Thursday, June 5, 2008

June meeting - Cadillac Desert

The Fairfax Library Book Discussion Group will meet this Thursday, June 5th at 7 p.m. in the meeting room of the Fairfax Library to discuss our June book, Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.

I’m so glad that we’ll be joined by Mr. Jamie Reilly with Stetson Engineers who will provide insight and explanations of the current and historical western water situation (with maps, too!)

If you’re interested in the subject here are a few websites with additional information and photographs of the history of water in California:

The National Humanities Center has a great site with lots of links to articles about water in the Western United States.
NAU article about western water usage:
How much water does it take to raise one pound of beef?
The Water Education Foundation in Sacramento,
Fix the water shortage problem in 5 minutes:

In our upcoming July 3rd meeting, we’re actually leaving the topic of water (despite the title) as we read Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, a book that has been on bestseller lists for over a year.

I look forward to seeing you at the library.


Whisky is for drinkin’; water is for fightin’ over.
- - Mark Twain

Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing, that makes water and nobody knows what that is.

Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner

1. Marc Reisner writes, “Westerners call what they have established out here a civilization, but it would be more accurate to call it a beachhead. And if history is any guide, the odds that we can sustain it would have to be regarded as low” (pp. 1-3). Would you agree that the communities that have settled in the Western states are unsustainable?

2. Today there is a growing concern about the effect of dams on fisheries. In Marin, there is a strong group known as SPAWN which works to preserve our creeks so salmon can spawn there. Do you think efforts like this are worthwhile? Will SPAWN or other groups be successful in their efforts to help salmon return to Marin?

3. Was the migration westward inevitable? Could any obstacles possibly have stopped desert areas like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix from become populous cities?

4. Cadillac Desert offers a compelling description of the costs of the current water model used in the West. Can a culture change its mind about the trade-offs it makes? Are we Americans in the midst of such a shift regarding our water usage?

5. Cadillac Desert describes a time in American history when the cultural climate assumed engineering prowess to be an unmitigated good. Today environmentalists are more concerned with sustainability rather than productivity. Is there any room in today’s culture for big engineering water projects?

6. One of the tenets of modern agribusiness in the United States is cheap water. Water is affordable in all parts of the U.S. Now that gas costs well over $4/gallon driving habits are being changed and citizens are using mass transit and driving less. Would you support more expensive water to encourage conservation? Do you support subsidies for the agribusinesses that are the primary beneficiaries of current water policy? Do you know how much you pay for water now?

7. Do you agree with Marc Reisner’s conclusions about the disastrous effects of water policy in the West over the last century? What would a reasonable plan for Western land and water development look like if you could dictate such a policy?

8. What does sesquipedalian tergiversation (see p. 71) mean?

9. Cadillac Desert abounds with stories of unintended consequences as a result of the many water projects across the western United States such as the selenium crisis in central California or the fact that WWII was won with the power generated by western water projects. Can you think of any other unintended consequences?

10. There is a cost for the efforts to undo a century of water projects in the U.S. – in terms of both dollars and lost business. Are the costs too high? Will the efforts ever succeed in returning the environment back to what it was?

11. Has America stretched its use of water in the West to the breaking point? Will the current water projects be able to sustain the current uses? Do you think American citizens or agribusiness would be willing to change their water usage to more accurately match the water available?

12. Would you support the construction of a desalination plant in Marin County?

13. Cadillac Desert describes several larger than life personalities such as Otis, Mulholland and Dominy. Are there any big personalities overseeing and/or affecting our utilities and way of life today?

14. Reisner uses several throw-away but obviously biased phrases throughout the book such as “he followed the honorable Republican tradition of using the office as a vending machine for timber and minerals…” (p 271), “The Bureau’s response to the rising tide of conservation, however, was to let them eat cake.” (p 242) and, “ ‘New Age’ politicians who strive to disassociate themselves from the old Left or the old Right seem to fall into the same old habits where the pork barrel is concerned.” (p 310) Does this bias detract from the overall message of Cadillac Desert?

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