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 Mathur 1 

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 Ambika Mathur 
Professor Manga 
EPS 50: The Planet Earth 
7 December 2017 
Cadillac Desert Response 
“In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money. And it literally does, as it leaps three thousand feet across the Tehachapi Mountains in gigantic siphons to slake the thirst of Los Angeles, as it is shoved a thousand feet out of Colorado River canyons to water Phoenix and Palm Springs and the irrigated lands around them” comments Mark Reisener, author of Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986). In this historical book, Reisner spent ten years gathering the research needed to document the development of the Western United States as it relates to water and land policy. Reisner focuses on Western America’s increasing water issues, such as shortage and pollution, as he shares the history of the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in their efforts to revolutionize the American West. Through historical research and analysis, Reisner concludes that the root cause of America’s environmental issues is a result of unsustainable and poorly executed development policies. Additionally, the book shines light on the steps taken in order to address the negative environmental and economic conditions brought upon by the careless and greedy decisions of Western society. Many of these issues remain prevalent today, while some conditions have changed, for better or for worse. Furthermore, our society’s approach to addressing these issues has remained the same in some ways, while transforming in other ways. 
Reisner begins the book by describing the exploration and discovery of the Western United States. Readers learn about Spanish explorer Spaniard Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s quest for gold, as well as the 1869 Powell expedition. In the 19th century, the land was referred to Mathur 2 

as the Great American Desert, which people “tended to avoid at all costs” ( 27). The American West was uninhabitable, unforgiving, and desolate land, which no one would have expected to become home to millions of urban and suburban dwellers. 
This shift from a sparse desert into an urban metropolis began with the Homestead Act of 1862, where settlers first started to own land. For several years following 1865, a humid cycle brought more rain than usual to the region, which led to the “Rain Follows the Plow” motto as the first settlers “thought themselves handpicked by God to occupy a wild continent” (37). Development began to grow exponentially with the introduction of the railroads, where “183 million acres went out of the public domain into railroad ownership” (39). The Homestead Act then gave way to the Desert Lands Act, the Timber Culture Act, and the Timber and Stone Act, each legislation transforming the desert landscape into a place suitable for habitation. However, this transformation resulted in an unprecedented and unsustainable rampage of dam-building and irrigation, an issue that it is still very prominent in today’s society. 
Reisner goes on to explain water challenges as they relate to separate states, including Arizona, Nebraska, Colorado, and most importantly, California. He begins by writing about Southern California’s early water challenges, shining light on the struggle for water rights between Los Angeles and the Owens River Valley, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and the tragic collapse of the St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles’s steep population influx, along with greed and political corruption, led to the decline of the Owen’s River Valley. The Los Angeles Aqueduct led to the annexation of the San Fernando Valley, which in turn made Los Angeles the largest geographic city at that time. Reisner writes, “From that moment, it was doomed to become a huge, sprawling, one-story conurbation, hopelessly dependent on the automobile”(106). Mathur 3 

Today, Los Angeles is the 7th largest city in the world by land area, and is one of the most densely populated desert cities. LA’s urban sprawl has many led to many environmental and political issues. LA’s dependence on automobiles has only gotten worse, and tension between the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles residents has heightened as those in the Valley feel unrepresented and overtaxed. Additionally, water infrastructure has aged, resulting in water contamination. One of the rising cost of water as it becomes more privatized and in higher demand. In the past seven years, rates in LA rose by as much as 71% ( Low-income residents, about 13 million people in CA, are most vulnerable to the rising water rates (LA Times.) As solutions, regional governments need to determine how much each income groups pays for water bills, and also need to better maintain water infrastructure. 
Regionally, much of the Southwest’s development has been dependent upon the transformation of the Colorado River basin. Reisner writes about contrasting political views towards the Colorado River projects and the state struggles to obtain water rights between New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Arizona. Eventually, states settled and the Colorado River Storage Project Act was signed, which approved multiple projects in the Upper Basin. 
Since the publishing of the book, conflict regarding the Colorado Basin escalated as greed, overdevelopment, and drought caused the Basin’s water supply to drop to dangerously low levels. Major water suppliers were forced to work on Drought Contingency Proposals as Lake Powell and Lake Mead lost capacity. Fortunately, last year’s heavy winter snows provided enough water to replenish a large amount of the Colorado River’s water supply. Additionally the US and Mexico signed Minute 323, an agreement, which provides mechanisms for increased conservation and water storage to help offset the effects of drought and prevent a shortage from being triggered. Minute 323 dedicates 210,000 acre feet of water over nine years for Mathur 4 

environmental restoration work in the Colorado River Delta” ( This agreement is a positive step in America’s history and reflects a shift in thinking. More of the nation has started to think past short term economic gains and to take long term externalities into consideration. 
Reisner explains the water battles of the overall nation as well. Following the Depression, Western America divulged itself in building over 250,000 dams, fifty thousand of which are major works that remain today (108.) The federal government got increasingly involved with the Reclamation Act of 1902, which funded these irrigation projects to turn twenty arid desert lands into economically productive states. The United States would not be what it is today without the Reclamation Act, as the West could not have been settled without the water that the Act provided. 
Reisner goes on to discuss the “Go-Go Years” of FDR’s administration, during which the four largest concrete dams, Hoover, Shasta, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee, were built. During this time, there was an ongoing struggle between the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Both organizations supposedly want to improve the United States through water projects, but both institutions were also ravaged with corruption. The long rivalry between the group resulted in the building of many unnecessary and useless dams, which negatively impacted America’s environment and economy. 
When President Jimmy Carter came to office, he had a different view of irrigation and dams. He realized that the high amount of dams would be a problem for future generations and believed that congress was careless about rapidly spending their money on water projects. President Carter wanted to stop this and put an end to funding of the unnecessary water projects. However, his attempts proved unsuccessful against Congress. Mathur 5 

However, not all went to waste as some of these projects enabled the West to become of one of the most economically productive agricultural areas in the world. Currently, the Bureau of Reclamation operates about 180 irrigation projects in the West, 600 of which provide irrigation for eighty-five percent of America’s produce. Additionally, the Bureau’s dams support fifty-eight power plants, which produce forty billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year ( Like many things in life, there is both good and bad associated with these irrigation projects. These projects feed about 320 million people, provide jobs, and provides hydropower, a renewable energy source that doesn’t increase atmospheric CO2 levels. However, much of the food is produced with unsustainable agricultural methods which waste gross quantities of water, and dams negatively impact migrating fish and the ecological health of waterways. 
Today, California is a “beautiful fraud” (344). A century of local, regional, and federal development has turned the California desert into a “lush” paradise. In the words of Reisner,”No other place has put as many people where they probably have no business being” (345). For better or for worse, aqueducts, dams, and policies have transformed the American West’s arid landscape into one that generates many billions of dollars on agriculture alone. These developments have had a plethora of negative social, political, and environmental impacts. Across the nation, low socio-economic civilians are subject to losing access to affordable, clean water. This problem will only be worsened by the Trump administration, which threatens water security through working to repeal the Clean Water Act, denying proper funding and support to the Environmental Protection Agency, and supporting destructive industries such as hydrologic fracturing. On the other hand, the nation has had an overall positive shift as people have begun to take the long term consequences of today’s actions into account, and are taking respective actions to address these issues. 

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