What can we afford?

Navigating the site:








CORE acronym
















Science subjects

Site Map


Technology time-line




WEAL acronym


World view

Z-A contents of this site


return to top of the page




























Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner, references; and thematic links to Global Warming


"Emptiness. There was nothing down there on the earth --no towns, no light, no signs of civilization."

p. 1

Grand Coulee Dam | California Gold Rush | California aqueduct

Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert:  The American West and Its Disappearing Water. (1986).


A Semidesert with a Desert Heart
A Country of Illusion
The Red Queen
First Causes
An American Nile (1) & (2)
The Go-Go Years
Rivals in Crime
Peanut Farmer & Pork Barrel
Those Who Refuse
Things Fall Apart
A Civilization


Semiarid means Arid; the mean dry to very dry

"Barren mountains rose duskily from the desert floor, . . . broke the wind haunted distance.

" At first no one listened to Powell,"

John Wesley Powell

rain follows the plow

Walter Prescott Webb, "the American West Perpetual; Mirage." 1957.


  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • Army Corps of Engineers
  • desertification
  • salinity

pp. 5-8.

""Nowhere is the salinity problem more serious than in the San Joaquin Valley.

"the holiness of the blooming desert."

p. 8

"By the late 1970s, there were 1251 major reservoirs in California, . . . And yet all of those rivers and reservoirs satisfy only 60 percent of the demand."

"As is the case with most western states, California's very existence is premised on epic liberties taken with water -- costly water that fell as rain on the north and was diverted to the south, thus precipitating the state's longest-running political wars."

"In Arizona, 87% of the water consumed goes to irrigation. . .."

"During the first and only term of his presidency, Jimmy Carter decided that the age of water projects had come to a deserved end.-But Carter's hit list had as much to do with his one-term presidency as Iran."

"In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money."
"-where water is concerned, logic and reason have never figured prominently in the scheme of things."

Reisner, pp. 9-14.

Western USA

A Country of Illusion:

Powell's vision was to "help create a limited bounty on that tiny fraction of the land which it made sense to irrigate. It is hard to imagine.. a future in which there might be no rivers left at all."

gold rush

Desire for gold motivated western settlement.

Ecological alterations were required due to climate:
   horses on the plains
   cattle & hide trade
   domestic animals
   population decline
   religious conversion

Spanish colonial land grant system or the "encomienda" included: riparian springs, extensive grazing, & irrigable farmland.

"What is remarkable, hundred years later is how little has changes. The disaster that Powell predicted--a catastrophic return to a cycle of drought--did indeed occur not once but twice: in the late 1800s and the 1930s. When that happened Powell's ideas--at least his insistence that a federal irrigation program was the only salvation for the arid west--were embraced, tentatively at first, then with a kind of desperate insistence."

"The result was a half century rampage of dam-building an irrigation development which in all probability went far beyond anything Powell would have liked."

p. 51.

Structure of the Argument:


Coronado and the harshness of the arid regions

Spain's reluctance to take possession of the desert (Santa Fe, El Paso)

California settlement instead (More than a dozen coastal missions 1776-1808)

French possession of the Mississippi and Missouri River valleys

Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Lewis and Clark expedition until 1806 from St. Louis to the Columbia River estuary.

"These vast plains of the western hemisphere may become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts in Africa." Zebulon Pike, 1820.

The Great American desert, Major Stephen Long, 1830s.

Yankee commercial advance and the fur trade. John Colter.

$8- $10 per pelt was the equal of a weeks wage in the 1820-1860 period.

Jedidiah Smith arrested by Mexicans in California, banished, opened the market. 1828

The purchase remained a bust and butt of jokes

John Wesley Powell and his vision of land realism based on Natural History & Ethnography

"They were genuine Renaissance men, though their circumstances were vastly different from those of Jefferson and Franklin."

p. 24.

"Most grew up on subsistence farms hacked out of the ancient forests or grafted onto the tall grass prairie, they lacked formal education, breeding,. and refinement."

"Powell was compulsively drawn to the frontier". and the great southwest

p. 25

"By 1869 the population of New York City had surpassed one million. The city had built a great water supply;; aqueduct to the Croton River (Croton on Hudson) and was imagining its future..."

The Colorado River country, the old Spanish trail among the scattered Franciscan Indian Missions.

24 May 1869 Powell's geographical expedition of the Green River Wyoming.

ore "not devoid of scenic interest" -- despite the disastrous loss of men and materiel in No Name Canyon's rapids.

pp. 26-27.

"The country grew drier and more desolate.

from 106 degrees in the day to freezing at night.

