Cadillac Desert: A re-visit

An overlook at a  favorite book of mine: Cadillac Desert.


Cadillac1Touch water in the West, and you touch everything.
–John Gunther

Fires and drought in California to go with water restrictions. 

Continued overall low water levels for the Colorado River.

Dams silting up.

All problems very much in the news in recent years.

Be it because of climate change, natural cycles, or human-made engineering, the importance of water, and the politics, history, culture behind it is the driving force in the American West.

A partner and I went to the History Colorado Center a month or so ago.  The featured exhibit was on the town of Keota and the impact the Dust Bowl had on this community.

As we had been to Keota and the surrounding area a few years back, this exhibit resonated with us.

No irrigation and dryland farming meant that the Dust Bowl destroyed this area.

Watching Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl documentary on PBS added more information and resonance to this horrific event in American history.

Seeing this exhibit, watching the documentary, and being aware of the news’s recent events all led me to recently re-read a favorite book of mine: Cadillac Desert.

Revised last in 1993, this book was prescient about the challenges now faced.

The dam and reservoir infrastructure is crumbling. The population and resource use is perhaps too high for the amount of water available, and there is growing conflict over the scarce resources.  We are also increasingly using up the aquifers due to increased demand for water in rapidly growing areas.

The book is not just about the environmental impact, however. It is about the long history and politics of water rights in the west. From the early LDS pioneers and their irrigation to John Wesley Powell on his trip down the Colorado River to the more recent machinations by William  Mulholland and the Los Angles aqueduct system.

The book covers a lot of ground in a very readable and engaging manner.

To understand the American West, water has to be understood.

As an outdoors person, understanding the water situation in the American West is to know the interlocking web of environmental factors: Snowpack level, droughts, wildfire danger, and so on that impacts our chosen recreational pursuits.

More importantly, though, the water situation will impact the growth, development, and utilization of other resources in the West.

Living in the Front Range of Colorado, the water situation has a direct impact on me. Admittedly, since I did choose to move out here, perhaps I’m a bit of the problem, too.

The book packs a lot of information in six hundred pages.

The author passed away in 2000, so there has been no revision since. What Marc Reisner would have written about our current situation can only be imagined.

To understand the American West, read this book.

It is a classic and a rewarding read for those who finish it.

Update 2021 – With an ongoing drought in the west, population growth in Denver, SLC, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, and, of course, climate change,  an updated version of the book is something on my wish list if not entirely possible. An afterward recently written, however,  in a different version.



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9 years ago

This has been on my bookshelf for a while waiting to be read. This just moved it to the top of the stack. You might enjoy “The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth”

Just Bill
Just Bill
9 years ago

Guess you answered my question after all. 🙂
I’ll dig up that book one of these days- thanks for the article.
Your impression of the book is different (but likely more accurate) than the one I had heard- it’ll go on the list.

Paul from Scotland
Paul from Scotland
9 years ago

A short time after reading this blog entry, I was browsing in the book sale room of the Woods Hole public library in Massachusetts. I came across Cadillac Desert, and bought it for a buck.

Yea, it was interesting. The beginning and end were the strongest bits of the book, in my opinion, but there was so much detail in between. Honestly, I think you could cut 300 pages from this book and not lose much.

But then again, I don’t live out west.