Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Are You Interested in Hating Everything?

I finally finished reading Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. If you have not read this book, you absolutely must. I guess people that have both never been west of the Mississippi and don't care about the environment probably won't be interested (but then, why would you reading my blog?), but everyone else must read it. It's pretty dense at times, so it took me a long time to get through it, but that's basically because it's very well researched and thorough.

Summary: William Mulholland and LA stole (legally, mostly) all the water from the Owens Valley, the Colorado River has been thoroughly violated, and the Bureau of Reclamation (in competition with the Army Corps of Engineers) built way too many dams using absolutely fraudulent cost-benefit calculations and now sell the water to corporate farms (that are far larger than the legal size-limit to be allowed to purchase the water) for $7.50 an acre-foot (far less than residential customers pay), losing billions of dollars in the process as well as decimating fish populations and rapidly killing the soil with salt buildup. Also, the high plains states are draining the Ogallala aquifer. Also, humans suck.

That was basically my takeaway. It was confirmed while driving home on I-5 through the central valley paralleling the California aqueduct past gigantic CAFO's.

Memorable quotes:

Gov. Pat Brown on considering building the California Aqueduct to divert northern California's Feather River thousands of miles south (I just think this one's funny, since I love NorCal and dislike SoCal):
"Brown suggested another motive that had made him, a northern Californian by birth, want so badly to build a project which would send a lot of northern California's water southward: "Some of my advisors came to me and said, ' Now governor, don't bring the water to the people, let the people go to the water. That's a desert down there. Ecologically, it can't sustain the number of people that will come if you bring the water project in there.'
"I weighed this very, very thoughtfully before I started going all out for the water project. Some of my advisors said to me, 'Yes, but people are going to come to southern California anyway.' Somebody said, 'Well, send them up to northern California.' I knew I wouldn't be governor forever. I didn't think I'd ever come down to southern California and I said to myself, 'I don't want all these people to go to northern California.'

Granted, this dam (the Narrows Dam on Colorado's South Platte river) was never constructed, but congress passed appropriations for it and it very nearly was built:
"Here was a dam that the state engineer said would deliver only a third of the water it promised and could conceivably collapse; a project whose official cost estimate--if what two officials of the Union Pacific had privately suggested was correct--would barely suffice to relocate twenty-six miles of railroad track; a project whose real cost, whatever it turned out to be, would therefore be written off, in substantial measure, to "recreation," though the water would be unsafe to touch; a project whose prevailing interest rate (crucial to justifying the whole scheme) was one-fifth the rates banks were charging in the late 1970's; a projects many of whose beneficiaries owned more land than the law permitted in order to receive subsidized water (even after the acreage limit was stretched to 960 acres in 1982); a project that might, if the state engineer was correct, seep enough water to turn the town of Fort Morgan into a marsh; a project that would pile more debt onto the Bureau's Missouri Basin Account; a project that would generate not a single kilowatt of hydroelectric power and would be all but worthless for flood control."

From the afterword:
"You need seven or eight feet of water in the hot deserts to keep grass alive, which means that you need almost fifty thousand pounds of water to raise one pound of cow...California has a shortage of water because it has a surfeit of cows--it's really almost as simple as that."

Read up a little to make sure this project never happens:
Rampart Dam in Alaska.


  1. my cousin/neighbor has been studying these water issues for the past few months in her PhD program. i never knew i could discuss water so much, and i'm astounded by just how shady its history is. love the quote about not wanting all those so-cal people in northern california.

  2. What's she getting her degree in? I'm half seriously hoping to find something related to this to work on for my dissertation, but haven't really found anything that lends itself to the large data set analysis I typically do.