"The river they were floating on now was made up of most of the runoff of the far Southwest. They were in country that now white man had ever seen, riding the runoff of a region the size of Iraq, and they approaches a blind bend in the river with a mixture of anticipation and terror."

August, 1869, they floated down into and saw the wonder that is Marble Canyon, a gorge on the Colorado River, upstream of the Grand Canyon.

"The river twisted madly. It swung north, then headed south, then back north, then east, East!"

"The billows are huge the spectacle" George Bradley August 27.

"A hell of foam." Jack Sumner

"I am not sure that we can climb out of the Canyon here." John Wesley Powell.

the Mutiny

August 30 they reached the Virgin River (now UNDER Lake Meade and near the area of Las Vegas)

Three months and six days of the expedition.

"It was like modern interior Alaska."

The hundredth Meridian had been passed by settlers in the 1870s.

Great American desert could be tamed by the plow

rain follows the plow

the push west due to droughts on the Ohio and Irish famines

Railroad development meant land grants by the Federal Government (water side land).

  1. slope of the land as an angle of incline feasible to go over mountains, exists primarily adjacent to rivers: called riparian land
  2. boilers in the engines required wood and water for steam powered transport.

The loss of 183 million acres of the public domain to the railroad land grants by Congress

p. 37.

There was not enough water in the west for settlement

"the promised land" of railway advertisements and climate improvement experts

William Gilpin and the bolster of railroad advertising by politicians. publishers, speculators.

The west was heavens gift to Americans, free and open land to settle new civilization was emerging

"The plains are not deserts." William Gilpin.

"If anything unifies the history of the American west--its dreadful mistakes, it is this mythical allotment of land."

Homestead Act 1862.

"never laid eyes on the eland or the region."

p. 42.

The doctrine of riparian rights ... had been unthinkably imported from the east made it possible to monopolize the water in a stream..."

p. 43.

Fraud in claiming homestead, swamp and overflow lands and timber lands from the government.

"The document that Powell hoped would bring the country to its senses was called "The Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a more detailed account of the lands of Utah. 1876.

"Powell was more interested in being right than in being long."


"...might help assure that water would be used equitably."


"The Nation at large was in no mood for such a thing."


Powell's fortunes, Bureau of Ethnography (Smithsonian) to Geological Survey.

Irrigation Survey funding by Congress to map the location of potential water sources

The fight over stopping settlement on public lands

the attack against Powell's imperious plans

"He was forming opinions the West could not bear to hear."

p. 50.


                                                Reisner, pp. 15-51.

Compare to Merchant.

Reisner. next chapter

The Red Queen

"While Los Angeles moldered, San Francisco grew. . .."

"El Camino Real" & Junipero Serra's Franciscan Missionaries:
   1768  founding of San Diego; the initial "Indian Mission"
   1779  founding of Los Angeles pueblo
   1788  founding of San Francisco de Assis mission & presidio
   1849  Sierra Nevada gold strike "California Gold Rush"
   1885  LA land boom (due to the AT&SF railroad)
   1892  Great Depression of 19th century
   1896  Long Beach -San Pedro oil discoveries
   1902  Reclamation Service established

"The centerpiece of the [Forest] Service's program in California was to be the Owens Valley Project, & there were already rumors that LA coveted the valley's water."
1904 creation of Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP)
"In truth, Mulholland planned to divert every drop to which the city held rights as soon as he could.. . . he lived in fear of the use-it-or-lose-it principle."

Gifford Pinchot "the chief of the Forest Service decided to include virtually all of the Owens Valley in the Inyo National Forest."

"With six inches of rainfall, the Owens Valley is too dry for trees. . .. so Pinchot's action was incontrovertibly a violation of the legislation that put him in business [the Organic Act of the U.S. Forest Service]."

"The Aqueduct took six years to build. . . 223 miles, 53 of them in tunnels, . . . & 170 miles of power transmission line."

"Two hydroelectric plants would be needed on the Owens River to run electric machinery that a few months earlier had not even been invented.. . .so a huge concrete plant. . . to be built near the limestone deposits of the grimly arid Tehachapi Mountains."

Very little of the water that was, according to Theodore Roosevelt,. . . more important to Los Angeles than to the Owens Valley would go to the city for another twenty years.. . .every drop of the copious flow of the aqueduct went to irrigate San Fernando Valley crops; the city took nothing at all." (86)

1913;    3000 irrigated acres in the San Fernando valley
1918;  75,000     "          "

Otis, Chandler, Sherman syndicate:  San Fernando Mission Land Company

"As [Harrison Gray] Otis never tired of saying, this was the promised land. All things were possible; anyone could get rich; the cardinal sin was doubt."

