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Shelf Help: ‘Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water’

The Power Broker of water in the West.

By Peter C. Baker


Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. (Photo: Penguin Books)

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water
Marc Reisner
Penguin Books

Environmental journalist Marc Reisner’s first book — published in 1986, updated and re-issued in 1993, and then adapted into
 a documentary in 1997—towers over the literature of American water in much the same way Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring looms above the literature of American pesticides. In a torrential narrative dense with scientific and human detail, Reisner re-casts the West (and California especially) as the bizarre, deformed love-child of competing government bureaucracies, vote-wooing politicians, and moneyed hustlers eager to build businesses reliant on taxpayer-subsidized water. Behind all the massive dams taming wild rivers, aqueducts hundreds of miles long, and unreal pockets of green farmland set against desert brown, the book finds only greed, hubris, and lies. In the years after his debut publication, Reisner was gratified to see awareness of the West’s water woes spike, increasing, however marginally, the likelihood of a “West that once and for all made sense.”