Book Review: Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Water is disappearing in the American West. What does this have to do with food? Read Marc Reisner’s classic history of water in the West and you’ll find out. Cadillac Desert is also a history of our contemporary agricultural system.

The vast majority of our fresh fruit and vegetables are grown in California, in land that was and is still desert. The soil and climate are ideal for cultivation – with one small problem: no water. The water has come over the years through increasingly elaborate systems of irrigation, made cheap for the corporate growers by labyrinthine political schemes and incredible feats of engineering.

Dams, local terrorism, theft, graft, land fraud, cutthroat competition between government agencies, engineering on a mind-boggling scale – all of these put in appearances in the story of how American ingenuity and sheer determination has worked to turn the Western half of the country into an environment like the Eastern half, which gets plenty of water and has little need for irrigation. The Owens Valley controversy, where Los Angeles essentially cheated the Owens Valley out of their large reservoir and created a ghost town where there was once a thriving economy – Reisner really gets going here. His acerbic, witty sarcasm drives the book like a steam engine.

We just drove through the Central Valley in California – 4 hours of flat green fields and trees as far as the eye can see. You see vast tracts of fruit trees where there was once an arid desert, and leafy greens surrounded by dusty mountains. Most of the water that makes this possible is brought in, unbelievably, over mountains and through the desert from hundreds of miles away. The natural supply of groundwater – built up over tens of thousands of years – was sucked dry in a handful of years of big farming.

For years agriculture was California’s principal economic support, and governments and corporations have gone to unimaginable lengths to find and import more water to support the industry. Soon, however, it will make more economic sense for the big growers (one of the largest farms in California is owned by Exxon-Mobil) to sell their water rights back to the cities to help provide water for burgeoning populations. But this water, remember, has been subsidized for the farms by the government, sold cheap for irrigation purposes. They will turn around and sell it at a profit to the cities.

Sounds like a strange system, yes? This is barely touching the surface of the politics, competition, and fascinating machinations that have gone into water in the American West for the past 150 years.

But what will happen to our food, if California’s water starts flowing back to the cities? Some crops may move back to the South and the Mississippi Delta, which is far more suited to agriculture than the dry West. Highly lucrative crops like almonds, figs, and grapes will probably stay in California. We may look to China and Mexico for even more of our food.

These are the questions that come up when you read this fascinating, infuriating, and entertaining book – certainly a must-read if you live in the West, and incredibly interesting to any of us who care where our food comes from. Very highly recommended.

We support our readers with carefully chosen product recommendations to improve life at home. You support us through our independently chosen links, many of which earn us a commission.