Cadillac Desert Revisited

By Jake Strickler, Staff Writer

While driving from Phoenix to Las Vegas, something becomes clear: the farther you get from major population centers, the extremity of the desolation is severe. This is not atypical of the American West. There’s a lot of space in these parts, and those who live in the region cluster around the major population centers. This is because these cities have been forcefully cultivated and constructed to allow for people to comfortably live within them. It has taken hundreds of years of excruciating labor and piles and piles of money and countless human lives just to make cities like Phoenix and Tucson and Salt Lake City and Alamosa and Vegas and Palm Desert and even Los Angeles work. For those of us who live in these cities, we don’t live in the desert; we live in a constructed environment that allows us to survive in the desert. And this environment requires constant, tireless work and upkeep in order for it to keep functioning.

Water flowing out of the turbine system far below the top of the dam. Photo by author.
Water flowing out of the turbine system far below the top of the dam. Photo by author.

In his eponymous 1987 book, the naturalist Marc Reisner terms this area a Cadillac Desert; it required a lot of work and expense to obtain it, and it continues to require constant maintenance in order to keep the engine running. Reisner sees the “greening” of the desert as being a part the early American expansion doctrine known as Manifest Destiny; a belief “[amounting] to Biblical dogma.” “People figured,” he wrote, “that when the region was settled, rainfall would magically increase, that it would ‘follow the plow.’”

Irrigation of the desert began early, with Native tribes like the Pima developing surprisingly sophisticated systems. It carried on through the centuries with the input of the Spanish conquistadores and priests traveling north from their adventures in Latin America, and later with the European settlers leaving the crowded East for the wide open spaces of the West. These early actions reached their peak with Brigham Young and the Mormons, who planted their flag near the Great Salt Lake in what is now Utah and set to taming the land and making it into their earthly home, with the force of religious fervor behind the desire to transform the landscape.

Photo by author.
Photo by author.

In 1902, the Bureau of Reclamation was formed under the aegis of the US Department of Interior with the goal of following in the footsteps of the Mormons and making the inhabitable habitable.Not long before this, the famed Civil War General William T. Sherman said of the region, “We fought one war with Mexico to take the Southwest; we should fight another to make her take it back.” But the boundaries of the United States were set, and it was time to go about taming the wilderness. Westward expansion meant progress, and it was with this mentality that turn-of-the-century America set to overcoming the limitations set by nature no matter the cost.

Thusly did the Bureau embark on a massive project of water storage, diversion, and delivery of water (and later its transference into hydro-electric power) to make possible the habitation of these lands. Wrote Reisner, “Everything depends on the manipulation of water – on capturing it behind dams, storing it, and rerouting it in concrete rivers over distances of hundreds of miles. Were it not for a century and a half of messianic effort toward that end, the West as we know it would not exist.”

Turbines which provide power for much of the Southwest. Photo by author.
Turbines which provide power for much of the Southwest. Photo by author.

The Hoover Dam, the Salt River Project, the mazes of runoff canals and diversion ditches that crisscross Los Angeles; all of these efforts were essential to the development of the American West, to allow us to live in a “make-believe city like Phoenix with exotic palms and golf-course lawns and a five-hundred-foot fountain.” Mr. Reisner’s point with this book is not merely to tell the story about how all of this came to be, but to raise fundamental questions about its sustainability; the subtitle of the work is The American West and its Disappearing Water. The thought that has to be considered is that precipitation on this side of the Continental Divide is historically limited to a certain average. This is the reason such gargantuan efforts had to be undertaken in the first place.

The argument that Reisner seeks to make here is that we, with our golf courses and swimming pools, and pristine green lawns, are overdrawing on an account with limits set by environmental patterns that have taken place over millennia. Lake Mead, which was created and constrained by the Hoover Dam, currently sits at around 40% of its capacity, as can be clearly seen in the header photo. Full capacity, in fact, has not been seen since 1983, when it was hit by conditions of drought and increased demand from which it has not recovered. As this water system provides both drinking water and hydroelectric power to much of the Southwest, including Southern California, and the prospect of it shrinking further could have enormous impacts.

Photo by author
Photo by author

A paper published in 2008 in Water Resources Research found that if current conditions of drought and demand persist, there exists a one-in-two chance that Lake Mead could cease to function as a storage lake by 2021, and that power production abilities could be affected as early as next year. An event on this scale would be absolutely catastrophic.

If the most frightening and increasingly likely scenarios play out, we could very well be looking at a near future where all of this toil and work has failed us. The Cadillac Desert that is such a beautiful and awe inspiring feat of engineering and human ingenuity could begin to rust and decay because it simply runs out of gas and there’s no point in keeping it up any longer.

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