What I’ve been reading: August, 2023

  • Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition

    Fascinating / great book. Highly recommended for anyone that lives in the Western United States to understand where your water comes from, who’s using it, and maybe most importantly, who decided who gets to use it.


    • Page 29, loved the description of the rivers from the past: "Soap Creek Rapids, Badger Creek Rapids, Crystal creek Rapids, Lava Falls. Nearly all of the time, the creeks that plunge down the ravine of the Grand Canyon will barely float a walnut shell, but the flash floods resulting from a desert downpour can dislodge boulders as big as a jitney bus. Tumbled by gravity, the boulders carom into the main river and sit there, creating a dam, which doesn’t so much stop the river as make it mad. Except for the rapids of the Susitna, the Niagra, and perhaps a couple of rivers in Canada, the modern Colorado’s rapids are the biggest on the continent. Before the dams were built, however, the Colorado’s rapids were really big. At Lava Falls, where huge chunks of basalt dumped in the main river create a thirty-foot drop, waves at flood stage were as high as three-story houses. There was a cycling wave at the bottom that, every frew seconds, would burst apart with the retort of a sixteen-inch gun, drenching anyone on either bank of the river – two hundred feet apart."
    • Page 212: fascinating to know that there was a possibility of diverting water from the Columbia to the Southwest. "Fifty million here, eighty million there, a hundred million here, and soon one was talking about real money. In the 1960s, Dos Rios Dam could have been built for $400 million; today it might cost $3 billion or more. A diversion from the Columbia River to the Southwest could have been built for $6 billion or so in the sixties, and there was so much surplus energy in the Northwest that a few million acre-feet of water removed from a river that dumps 140 million acre-feet into the sea might not have been missed. Today the cost seems utterly prohbitive, and Washington and Oregon would probably resist the engineers with tanks. The opportunity was there. But the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau squandered their political capital and billions in taxpayers’ money on vainglorious rivalry, with the result that much of what they really wanted to build does not now exist, and probably never will."
    • Page 332, on California: "Everyone knows that there is a desert somewhere in California, but many people believe it is off in some remote corner of the state – the Mojave Desert, Palm Springs, the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. But inhabited California, most of it, is, by strict definition, a semidesert. Los Angeles is drier than Beirut; Sacramento is as dry as the Sahel; San Francisco is just slightly rainier than Chihuahua. About 65 percent of the state receives under 20 inches of precipitation a year. California, which fools visitors into believing it is "lush", is a beautiful fraud…. There was hardly a single tree growing in San Francisco when the fist Spanish arrived; it was too dry and wind-blown for trees to take hold. Today, Golden Gate Park looks as if Virginia had mated with Borneo, thanks to water brought nearly two hundred miles by tunnel. The same applies to Bel Air, to Pacific Palisades, to the manicured lawns of La Jolla, where the water comes from three directions, and from a quarter of a continent away."
    • On ownership of the farmland in California… this was a big theme in the book and it’s eye opening to say the least: "In August of 1981, the California Institute for Rural Studies released a report on property ownership in five water districts within the service area of the State Project. Most of the districts are in Kern County; most of the farms are neighbors of the McCarthy Ranch… The CIRS report corroborated what the Department of Water Resources had taken unusual pains to point out: that the majority fo the farmers receivering project water were small farmers…. but those farms owned less than a third of the total acreage; the other two-thirds, which amounted to 227,545 acres, was owned by eight companies. The largest of the farmers was Chevon USA, the main subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of California… In second place, with 35,897 acres, was the Tejon Ranch, one of the great land empires of California. The principal stockholders of the Tejon Ranch are members of the Chandler family, which owns the Los Angeles Times — the strongest voice for water development in California for the past eighty years. In third and fourth place were two more oil companies, Getty and Shell… The presence of Getty (and Chevron USA) in the service area of the California Water Project again pointed up the architectural brilliance with which the project was conceived. They pay a severance tax to California on oil they pump off Long Beach, which is immediately put into a fund that makes annual interest-free "loans" of $25 million a year to the State Water Project, which delivers doubly subsidized irrigation water to their formerly worthless land."
    • Page 434 on the Bureau: "The Bureau is like one of these crooks with money earning interest in twenty different banks – it has to spend the money on something. It is all borrowed money – it belongs to the people of the United States – but the people of the United States don’t know that. The whole thing is a machine, a perpetual-motion machine that keeps churning out dams, which the politicians and most westerners are reflexively in favor of, and the whole business is running the country into the ground. The people who support these boondoggle projects are always talking about the vision and principles that made this country great. Our forefathers would have built these projects!, they say. They had vision! That’s pure nonsense. It wasn’t the vision and principles of our forefathers that made this country great. It was the huge unused bonanza they found here. One wave of immigrants after another could occupy new land, new land, new land. There was topsoil, water – there was gold, sliver, and iron ore lying right on top of the earth. We picked our way through a ripe orchard and made it bare. The new generations are going to go down, down, down. With projects like the Narrows, we’re trying to pretend that things are as they always were. "Let’s just go out and find some money and build a dam and we’ll all be richer and be better off." We’ve been so busy spending money and reaping the fruits that we’re blind to the fact that there are no more fruits. By trying to make things better, we’re making them worse and worse."

    (tags: history wyoming southwest rivers california geography water arizona desert oregon colorado )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *