Sunday, November 1, 2009

On "Cadillac Desert" by Marc Reisner ****

A few years ago, while the region where I live in the southeastern United States was dying of famine (for a short time we were discouraged even from flushing toilets) and the northeast United States was set under flood waters, my father suggested to me in a phone conversation that the United States had made a mistake in not investing more in an infrastructure that could move water around from where it is in excess to where it is needed. At the time, I thought it a curious idea but one that likely would not work the way that we would expect or desire--and one a bit surprising from a religious person like my father (espousing a scientific engineering solution to a problem that is, at bottom, spiritual and natural). But after reading Reisner's book, I see from where my father's thinking was arising. I should have known. He lives in California, the state in which I grew up. And in California, indeed, in all of the West, moving water around from where it is abundant to where it is not is common practice, one for which I often felt guilty and which I was hoping to escape when I moved South, where water is supposed to be abundant (but is not because of the South's own very wasteful practices).

Reisner's book has been on my reading list for decades. It came highly recommended from a coworker of mine back in my retail bookstore working days. A California native, he was not a fan of Los Angeles and did his best to stir up antipathy toward its water practices. But Reisner's book isn't just about Los Angeles or California--it's about the whole of the West. It's a warning about how the prosperity of the American West is built on sand--or rather on water imported to sit over that sand. In the short run, a great civilization is built; in the long run, the sand, Reisner notes, will prevail. Civilizations built on irrigation have a limited lifespan. Eventually, dams silt up, salt deposits overcome the fields where water is deposited, reservoirs fill, fields become useless, and all returns to the desert from which it came.

Reisner's book is about more than that, however. It's also about bureaucracy, about the way government programs become self-perpetuating even after they've served out their primary useful purpose, the way that individual powerbrokers in Congress serve their constituents first before ideology. A liberal Democrat might support environmental causes in word, but if a multimillion dollar water project looks like it will help his or her district, environmental concerns become a secondary issue. A conservative Republican might hate big spending government in word, but if a multimillion dollar water project looks like it will help his or her district, suddenly big spending doesn't look so bad. A "if you vote for my project, I'll vote for yours" keeps big (and often bad) projects passing through the legislature. As a result, farmland that is too dry to be productive naturally gets close to free water and becomes superprofitable, while farmland that is naturally better suited to a given crop goes fallow because it doesn't get the same water subsidies.

The whole history of American water rights is enough to sadden anyone about the prospects of the United States ever again achieving a balanced budget, let alone passing health care legislation that makes sense or financial oversight regulation that will do what it's intended to do. Reisner exits on a positive note, explaining how attitudes toward dam building (a major focus of his book) changed in the early 1990s and offering hope that this bodes well for the country taking a more reasonable approach to water rights. Somehow, pessimist that I am, I think that reason likely won but a short respite. While cities out West may be taking a more responsible approach to water usage (though Reisner notes that it's agriculture that uses the most water), down here in Georgia, during the most recent drought, I heard word of the need for more dams--rather than the need for more restrained water usage or the creation of landscapes more befitting the natural terrain.

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