If you read two books about the West’s water problems, one of them probably shouldn’t be Cadillac Desert.

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.

"Nobel Prize 2009-Press Conference KVA-30" by © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nobel_Prize_2009-Press_Conference_KVA-30.jpg#/media/File:Nobel_Prize_2009-Press_Conference_KVA-30.jpg

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize 2009-Press Conference KVA-30 by © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Someone should write another book about that.


  1. The PBS series, also named Cadillac Desert, was more even-handed and educational. Reisner contributed extensively, with little fault-finding. Sadly, it was issued in VHS and never reissued.

  2. JOHN: In my own search for the answers to how we might resolve resolve the western water dilemma, I followed up the essential “Cadillac Desert” with (the equally essential) Donald Worster’s “Rivers of Empire” which, like Reisner’s work, places our common problem into a 20th Century context. I heartily recommend reading “Empire” before “Managing the Commons” (though the thoughtful reader should visit both) because it views western water through the wider lens of economic development, power relationships and mythology.

    While history is a useful touchstone (rescue often depends on understanding the nature of the entrapment), our present challenge seems to involve how to change policy to address the modern reality: continuing development and constrained supplies. In that regard, “New Courses for the Colorado River”(UNM Press, 1986!) is my choice for the novice reader’s follow-up to “Cadillac”. Like Ostrom, it tends to be a bit wonkish for many folks to digest, but a sophisticated observer like yourself will certainly find new food for thought in it.

    Better advice to readers might be to visit “Water Policy: Continuity and Change” by Helen Ingram, which offers a New Mexico focus, or “A River Too Far”, which collects excerpts from Reisner, “New Courses”, John McPhee and Wallace Stegner (extremely readable writers!). It also has some telling photos, including one of a gate that pretends to block public access to a dock extending into a large body of water.

    The unfortunate fact is that a lot of the clarifying literature is now out of print, which just tends to thwart the inquiries of thoughtful citizens and tends to direct us all to blindly follow the leadership of the current generation of wonks and power brokers who control water policy.

    I think that the most useful literature encourages us to stop, take a deep breath, and consider where it is we really live. In an essay from “New Courses”, entitled “Replacing Confusion with Equity”, Ingram suggests that “the destiny of people in arid lands depends far less on technical understanding and physical structures than upon institutions and an appreciation of the kinds of political choices available to us as well as the… consequences of those choices.”

    In other words, we’re still, unfortunately, caught in a “Cadillac Desert”, though the impending Fleck book could move us forward.

  3. Steve – Thanks, especially for the ones I haven’t yet read (Ingram in particular). When I have time, I’ll start pulling together a stand-alone “#WestWaterSyllabus” post with links to as much of the literature as I can find that is still available.

    – John

  4. Gee, let’s see. Reisner was a journalist who wanted to call public attention to a rapidly growing environmental problem: water in the West. He succeeded beyond all expectations. But he was a journalist. Hundley was a renowned scholar of water rights in the west and spent his entire life as an academic. Ostrom was a Nobel-prize winning economist with a towering international reputation. How about a little more perspective when evaluating their respective accomplishments? They wrote for entirely different audiences. Comparing apples to hickory nuts isn’t very productive.

  5. Thirty years! In what other field would people feel confident saying that the one text people should read to understand a complex situation is thirty years out of date. You want to understand the Grexit? Read a book from thirty years ago. Need to understand El Nino and climate change? Read a book from 1987. Honestly.

  6. I am a native Californian (Santa Cruz Co) but I’ve lived in the Idaho panhandle since 1977. Acutely aware of climate change… Worried about my nieces and nephews will face in their 40’s or so. I’ve listened to Idahoans talk about the threat of southern CA emptying Lake Havasu, etc. I’m also aware of damage to Idaho’s deep wilderness due to the multiple dams thwarting salmon travel to their spawning sites, etc.

    The Water Knife is disturbing, especially as I see water rationing finally being taken seriously in Santa Cruz, Carmel Valley, etc. and folks finally realizing that crops take a lot of water and folks trying to figure out which crops are more important, less water-intensive, etc. ‘course…then you have Tom Selleck stealing water from fire hydrants to save his avocados,

    I will read Cadillac Desert to see if I find the origins of some of the “Idaho distrust & conspiracy theories” and then I will watch out for #WestWaterSyllabus.
    Thanks to all for other suggestions.

  7. OtPR, in reading a book from 30yrs ago to understand something is called learning from history, but also consider this:

    a book published in 1978 (almost 40 years ago) called Permaculture One (by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren) is still well worth learning from (you can see how much basic stuff regarding water has been ignored for the past few hundred years and exactly why California is struggling even when they have plenty of water).

    Just by playing catchup and implementing water reuse and retention strategies instead of what they are currently doing (shuffling waste water and rain water to the sea as quickly as possible) they can go a long ways towards recharging the groundwater levels and still increasing agricultural production.

  8. Thanks for these recommendations, which have expanded my reading list. Another good book for understanding California water history is Mark Arax’s The King of California, about JG Boswell’s Central Valley ag empire. It covers a lot more than water, but water was the blood that pumped through Boswell’s heart. By the way, Reisner’s other book, A Dangerous Place, is perhaps more important than Cadillac Desert for Californians, as it details (beautifully!) all the risks we face living where plates collide.

  9. Just in case intervening events have rendered Cadillac Desert obsolete, I’d recommend visiting “Dead Pool” by James Law
    rence Powell, which does a lot to update Reisner.

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