I have been drawn back to the work of Marc Reisner over the past few months. His book “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water” (1986) still raises hackles among our farming population here, even though he’s been dead since 2000.
For those who don’t know that book, its main purpose was to call the Hydraulic Brotherhood on their pack of lies regarding water development. The Brothers insist that all we need is a few more dams and everything will be alright, refusing to acknowledge the reality of limits. Reisner documented the relatively short shelf-life of reservoirs held back by those dams and the get-rich-quick schemes that prompted their construction in the past. He made the whole irrigation enterprise look like it was a playpen for fat cats, courtesy of the taxpayers. Understandably, those who aren’t fat cats took offense, while the fat cats went after him tooth and nail.
A conversation with my dairy advocate friend, Geoff Vanden Heuvel, regenerated my interest in Reisner (who was no friend of cows or the alfalfa they eat.) I mentioned that we had Reisner here in 1994 as part of a Great Valley speaker program at COS, then went looking for traces of that event in my piles.
I found two pieces from the Times-Delta, which reported that Reisner’s presentation had stunned the standing-room-only audience with radically different information than they were expecting. The editorial declared that Reisner must have been born again, since the rice growers he’d disparaged earlier he was now defending as contributing to the Sacramento Valley’s ecosystem. What took the crowd most by surprise was that he was adamantly supportive of the kind of agriculture we have in our area (or had at that time), which he said was even more important than restoring salmon in the San Joaquin River. I clearly remember him saying that it’s so important that we should be fighting to protect it.
The article reporting on the event ended with a sober, prophetic warning, however: “Reisner told the crowd that serious water rationing and conservation measures were undeniably in the future, along with water transfers.” (Visalia Times-Delta, Oct. 6, 1994) Now, there were plenty of other people sounding that alarm back then and even before, but it’s no joke that we’re staring that future in the face now.
These memories drove me to look at two other of his books: Overtapped Oasis (1990) and A Dangerous Place (2003). Dangerous Place tells the story of how we inherited two of the nation’s largest population centers located in places with no real water supply. He names and points fingers at unseemly motivations. Then he shows the connection between long, vulnerable water supply lines and the regions they serve, which sit astride major active fault zones and suffer regular horrific wildfires under the influence of Santa Ana winds each fall. The idea of limits is completely missing in both urban regions.
What this helped me see is that the big boys of Central Valley agriculture and the moneygrubbers who built urban empires in two of the most fragile, dangerous, unsustainable places in the state—they’re the same people, essentially. They’re the investors, the financiers, the corporate wheeler-dealers who once acted like cotton barons and railroad magnates, now serving as carrot company executives and government consultants. They’re the Cadillac class, willing to make a desert anywhere they go, so long as they walk away with the dough.
The rest of us here—let’s call us the DeSoto class, with our one-row tractors and small, declining towns atop ever sinking aquifers—will be left in their dust, literally, if we don’t find a way to take back the reins over our local water supplies. We’ll be left behind not because we’re bad or inefficient, but because we’re not cutthroat. We care about this place, our neighbors and our livelihoods as much or more than we care about money. That’s a strength, not a weakness.
The DeSoto wasn’t a bad car, it just got edged out of the market, dropped by its cutthroat manufacturers, not its customers. Let’s not go the way of the DeSoto. Let’s not let them turn us into a desert. Let’s follow Reisner’s one piece of good advice and fight to protect it.
Trudy Wischemann is the granddaughter of a former DeSoto lover. You can send her your thoughts on our oncoming desert c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Mid Valley Times newspaper.