We need to create a #WestWaterSyllabus.
Mark Hertsgaard at the Daily Beast got a lot of traction this weekend with a piece suggesting this: If You Only Read One Book About the Water Crisis: ‘Cadillac Desert’. If we’re going to have a #WestWaterSyllabus, there’s no question Cadillac Desert has to be on it, but making it the only thing we read is problematic. Hertsgaard’s piece demonstrates how it constrains our understanding of the problem in a way that also constrains our understanding of what the solutions might look like.
So if you only have time for two books, I’d suggest a second, less well known effort: Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons. But whatever you do, I’d really warn against stopping with Cadillac Desert.
Asked some years ago about suggested readings to understand California water, OtPR wrote one of the best explanations I’ve seen of Cadillac Desert’s proper place:
Read Cadillac Desert for an understanding of how things were thirty years ago. It isn’t accurate now (in fact, the book made itself obsolete), but Cadillac Desert fundamentally shaped the lay view of water in CA. When a layperson has some outraged simplistic solution to water problems in CA, it’ll be from Cadillac Desert, so it is good to understand where they are coming from.
Cadillac Desert remains so popular because Reisner was a hell of a writer, and he tells a hell of a tale, a story that’s populated with greed and bad guys that makes for an easy-to-grasp narrative structure that has dominated our understanding of western water ever since. So read it, if for no other reason than it’s a great read and everyone you talk to will also likely have read it.
It is, as Hertsgaard suggests, a powerful book with a central message: “The current drought out West only underscores a problem entirely of our own making: for too long we have rigged the price of water to benefit a favored few.”
But the Western water historian Norris Hundley, in his California water history The Great Thirst (oh dear, we’re already up to three? and it’s a really long book!) suggests we need a more nuanced understanding of the evolution of our problems:
More compelling explanations are found in a compound of interest-group pressures, local and regional considerations, political trade-offs, and the larger context of American political culture in which the national culture and its reverberations within California help explain actions that may otherwise be incorrectly attributed to a conspiratorial power elite.
Which means that rather than hunting for bad guys and easy fixes, or maybe in addition to it, we need a nuanced understanding of the efforts made by human communities to engage in this messy task of collective governance of common-pool resources. Enter Ostrom.
Governing the Commons is not primarily a “Western water” book. But its discussion of the evolution of water management institutions in Southern California, and the generalizations that follow about what does and does not work, offers a critical piece that Reisner leaves out. Reisner’s all about our failings. Ostrom points out that people do, in fact, successfully riddle their way through collective management of a shared resource, and how does that happen? I’d been dabbling in water journalism for 20 years, steeped in the Reisner narrative, when I first tumbled to Ostrom’s work. It was a head-smacking “I wish I’d read this sooner” time for me.
In the 30 years since Cadillac Desert, there’s been plenty of bad guy stuff (Hertsgaard is right to call out California’s Westlands Water District, which is a textbook case of what the economists dryly call “rent-seeking behavior“). But there has been a great deal of the sort of collaborative problem solving Ostrom talks about as well in the 30 years since Cadillac Desert, problem solving that has substantially lessened the bite of the current drought and substantially improved the resilience of the communities that depend on the West’s overtaxed rivers and aquifers. It’s problem solving that Reisner’s work did not anticipate and cannot help us understand.