"The only greater fraud than such blather from Otis & Chandler's newspaper [The Los Angeles Times] was the overflowing desert river on which it all depended." (87)

Cycles of drought
1888-89 were drought years              Johnstown Flood, Pa.
1925 was a drought year
1933 was a drought year
1975-76 drought years
1988  drought year

"The Owens River created Los Angeles, letting a great city grow where common sense dictated that none should ever be.. . ."

"They brought in so much water for so many people that few cared any more whether Los Angeles grew at all.. . . Indeed.. . .For if California now has enough water to more than double its population, then much of California is doomed to be insufferable."                

Remi Nadeau,  The Water Seekers.

Reisner. next chapter

First Causes
". . .they may well conclude that our temples were dams."

"Did we overreach ourselves trying to build them [dams]?
Did our civilization fall apart when they silted up?
Why did we feel compelled to build so many?
Why five dozen (60) on the Missouri and its tributaries?
Why twenty-five on the Tennessee?

winter of '86, drought '88-90, 1889 Johnstown, Pa. flood; &  Powell's survey

1902 Agency: Reclamation Service became a rival of the Army Corps

"the psychic value of the Reclamation farms remained high.. . . An acre which in pre-project years was worth $5 or $19 -- if that - was suddenly worth fifty times as much. At these prices many farmers found the temptation to sell out irresistible; by 1927, at least a third of the farmers had."

"It was a case of lawlessness becoming de facto policy, and it was to become more and more commonplace."

Reisner 106-7,117.

Reisner. next chapter


An American Nile: The Colorado River
"It is one of the siltiest rivers in the world. . . the wildest."

"The Colorado's modern notoriety. . . stems . . . from the fact that . . ..It . . .has more people, more industry, and a more significant economy dependent on it than any other comparable river in the world."

"four years of carryover capacity in the reservoirs before you [might] have to evacuate most of southern California," Arizona, and portions of 4 western states."

"The river system provides over half the water of greater Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix;"
"it grows much of America's domestic production of fresh winter vegetables;"

"The Colorado is so used up on its way to the sea that only a burbling trickle reaches its dried-up delta at the head of the Gulf of California,"

To some conservationists, the Colorado River is the preeminent symbol of everything mankind has done wrong. . ." or "it is the perfection of an ideal."

Reisner, pp. 120-44.

The Go-Go Years

"the Great Depression, 1929-1939: 1 in 4 had no jobs."

Franklin D. Roosevelt (married Theodore Roosevelt's cousin Eleanor Roosevelt He was undersecretary of the Navy during World War I, ran and lost as vice-President in 1920; contracted paralysis due to the polio virus; and became Governor of New York in 1928)

capitalism on trial: stock collapse in November, 1929, destroyed 1/3 of the money in the nation by 1932.

In 1933 began the greatest national conservation effort since 1900, commenced under Progressive, Harold Ickes, as Secretary of the Interior, expanded funding & bureaucracy:

PWA -- from the Lincoln Tunnel to overseas causeway national block grants
TVA -- comprehensive river basin (watershed) planning
CCC -- work for the unemployed urban youth & adults
USF&WS -- brought together biology, protection, and funded reserves
NPS expanded -- visitor centers, roads, tunnels, & scenic vistas built
Rural Electrification Agency -- promoted owner operated cooperatives
NFS - multiple use regulations, wilderness dedication, reforestation
Taylor Grazing Act -- ended homesteading & set limits on stock leases


Reclamation: Elwood Meade died in 1936, Ickes friend Mike Straus took over reshaping the agency to promote large construction of "big public-power dams," to compete with private electric utilities.

Then came the "Dust Bowl" often seen as a natural disaster, ecologically it is a bio-cultural disaster, or socially speaking it was an engineering disaster with financial undercurrents of unsurpassed size in American history.

  1. a drought since 1928 (cyclical) on the great plains destroyed the capacity of land on the southern plains to sustain farming in a semi-arid region.
  2. marginal lands developed since settlement in 1900 and heavily planted with grain since 1915, sustained farming, farmers, towns, banks, railways and grain silos,
  3. Chicago commodities exchange & an already failing commercial banking system collapsed again.
  4. Winds & aridity caused the topsoil to literally blow away -- darkening skies in St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and even Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.!
  5. The extent was davastating:

    756 counties in 19 states (mid-west) were affected by the Spring of 1934.
    35 million acres lost, 125 million acres debilitated, another 100 million acres were threatened!
    255 million acres were at stake: nearly a million people migrated to California where groundwater (tables dropped from 100-300 feet) bcause of wide spread ues of irrigated lands in coastal & interior valleys for the production of fruit orchards, produce, & grain.

