Cadillac Desert revisited

Marc Reisner’s landmark water study tested and vindicated

The “bathtub ring” around Lake Mead in Southern Nevada/Northern Arizona is an arresting manifestation of the decline in the lake’s water.

The “bathtub ring” around Lake Mead in Southern Nevada/Northern Arizona is an arresting manifestation of the decline in the lake’s water.


The Arizona State study can be found at

A quarter century ago this year, a book titled Cadillac Desert changed history.

The book, by Marc Reisner, challenged basic beliefs by which the West had been developed and governed, beliefs still widely held by some Western residents and leaders. It argued that water had been badly managed and that competition for water supplies between rapidly growing communities and agribusiness was coming, that cropland would be rendered useless because of salt accumulation and finally that dams throughout the West would be impaired by silting, reducing their capacity significantly and making water less available. He suggested, in other words, an apocalyptic setback to a populated West.

Many Western leaders did not want to hear the book’s message, but some embraced it. After Harry Reid of Nevada —then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives—received a copy from a friend, he began recommending it to others, and it advanced Reid’s own interest in water policies.

The book also happened to arrive on the scene around the same time that a federal official said the era of dam building was over. Cadillac Desert became perhaps the most influential book in the history of the West, hailed by the New York Times as “revealing, absorbing, often amusing and alarming … fresh and powerful.”

UNR scientist Glenn Miller said urban water needs and farming are pitted against each other less in the Great Basin.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Since the book was published, new research techniques and technology have been developed and a 15-person team of water researchers headed by John Sabo of Arizona State last year began “running the numbers” on Reisner’s conclusions and predictions, resulting in a report called “Reclaiming freshwater sustainability in the Cadillac Desert.” Their conclusion: “Reisner’s incisive journalism led him to the same conclusions as those rendered by copious data, modern scientific tools, and the application of a more genuine scientific method. … [T]he Cadillac Desert envisioned by Marc Reisner has a strong scientific basis.”

While the team did not see silting advancing as quickly as Reisner, otherwise their findings fell right in line with his.

In an interview with the RN&R, Sabo said that for whatever reason, water use began to decline about the time that Reisner’s book came out, reducing the immediacy of his warnings. One contributing factor to the lessened water use may have been a late-1980s, early ’90s drought in the West that affected 40 percent of the nation’s counties and helped educate the public, but Sabo believes there were other reasons, too.

Sabo said the Great Basin, which encloses most of Nevada, has a particularly acute problem because it is naturally short on water and inaccessible to most of the West’s mountain runoff.

“[T]he real unique thing about Nevada is that its location behind the Sierra Nevada means that California will always intercept a great majority of the Pacific precipitation that would otherwise find its way inland,” he said. “Nevada will always be in California’s shadow on the supply side of the equation and far downstream from the second nearest source of water, the Colorado Rockies. … California gets most of the runoff from the Sierra, and Nevada is too far from the Rockies to benefit there.”

The, um, dry topic of Western water practices nevertheless produced a best seller.

Farming factor

University of Nevada, Reno, environmental sciences professor Glenn Miller said another Great Basin distinction is a lack of farming, which means urban and rural areas are less adversarial on water use. “It’s different in that agriculture ranks 45th in the nation, very low agriculture, 300,000 acres or so of irrigated land.” He said that reduces the concern over salinization. “Frankly it’s not an issue that is affecting the economy of Nevada. It’s not a big amount of water that is irrigating so that salt is a problem.”

He said the Truckee and Carson rivers have good water, certainly compared with notorious cases such as Montana’s Tongue River where salinity is a serious problem. Salt is mainly a problem in the Fallon area, where the soil itself has high salinity.

The Sabo study ends with a number of proposals “for reclaiming freshwater sustainability in the Cadillac Desert, including a suite of recommendations for reducing region-wide human appropriation of streamflow to a target level of 60 percent,” and Sabo wants the study to be incorporated into policymakers’ considerations, just as happened with Reisner’s book, but so far it has received little attention. He said some local water managers—notably the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a coalition of 26 cities and water districts—have studied his analyses and recommendations, with one high ranking district official describing the Sabo study as “generally right.”

But otherwise, Sabo said, the reaction has been “less than I’d hoped, actually. But, you know, that’s to be expected when you write a paper about water shortages in what was one of the wetter years in California, that you’re not going to get much airtime.”

How pressing is the problem? The reduced use of water and the less serious than expected silting problem mean it is not the apocalyptic threat that Reisner described, but that doesn’t mean it’s not urgent. Sabo used the term “dire”:

“Imagine that Lake Mead and Lake Powell are your bank account and the Colorado River is your paycheck. In the past you have been diligent, and you have more than your annual salary in the savings account. But now gas prices and childcare are devouring your earnings. You are living check by check and dipping far into savings. In fact, you are dipping so far into savings that there isn’t much there when the roof needs to be fixed, the AC goes out or you need a new transmission. That’s where we are with the water supply in the West.

“Add to this climate change which will be the equivalent of your retirement portfolio returning approximately 20-30 percent less than you expected. Add to this, water doesn’t grow on trees, there is no credit card that you will [use to] lend water to arid landscapes. In short, this analogy would be a dire, even urgent, fiscal crisis for any household and it is the exact situation we are faced with water in the West. We need to trim the fat on the demand side so we can live on a single, average paycheck and try to put more money in the bank to begin to adapt to even leaner times to come.”