“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle—it’s just a web.” “Ever try…
In response to three years of record drought, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has declared a “water shortage emergency” and Governor Gavin Newsom has called upon businesses and residents to reduce water usage by 20-30%. In a statement released in April of 2022, the MWD proclaimed that “[t]his drought is serious, and one of the most alarming challenges our region has ever faced.”*
Addressing this challenge requires understanding how this looming crisis came to be. While dredging up past mistakes can easily cascade into a fool’s errand in search of an I-told-you-so, the history of water in the West has the potential to creatively inform our management of the current situation. This is especially relevant considering that the bureaucratic institutions that oversaw water management in the last century continue to operate within this one.
In Dam I, I will take a look at a book that laid out the history of water management in the West, while identifying the inevitability of the very problems we are presented with today. In Dam II, I will look at more recent attempts to manage water in the West and hopefully identify the steps necessary to secure a more abundant and sustainable water future.
The alarm bell of potential water shortages has been ringing for a long time. Thirty-six years ago, Marc Reisner took a big whack at it in Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water (1986).
Despite its age, Cadillac Desert offers a sobering examination of the origins of the man-made water crisis we face today. This classic book is also testament to twentieth century America as the country harnessed the forces of nature in the name of human comfort and prosperity.
Writing with narrative flair, Reisner peppers his thoroughly researched environmental history-writing with witty commentary, amusing anecdotes, and revealing character profiles that enrich our understanding of men like William Mulholland and Jimmy Carter.
As white settlers began populating the American West in the 1800s, they arrived with the expectation that the climate west of the Mississippi River would resemble that of the East. An early warning that much of the West might not be suitable for agriculture came from geologist and adventurer John Wesley Powell. After the American Civil War, he explored much of the Southwest; indeed, Reisner begins Cadillac Desert with Powell’s remarkable journey down the Green and Colorado rivers, including a descent through the Grand Canyon. Amazingly, the Powell Expedition of 1869 floated and paddled their way through turbulent waters in four wooden dories—essentially rowboats.
As Reisner recounts, “few river runners would dispute [that] the Powell expedition accomplished the most impressive feat of perilous river exploration in history.” John Wesley Powell made the journey with only one arm; having lost the other to a Minié ball during the Battle of Shiloh.
Despite Powell’s observations about the limited potential for agriculture in this region—widely distributed in his The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons (1895)—the belief took hold among settlers that cultivating the land would actually induce more precipitation. Unsurprisingly, this rain follows the plow myth was promulgated by railroad and mining interests encouraging westward expansion.
When the rain didn’t fall, the largest public works projects in history diverted what little water there was to the arid and semi-arid landscape. Deserts were transformed into gardens.
The waterways of this country are now impeded by over 91,000 dams.** Eight thousand are considered “major” dams. Eighty-three are over 300 feet tall and, of these, eight are over 600 feet tall. Of the ten tallest, five are in California.***
Built in order to control floods, provide hydroelectric power, irrigate farmland, and attract millions of people to live, these dams and their associated canals, aqueducts, pumping stations, and reservoirs have placed man’s heavy mark upon the land.
Reisner suggests that archaeologists of the future will likely refer to this period—roughly the 1930s to the 1960s—as The Big Dam Era. Regardless of the human presence in this perhaps not-so-distant future, these massive concrete temples will offer testament to American ingenuity and technology. And, as Reisner speculates, those same archaeologists may conclude that our species, at least the American incantation of it was, for a time, rather heartless and stupid.
Tens of millions of people now inhabit land that was not originally capable of sustaining them. Damming rivers not only made it possible to live comfortably in the desert and other semi-arid environments; this singular activity has largely defined the demographic characteristics of huge swaths of the country. Expansive cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas owe their very existence to dams.
So, what could possibly be wrong with that?
Alas, as is true of so many American projects, many of the most significant water–related decisions in twentieth century America were made almost singularly in deference to short-term political and economic goals.
The clearest evidence for this short-sightedness is that for just about every location where a dam could feasibly be built, especially a massive one, there now exists a dam.
Responsibility for dam construction rested with the Bureau of Reclamation and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Led by engineers chomping at the bit to build, proposals for dams grossly exaggerated economic feasibility and dismissively minimized environmental degradation.
Dam building prior to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, as Reisner laments, “dewatered countless rivers, wiped out millions of acres of riparian habitat, shut off many thousands of miles of salmon habitat, silted over spawning beds, poisoned return flows with agricultural chemicals, set the plague of livestock loose on the arid land – in a nutshell, they made it close to impossible for numerous native species to survive.”
Perhaps most egregious, dam-building proceeded with near-complete disregard for the National Reclamation Act of 1902 provision that individual farms brought to life through irrigation should be limited to 160 acres.
For example, in the 1950s, oil companies owned huge tracts of land in the San Joaquin Valley which Reisner described as “barren, worthless acreages…” A water project known as Feather River turned the valley “opalescent green.” Governor Pat Brown later described the entire affair as “another subsidy to the big farmers.”
Ostensibly built to provide urban areas with water, dams were built as a public service. In reality, the vast majority of impeded water was used to irrigate dry land while being distributed by the government at a mere fraction of the cost it took to produce.
The great irony—or should I say, hypocrisy—is that, “[f]or the first time in their history,” Reisner says of the resources and skills necessary to construct these massive dams, “Americans had come up against a problem they could not begin to master with traditional American solutions—private capital, individual initiative [and] hard work…” The result is that “the American West quietly became the first and most durable example of the modern welfare state.”
Water projects became the ideal “currency” to be traded among politicians. “Back in the days when most members of Congress cheerfully voted for each other’s dams,” Reisner notes, “the best sites disappeared as fast as the rivers on which the dams were built.” Of course, “best” refers almost exclusively to the geologic feasibility of building a dam—such as accessible bedrock and steep canyon walls. Time and again, dams were built largely because it was possible to build them.
In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter received a report on current water projects and discovered that “[t]here is no coherent federal water resources management policy…” which is driven by “special interests” and plagued by “overlapping and conflicting missions” and the inevitable result is the “large-scale destruction of natural ecosystems…”
In true Jimmy Carter fashion, the peanut farmer then sealed his fate as a one-term president by attempting to cancel all nineteen existing water projects. In hindsight, a member of the Carter administration said later that “Carter was right… The projects are as bad as he said, most of them. The environmental damage is bad. The economics are bad. The politics are bad. The agencies are out of control.”
In a closing chapter titled “Things Fall Apart,” Reisner points out some unforeseen problems that were a challenge in 1986. For example, irrigated water percolates through the soil and then returns to the system. “On rivers like the Colorado,” Reisner reports, “the same water may be used eighteen times over.” This increases the salinity of the water. Evaporation from large reservoirs has a similar effect. So, not only has the landscape been altered, so too has the water itself, particularly for those using “salted” water to poison their crops.
In a slap to the face of our neighbor to the south, the allotment of water under one agreement said nothing about the “type” of water Mexico would receive.
In his epilogue, “A Civilization, if You Can Keep It,” Reisner summarizes that “federal water development is a uniquely productive, creative vandalism. Agricultural paradises were formed out of seas of sand and humps of rock. Sprawling cities sprouted out of nowhere, grew at mad rates, and ended up as Frank Lloyd Wright’s sanitary slums; while they were being rescued from the tyranny of the desert, they gave themselves over as slaves to the automobile.”
He adds that “Glen Canyon is gone. The Colorado Delta is dead. The Missouri Bottomlands have disappeared. Nine out of ten acres of wetlands in California have vanished, and with them millions of migratory birds. The great salmon runs… are extinct. The prairie is civilized and dull…” and on and on and on…
Of course, this is all coming at me from 1986 and I must confess that I am relying heavily on this old book. I’m almost afraid to investigate this one further because it has been my experience that problems identified in the last few decades have not been met with the social and political mobilization necessary to implement practical solutions.
This country grows a lot of food and much of it comes from irrigated farming; and much of the land irrigated provides only pastureland for grazing cattle. If what Reisner wrote in 1986 is still true— that it takes “seven or eight feet of water in the hot deserts to keep grass alive, which means, in this case, that you need almost fifty thousand pounds of water to raise one pound of cow” and “irrigated pasture” in California “used more water than Los Angeles and San Diego combined—it seems to me that the problem is more about farming practices than urban water use. Although, I must further admit that I have spent some time on the lush golf-course grass of Arizona’s deserts and this is certainly part of the problem. This means, of course, that I am part of the problem, as well. We all are.
As to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and their recent appeals to conserve water, we should be patient with the task to which they have been assigned because, as Marc Reisner writes of Los Angeles, it is “a great city… where common sense dictated that one should never be…” To do your part, MWD recommends visiting bewaterwise.com to learn more about water conservation.
While conserving water is critically important today, it seems to me that a crisis created by political and economic institutions is going to require political and economic institutional solutions. My hope rests with the fact that those at the helm today have been raised in the most environmentally conscious era in our history.
Next time, in Dam II, I will explore how the current crisis has reached a crescendo and what must be done, besides conserving water, to responsibly reclaim access to this precious resource; the very essence of life on earth.