    What is the origin of the phrase: "dust bowl?"


If the dust bowl was a catastrophe, there seemed to be a responsive and responsible solution in reclamation.

1935 Bureau of Reclamation took over California state's Central Valley Project the first irrigation scheme to relocate water from the arid north to the desert south centerpiece of the project was Shasta Dam in the Cascades.

1931-1933 Columbia River (fourth largest in the United States) could generate enough electricity for "every person west of the Mississippi River."   (155)

The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River


The Army Corps of Engineers "cut its teeth" on the Grand Coulee & Bonneville dams at more than $270 million each (low dam -- navigation; high dam --irrigation & electrical power) Bonneville's fish facilities cost $65 million 1/4 the cost of the power generated (158); the Grand Coulee was the largest, in terms of height and concrete, dam in the world at that time.

Along the Columbia River Basin, 13 dams over 40 years were built for multipurposes, called Comprehensive Riverine Management. The scheme allowed for improved interstate commerce, flood control, irrigation water, electrical generation, recreation and fish hatcheries --due to the devastating impact of the dams on salmon migrartions.

Smallest to largest dams:
Bonneville Dam ------ Hoover Dam ------- Shasta Dam ---- Grand Coulee Dam

Oregon, Dalles ---> Nevada & Arizona ---> California ---> Washington State

130 million board feet of lumber in the Grand Coulee alone to generate 105,000 kilowatts of electricity per generator!

• aluminum industry {Alcoa's competitors -- Reynolds & Kaiser)
• war defense plants (WWII) -- ships, guns, armaments, tanks, & bombers -- Seattle's aerospace engineering indistry had its start during this period.
• Hanford nuclear facility -- where the Plutonium bomb (dropped on Nagasaki) was constructed.

By 1952 Congress had authorized 110 separate dam appropriations on thousands of rivers!

Dream of cheap electricity

$194.00 worth of power in NYC would have the equivalent $24 in Seattle!

"If there was a free flowing river anywhere in the country, our reflex action was to erect a dam in its path."    (167)

Log-rolling, a term for Congressional patronage that describe voting behavior:

"The whole business was like a pyramid scheme -- the many (the taxpayers) were paying to enrich the few -- but most members of Congress figured that if they voted for everyone else's dams, someday they would get a dam, too."

"economic folly and the environmental damage. . .the corruption of politics. . . Water projects came to epitomize the pork barrel; they were the oil that lubricated the nation's legislative machinery.. . .public works programs . . ..that. . .. grew into a money eating monster that our leaders lacked the courage or ability to stop."

Reisner pp. 145-66.

Rivals in Crime

California State Water Project as a model for the west:

Public expenditures for the construction of facilities that enable water to move from rivers and aquifers to dry (arid) lands to "make the desert bloom" in that these dry lands would have irrigation water for orchards, livestock and crops.

In reality, the dream pitted two agencies against each other in a competition to enlist farmers and organized irrigation district members to have Congress fund projects initiated locally, but engineered nationally by the Army Corps of Engineers or otherwise the Bureau of Reclamation.


San Joaquin Valley's California aqueduct for irrigation and reclamation.

Both Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.vied with each other on how to get around acreage limitations of the 1902 Reclamation Act & the Reclamation Service the San Joaquin Valley's four largest land owners* by damming the Kings, Kern, Kaweah, & Tule Rivers in Kern County.*

"Salyer, Boswell, Kern County Land, and Miller & Lux were among the very largest and richest farmers in the entire world."                                                      (175)

Kern County Land  held 413,000 acres & is now Tenneco (174)

"The covert liaison between the Corps of Engineers & the world's largest irrigation farmers was to live on . . . as an example of government subsidizing the wrong people, for the wrong reasons. . .."

Corps replaced the Bureau due in part to not being bound by acreage limits. But competition between them meant overproduction of capacity! (201-213)

Reisner, pp.169-213.

Reisner. next chapter




red line

. "And the evidence for change has mounted as climate records have grown longer, as our understanding of the climate system has improved and as climate have become ever more reliable. Over the past twenty years, the evidence that humans are affecting the climate has accumulated inexorably, and with it has come ever greater certainty across the scientific community in the reality of recent climate change and the potential for much greater change in the future.

This increased certainty is starkly reflected in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the fourth in a series of assessment of the state of knowledge on the topic, written and reviewed by hundreds of scientists worldwide.

The panel released . . . the first part of the report, on the physical science of climate change, in February."

Birch Aquarium of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California

Recent report from Pew Center on Climate Change. October 2006

President Jimmy Carter's reference to Global Warming in the Nobel Peace Prize Lecture

Internet sources