Contemplating America’s desert civilization

ONE late November night in 1980 I was flying over the state of Utah on my way back to California.

Thus Marc Reisner began his 1986 book Cadillac Desert, quoted to this day in the West’s perennial water wars.

I remembered his lines this week as I myself was flying back from Utah to California, and also looking out of my window at the desert below, baked dead by the July sun.

[This note is cross-posted from my note on The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog.]

As Mr Reisner did then, I looked down and contemplated the barren mountains, mesas and buttes and the endless empty expanses of salt and sand, one of the most inhospitable wastelands in the world.

This is where Brigham Young and his Mormons had decided to make “a Mesopotamia in America”, as Mr Reisner put it. Then, in the early 20th century, the federal Bureau of Reclamation took over their work and dammed the West’s rivers to impose the will of America upon this desert.

There, on the horizon, I espied the result: Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir, formed as the pathetically small, snaking trickle of the Colorado River runs into the Hoover Dam and backs up.

As Mr Reisner put it:

Thanks to the Bureau—an agency few people know—states such as California, Arizona, and Idaho became populous and wealthy; millions settled in regions where nature, left alone, would have countenanced thousands at best; great valleys and hemispherical basins metamorphosed from desert blond to semitropic green.

The people in the states below my aeroplane are today among the most conservative in America. The tea-party movement thrives here. Big government is the enemy.

How ironic that the people are only on that land because big government first subdued it.

Then again, “subdue” may be a word from another time and worldview. The water wars have never really stopped (Californians will vote on another water bond in November, in the never-ending effort to bring water from where it rains to where the people live). And in the long run, as Mr Reisner might say, the desert may yet subdue the people.

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16 thoughts on “Contemplating America’s desert civilization

  1. I don’t see the big government irony. I think everybody agrees that government ought to be in charge of national defense and infrastructure, such as building highways and the like. Digging reservoirs and irrigation systems seems to me to fall under the latter. What the small government crew appears to be worried about is government encroachment into areas other thannational defense and infrastructure.

    • @Cyberquill

      You are correct about what most people want from government (there is a significant and powerful minority that wishes for much, much more).

      However, government is not consistent. What it gives one day, it takes away the next. It makes mistakes, as it is made up of humans and humans are prone to err, and it confounds those mistakes. It should, I believe, act with great reluctance and caution in all its endeavors.

    • Caution is always good. My point though is that people who fear big government do not so much fear big government in a limited number of areas but its expansion into areas it has no mandate to encroach upon, although what areas those might be exactly is a matter of constitutional interpretation, in particular whether the Tenth Amendment does or does not contain the infamous and invisible expressly sandwiched in between not and delegated.

      Thus, I don’t consider it an irony if the small-government flyover-country crowd has no problem with inhabiting certain necks of the woods made livable via elaborate infrastructure projects commissioned by the federal government, because they deem this to be one of the limited number of areas where the government is supposed to act, as opposed to “spreading the wealth around.”

  2. Before the influx of Europeans and the Americans later on, the desert southwest supported a number of civilizations. It did so because those civilizations, those societies, did not try to change the environment to fit the increase in population but let the environment dictate the size of the population. Well, I believe this to be so anyway. I may be wrong.

    • Absolutely, such as the Yuma civilization.

      But those did not make a “Cadillac Desert” (were Reisner to write today, he might call it a Hummer Desert). When you fly over, say, Phoenix or Las Vegas, you are struck by the boldness/hubris (depending on point of view) of the human hand in daring nature. Lights, fountains, lawns, pools,… By contrast, the Yuma and other Indians lived with, more than against, the desert. Above all, they were a small civilization. As Reisner said in the quote, “thousands” rather than “millions”….

    • Such as feedback loops leading to sudden drastic disruption due to climate change? Yup, possibly. I know some scientists who are studying the southwest from just that perspective. Could get interesting in that corner….

  3. Last July, we, the wife and I, went to Las Vegas. We went to the Grand Canyon, North and West Rims, we toured Greater Las Vegas by bus and went to Hoover Dam.
    We saw the line the water USED to reach behind the dam, we were told about the Colorado not reaching it’s delta anymore. Meanwhile in Las Vegas superb fountains were spewing water everywhere like it was an expendable resource.
    W were mesmerized by the spectacle and horrified by the impending consequences.

    • I went past the Hoover Dam this past Spring. It is my favorite route out of Vegas. And, yes, it is sad to see the seemingly ever lower water level there. Much (some say “most”) of the water loss is due to agricultural needs of Southern California southern Arizona.

      The Colorado is primarily (about 80-85%) fed by melting snow from the Rockies. Lack of snowfall has had a big impact.

      The problems are not just human expansion (though that is important), there has been an extended drought which is making things worse. Like we do with tax revenues in Washington, we seem to do with our water resources. When there is a lot, we do not think about the shortfalls that are bound to happen.

  4. “……The tea-party movement thrives here……..”

    On the premise that a desert landscape will breed a desert of the mind, it would follow that tea partyism thrives there.

    • Probably has more to do with 15% unemployment in NV rather than a genetic anomaly. And AZ had been a state for only about a generation — probably any government was big government back then. Maybe that’s why it still seems to be so to them. Does Reisner talk about the Salton Sea as well?

    • @Mimi: He does talk about the Salton Sea, though I don’t remember what he says (it’s been a while since I read it).

      However, I recently drove by the Salton Sea on the way back from an unrelated story. It’s a sad place.

  5. Out here in the semi-arid West, the talking heads cluck their tongues and put on a sad face when they talk about global warming In the next breath they congratulate everyone because it’s going to be another warm, sunny day and the commute should be easy. At the other end of the spectrum, hip suburanites are raising chickens and growing tomatoes in their micro garden as if they’re going to save the world, one $5.00 tomato at time. I just roll my eyes and sit in the basement reciting Revelations; waiting for the rapture. Whoops, did I just say, rapture?

    I’ve read some of the early homesteading stories and government requirements for this region. In the early days, homesteaders were given 150 acres to sustain one family. That was not enough because of the poor soil and lack of water. So, the gov’t upped the allotment to 300 acres, allowable for a small fee (one family!). Few of those working ranches remain. Some of the better land lies underneath reservoirs. I don’t think the back-yard gardens will sustain many people in the long run. Thank you, California, for growing our food. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go turn on the air conditioner and have a nap. Reciting the scripture is tiring.

    • Oh boy, do I have tales to share about illogical, absurd and bizarre reactions to global warming along the lines of those here in Santa Monica. Alas, as I was typing, it occurred to me that each anecdote is so ridiculous that it would instantly identifiable by the perpetrator. Thus I am self-censoring myself, in the interests of avoiding social death for the family.

      Sorry, no, I can’t help myself: Here is just one: A family in our preschool that (i believe) drives hybrids and sends out e-Christmas cards to save the trees had the entire Californian preschool lawn covered with … snow, so that the child might live out his “birthday dream”….

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