Saturday, September 6, 2014

Review of Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner

There are several reasons to read Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water: to understand why the western United States was settled the way it was (sparsely populated and always will be), for a thorough account of public corruption that discredits the very concept of government, and as an illustration of the intractable principal-agent problem in human affairs.

By the mid-19th century, it was possible to know that the western US - west of the 100th meridian - had an "inexhaustible supply of land but far too little water". Reisner writes that

"John Wesley Powell, the first person who clearly understood this, figured that if you evenly distributed all the surface water between the Columbia River and the Gulf of Mexico, you would still have a desert almost indistinguishable from the one that is there today."
Powell thought that only a tiny proportion of western lands - closest to water sources - were suitable for agriculture. He proposed to irrigate as much as could be irrigated economically, and to redraw the western states' boundaries based on their watersheds. His proposed map is great but would never appeal to people who like straight lines. For those lands that couldn't be irrigated economically, he thought that they should either be "conserved" or grazed with cattle.

But guess who did not like that idea and wanted the land irrigated to the greatest extent possible, at public expense? The railroads, with their gigantic holdings of free land that they wanted to flip for a profit to farmers with irrigation. At the same time, people were also falling for the delusion that "rain follows the plow".

So, the lands were settled with farmers after the Bureau of Reclamation built countless - many hundreds - of dams and irrigation projects. (It was called Reclamation because irrigation projects were said to "reclaim" arid lands for human use.)

There were a small number of irrigation projects that made economic sense, but they were quickly built and for decades the art of dam building consisted of political log rolling to get funding for uneconomical dams, and also various machinations to conceal from the public the fact that these projects were huge transfers of wealth from the public to farmers and construction companies in the west. Reisner says that "to a degree that is impossible for most people to fathom, water projects [were] the grease gun that lubricate[d] the nation's legislative machinery."

Even once a great many uneconomic dams had been built, there was still an institutional imperative to build more of them. The Bureau of Reclamation chief Floyd Dominy would go to the senile Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Carl Hayden's office and sit with his legislative aide to script Hayden's questions and his answers in advance of hearings. Create a bureaucracy and it never goes away.

Reading about the theft of the Owens Valley water more than a century ago, one realizes that the government has always been a wealth distribution tool for sale to the highest bidder. Corruption is nothing new. If anything, things may actually be better today because of ability of the internet to shine a light on crooked deals. There is no monopoly on information the way there was when Harry Chandler could easily fool the public with propaganda in his newspaper.

Even today, farmers in phoenix are growing hay and cotton while farmers in wetter parts of the country are being paid not to. And value investor favorite Boswell "has consistently received more money from agricultural price support programs than any other farmer in the entire nation".

By the way, the farmers who complain constantly about water (and labor) shortages are basically parasites who want something for nothing. The west's water shortages - past and present - are "the sort of shortage you expect when inexhaustible demand chases an almost free good".

I wasn't aware that "Northern Idaho is the banana belt of the Rockies - warmer than the mountains of new Mexico a thousand miles to the south, wetter than eastern Oregon and Washington to the West."

The book points out some longer term problems that we have to look forward to, unless technological ways are found to defeat them. Number one is mineral salts. The water cycle strips these from mountains via weathering and carries them to the ocean.  (In fact, the oceans are growing saltier over geologic time because of this runoff.)

What irrigation projects do is carry rainfall on a more circuitous route back to the ocean; running them through much more land as opposed to efficient drainage channels taking the path of least resistance. Along the way, quite a bit of water of lost to evaporation, obviously depending on how many times the water is diverted. That means that the salinity of the water grows, and these minerals are deposited in the land that is irrigated.

The history of irrigated desert civilizations is that irrigation is great - for a long time. You can feed more people, the oases in deserts are more difficult for enemies to approach, and the sheer numbers of people meant military power. But what always happened was that the irrigated lands eventually became too salty and had to be abandoned.

The other long term problem with dams is silt collecting in the reservoirs. The hundreds of dams built during a brief period in the 20th century will all be silting up at the same time, someday.

Maybe the most urgent potential problem mentioned in the book is one that will exist a bit east of the 100th meridian, which is not as dry in terms of rainfall as west, but more dependent on groundwater, and which has been "mining" the Ogallala aquifer for water for irrigation. As they say, "surface water can be compared with interest income, and non renewable groundwater with capital".

Meanwhile, the western states may be able to make a go of desalination, a question we've pondered in the past. Desalination cost is a function of salinity and dissolved solids, temperature (inverse), electricity cost, and technological improvements. If we ever have a breakthrough in electrical generation (fusion, 10x cheaper solar), we could create a Lake Yuma and make Arizona and Nevada lakefront without needing California to fall into the ocean!


1 comment:

Motorcycle Crash said...

I've read your post "Review of Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner". Informative article.