48 pages 1 hour read

Marc Reisner

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1986

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Originally published in 1986, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner illustrates how precarious the American West’s water supply is. This reality was something few people, including Westerners, realized at the time. The book was listed as one of the Modern Library’s 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th century and was nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award. It was also made into a PBS documentary. There is a 1993 edition followed by a 2017 postscript edition; the latter is the source material for this guide and provides updates on water issues in the American West over the last two decades.

The book’s title, Cadillac Desert, contains an ideological dualism, with one word standing for luxury, boldness, and victory, and the other one describing one of the most inhospitable places on the planet for humans. This revisionist history focuses on the fallout of human desire to constantly expand into the desert and the costly task of creating water projects, such as dams and aqueducts, that allowed for this expansion. Reisner suggests that the entire system is founded on political greed and corruption and a desire to be victorious over the desert, a place where humans cannot easily survive. Reisner condemns the American obsession with asserting control over nature, determining that it has led to many environmental disasters, the deterioration of some of America’s greatest bodies of water, and destruction of rural communities, especially Native American communities.

The Introduction and Chapter 1 focuses on the exploration and settlement of the American West, which began with a Spanish conquistador stumbling upon the land during his quest for gold. Reisner goes on to talk about how white men came to explore the land through various expeditions, including the Powell Geographic Expedition in 1869. From these opening chapters, Reisner illustrates how Americans have not conquered the desert. Rather, we inhabit it with an uneasy truce, one that is turning against our favor. The desert communities and the farmland we have established are unsustainable and have led to disputes over land and water ownership, which will continue into the foreseeable future.

In Chapters 2-4, Reisner explores the origins of the United States’ obsessive drive to build dam after dam and how politics and money, rather than good sense, have guided water policy in the West. One area of focus is the first water disputes in Southern California, and Los Angeles specifically, where the theft of water from the Owens River not only annihilated the Owens Valley but fueled Los Angeles’s unquenchable thirst for water. One of the wildest rivers in the West, the Colorado River, has all but been destroyed in an attempt to meet California’s continuous demand for water. The rising political power of members of Congress in the West fueled these costly agricultural and irrigation operations without any concern for the environment or whether they economically made sense.

Chapters 5-7 outline how the development of water projects was impacted by the Great Depression and World War II. The main goal of these projects was to illustrate America’s continued greatness and to increase its global power. These nationalistic endeavors resulted in the creation of two agencies, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers. The brutal rivalry between the two agencies, led by overzealous individuals who cared nothing for the environment, resulted in projects that were economically senseless and catastrophic to the environment.

Various political administrations did try and curb the gluttonous water distribution policy, including Jimmy Carter’s. Western politicians who feared the next drought could be the end of their state and political career undermined these attempts. The Central Arizona Project and California’s State Water Project illustrate the lengths politicians will go to convince their constituents that expensive water projects are necessary. The concluding chapters illustrate the negative impacts of dam building, including the tragic example of Teton Dam. Despite these consequences, there is still a desire for more dams and more ways to divert water to the West. It seems that humanity has not learned that we cannot conquer the desert.

Cadillac Desert drives home the reality of the Western water crisis and its national and global ramifications. To Reisner, we do not have supreme control over the desert. If we do not learn this lesson, then our greed and human desire to exert dominance will result in more brutal conflicts over scarce water resources and worsening environmental and economic situations.