Reflections on Cadillac Desert

William Mulholland, pointing. Mulholland, who pushed water development in L.A., was the superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Department. (Image source: Los Angeles Times, via California WaterBlog)

In 1987, when Mark Reisner published his book Cadillac Desert, I had just begun professing on water management. The book went “viral,” before the word viral had its present-day internet-intoxicated meaning.  The book offered a compelling revisionist history and understanding of water development in the American West, based on economic self-interest, ideology, and Floyd Dominy’s personal drives.  Since then, Cadillac Desert has been a “must read” book for Western water wonks.

Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner

Cadillac Desert fell in the tradition of Muddy Waters (1951), Dams and other Disasters (1971), Rivers of Empire (1969), and Water and Power(1983), all written by giants in the field critical of Western water development, but was much better written and marketed (though less scholarly) and the time was ripe for publication of such a thoughtful, popular work.  The era of large dam and water projects in the U.S. had clearly ended, and needed a punctuation mark.  Mark Reisner provided an exclamation mark.

Main lessons at the time
The main lessons from the book (for me) were:

–The 50-year era of building large regional and multi-state water projects was largely over (by 1987).

–Why do we expect anything as important as water to not be political? The individuals, sociology, economics, and politics behind the era of large water infrastructure construction were fascinating and important. In fact, they proved to be more important than traditional engineering (my field) in shaping water management.  But contemporary and likely future politics and economics can no longer support continued traditional water project development.

–The public institutions responsible for the successes and failures of the big infrastructure era were incapable of adapting to new conditions. The large federal and state agencies have largely lacked political and financial support needed to develop new talented and ambitious people to effectively lead these institutions in better adapted directions.–The West’s large water infrastructure systems have profoundly transformed and damaged the natural environment and pre-existing rural communities, particularly Native American communities.

–In many ways, the water infrastructure of the Western US was over-developed, or at least mal-developed for contemporary society’s water management objectives.

Becoming conventional wisdom
Marc Reisner’s themes are now conventional wisdom.  Although these ideas were not new to well-read scholars, they were timely, well-written, and influential.  Almost all books and scholarship following Cadillac Desert have adopted or been underlain by these themes (such as The Great Thirst, 1992, The King of California, 2005, and Managing California’s Water, 2011).

But much has changed since Cadillac Desert was written (and revised in 1992).

Federal and State agencies no longer drive major water project construction.  The additional water deliveries from new major dam or canal projects are typically small and expensive.  The cheapest sites with the most capacity to deliver water already have water projects.  Remaining potential reservoir sites are usually much less cost-effective.

The economic and political drivers of Western water also have changed in fundamental ways.  The West is wealthier and much less agricultural.  Agriculture’s diminishing role in the West’s economy (now less than 5% of GDP and employment) and the steady urban water conservation efforts have made regional economic prosperity much less dependent on cheap and abundant water supplies.

Environmental laws and regulations now greatly hinder the development of new projects, and impinge on the operation of existing projects.  There is now great uncertainty and concern for the ability to preserve native aquatic species.

Federal and state budgets no longer have substantial funds available for large water infrastructure projects anyway.  There remains little political appetite to fund large federal and state water projects.

Floyd Dominy (Image source: Los Angeles Times)

Federal and State water agencies have become financially and intellectually impoverished and, tragically, have substantially lost most of their sense of mission.  Without a strong sense of mission, they often become mired in internal procedures and policies – and suffer greatly reduced effectiveness.  A Floyd Dominy would be completely hamstrung in today’s large agencies.

So where is Western Water going?  And where should we as professionals and interests work to make it go?  What should we teach students, the public, and policy-makers about Western water as it moves well beyond Cadillac Desert?

Emerging from the Desert
Cadillac Desert is now a bit dated in its lessons for the present and future water management and policy in the American West.  What should we be preparing for?

Water in the west will continue to be important and controversial.  But the structure of the West’s economy will continue to make it less dependent on abundant water supplies.  Modern urban economies need relatively little water to produce vast amounts of economic wealth.  Per capita urban water use continues to fall substantially, and can probably continue to do so for several decades.  Agricultural shifts to higher valued permanent crops, particularly vines and orchards, make farmers more interested in water reliability than total quantity.

Climate change will become more important, bringing more attention to variability and likely contraction of supplies and shifts in demands.  It will be hard to know how to change major water infrastructure for a warmer, more variable, and perhaps drier climate.  Larger reservoirs, while useful, might not be the most cost-effective solutions.

Local and regional water agencies have become increasingly important, and have been more successful at escaping the calcification of state and federal bureaucracies.  Cost-effective contemporary water innovations are largely in water conservation, water markets, conjunctive use of ground and surface waters, wastewater reuse, and other actions which are more appropriately and effectively led and financed at local levels.

Most modern water systems are built around carefully crafted portfolios of water supply and demand management activities involving local, regional, and larger actions, users, and management agencies.  State and federal agencies are most important in establishing legal and regulatory frameworks for local agencies and users to cooperate, as well as federal and state agencies continuing to run Dominy-era water supply projects.

Although individuals remain important, the success of adaptive water management portfolios over local, regional, statewide, and inter-state scales relies increasingly on networks of people.  It is hard and slow to organize a group of people distributed among many agencies and interests, but an effective convergence of ideas across such a network can be effective and powerful.  Water management has always relied substantially on the development of informal networks of experts across agencies, interests, and academia to lead progress and support the development of effective legal and institutional frameworks.

Implications for California and the West
Water problems and solutions for the American West continue to change.  The region is a dry place, with a highly variable (and probably increasingly variable) climate, that supports a growing population and economy.

Three more recent books give some options and optimism for improving water management in the West (Lund et al. 2010; Hanak et al. 2011; Fleck 2016; Mulroy 2017).  These all point to the importance of moving beyond the large projects of the Dominy era and the pessimism of Cadillac Desert.  They all point out that despite the inevitability of water problems in the dry Western U.S., substantial prosperity and relative ecological success can occur with thoughtful and cooperative management.  Excessive focus on conflict, and not the benefits of cooperation, is the surest recipe for failure.

Ed’s Note: Jay Lund is director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. This article originally appeared in the California WaterBlog.




Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: