continue to be important and controversial.  But the structure of the West’s economy will continue to make it less dependent on abundant water supplies.  Modern urban economies need relatively little water to produce vast amounts of economic wealth.  Per capita urban water use continues to fall substantially, and can probably continue to do so for several decades.  Agricultural shifts to higher valued permanent crops, particularly vines and orchards, make farmers more interested in water reliability than total quantity.

Climate change will become more important, bringing more attention to variability and likely contraction of supplies and shifts in demands.  It will be hard to know how to change major water infrastructure for a warmer, more variable, and perhaps drier climate.  Larger reservoirs, while useful, might not be the most cost-effective solutions.

Local and regional water agencies have become increasingly important, and have been more successful at escaping the calcification of state and federal bureaucracies.  Cost-effective contemporary water innovations are largely in water conservation, water markets, conjunctive use of ground and surface waters, wastewater reuse, and other actions which are more appropriately and effectively led and financed at local levels.

Most modern water systems are built around carefully crafted portfolios of water supply and demand management activities involving local, regional, and larger actions, users, and management agencies.  State and federal agencies are most important in establishing legal and regulatory frameworks for local agencies and users to cooperate, as well as federal and state agencies continuing to run Dominy-era water supply projects.

Although individuals remain important, the success of adaptive water management portfolios over local, regional, statewide, and inter-state scales relies increasingly on networks of people.  It is hard and slow to organize a group of people distributed among many agencies and interests, but an effective convergence of ideas across such a network can be effective and powerful.  Water management has always relied substantially on the development of informal networks of experts across agencies, interests, and academia to lead progress and support the development of effective legal and institutional frameworks.

Implications for California and the West

Water problems and solutions for the American West continue to change.  The region is a dry place, with a highly variable (and probably increasingly variable) climate, that supports a growing population and economy.

Three more recent books give some options and optimism for improving water management in the West (Lund et al. 2010; Hanak et al. 2011; Fleck 2016; Mulroy 2017).  These all point to the importance of moving beyond the large projects of the Dominy era and the pessimism of Cadillac Desert.  They all point out that despite the inevitability of water problems in the dry Western US, substantial prosperity and relative ecological success can occur with thoughtful and cooperative management.  Excessive focus on conflict, and not the benefits of cooperation, is the surest recipe for failure.

Further reading

Arax, Mark and Rick Wartzman (2005), The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire, PublicAffairs.

Fleck, John (2016), Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, Island Press.

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson (2011), Managing California’s Water:  From Conflict to Reconciliation, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 500 pp.

Hundley, N. (1992), The Great Thirst: Californians and Water-A History, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, revised 2001.

Kahn, Debra (2017), “Wry Jeremiah saw folly in dam construction’s ‘go-go years’,” E&E News, April 3, 2017

Kahrl, William (1983), Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Lund, J., E. Hanak, W. Fleenor, W. Bennett, R. Howitt, J. Mount, and P. Moyle, Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, February 2010.

Maass, A. (1951), Muddy waters; the Army Engineers and the Nation’s rivers, Harvard U. Press, Cambridge, MA.

Mulroy, Pat (ed) (2017), The Water Problem – Climate Change and Water Policy in the United States, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC., especially Chapter 4 on the Colorado River.

Morgan, Arthur E. (1971), Dams and Other Disasters: A Century of the Army Corps of Engineers in Civil Works, Porter Sargent Publisher.

Reisner, Marc (1986), Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised in 1992, Penguin Books.

Worster, Donald (1985), Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West, Pantheon Books.

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis, where he is also Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

This entry was posted in California Water, Climate Change, education, Planning and Management, Stressors, Sustainability, Water Supply and Wastewater and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Reflections on Cadillac Desert

  1. margomerck says:

    Thank you ! Excellent recap and reflection on the future of water use. Gives me hope. 🙂


  2. Eddie says:

    I finished Cadillac Desert yesterday, great timing! I loved the book, and found it very enlightening. I hope that we can speed up the the public and political desire to reverse some of the ecological damage done. Wastewater treatment companies are coming up with some great products that could help both urban and agricultural users reuse most of our wastewater. CA is an amazing and diverse place that has maintained its beauty despite a few hundred years of rapid resource depletion. Luckily, if you give nature a small change, it will find a way to thrive.

  3. Dennis Johnson says:

    Thank you for the revisit of Cadillac Desert and your thoughts of its importance in the ongoing conversation about water in the West. I started my career as a banker in the Southern Central Valley just after the book came out and spent many years lending to farmers and the farm economy. I read Cadillac Desert around the time I was working on water and drought policy for a major California bank and the book helped explain some of the mysterious and puzzling things I saw when trying to understand the water “system” in our State. I agree with you that that the water infrastructure in the West was overdeveloped (or as you also characterize “maldeveloped”). Proof of that conclusion lies in economics – if new developments are deemed too expensive, then the system is currently “appropriate” to the market in an economic sense. There is enough water to support uses that generate economic growth with less water. Uses that require more water are becoming uneconomical within the constraints of the current supply. Cotton, sugar beets and wheat has given way to grapes, pistachios and the infamous almond. The challenge will be developing water systems which are appropriate to the direction that society chooses to take, a direction which can only be discerned through political dialog.

  4. I have a question says:

    How do we maximize groundwater recharge without harming orchards or other agriculture?
    Where should university water-related research be aimed, to be most helpful in lighting the path to a desirable Calif. water future?
    How do we protect the the overall body of research from being torqued out of whack by “interested funders”, and ensure that universities fulfill their potential as “venues for not just expressing but evaluating ideas”? ( Public Spheres for the Trump Age, 7/4/2017)
    What are the most important questions, if these aren’t them, and are they being addressed?

  5. Eddie says:

    I have been trying to get my hands on a copy of the documentary Cadillac Desert. It appears to only be available on VHS, and all of the libraries that I have visited say they have it, but it is not on the shelf where t should be. It is available on Amazon for a lot of $$, and it is possible to watch it on YouTube, but only in 7 minute increments, which is not the best watching expirence. Any advice on how to get a copy to watch?

  6. Richard Smith says:

    While you say “Federal and State agencies no longer drive major water project construction.”, we have the Water Fix looming over our heads, and it scares me

  7. Dan Ray says:

    I’m not sure your critique of intellectually impoverished state agencies rings true. Call me biased, having work around them for many years, & certainly they are too often plodding, bureaucratic, & timid, but then there is the California Water Action Plan, which outlines an ambitious set of objectives & actions which California state agencies, led from the Governor’s office & Natural Resources Agency, have worked aggressively to implement with considerable success. Maybe some agency leaders haven’t demonstrated the charisma of a Bill Warne or William Hyatt, but I’ll take Felicia Marcus over Floyd Dominy any day.

    • jaylund says:

      There are some points of light.

    • Katja says:

      We need Felicia to come through for us and make the WaterFix giant tunnels infeasible. They are already a bad deal but that doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone!

  8. John Andrew says:

    I suppose reflections on a desert—Cadillac or otherwise—could qualify as a mirage, and the book in some ways was like that for me. That is, it was a teaser of a tale, but it often distorted civil engineering, analogies, and just plain old-fashioned facts. And what about the odd omission of the once-and-future battle for Hetch Hetchy, of which you are so very familiar? A generation later, the West’s water didn’t disappear (especially this year), we’re still using all those dams (and they didn’t silt up), and rice is now viewed as friendly to fish and feathers. Alas, I may be intellectually impoverished, but at least I’m not intellectually lazy: Cadillac Desert was published in 1986 (not 1987), and the far better Rivers of Empire in 1985, not 1969.

    • jaylund says:

      Good catch on Cadillac Desert origin date. Found a 1969 date for Rivers of Empire that is erroneous.

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  11. zidane says:

    thank you for the article

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