Book Review: Cadillac Desert, by Sandra Itkoff and Jonathan Taplin

Cadillac Desert

Produced by Sandra Itkoff and Jonathan Taplin

Four-part video series

broadcast on PBS

June and July 1997

Can a culture change its mind about the trade-offs it makes? Are we Americans in the midst of such a shift?

Listen to the words of Floyd Dominy, captured in an extraordinary four-part video series Cadillac Desert, based on Marc Reisner's book of the same name, and Sandra Postel's book Last Oasis. Dominy, who in his career at the US Bureau of Reclamation was America's most indomitable water czar, mobilized billions of federal dollars for hundreds of dams in the West. After reviewing his remarkable accomplishments, he is asked by producer Jon Else if he has any regrets. He says “There isn't any way to control a river without having some trade-offs. And the salmon, unfortunately, were one of those trade-offs on the Sacramento and Columbia Rivers. “Was it worth it,” Else asks.

“I think it's worth it, yes. I think there are substitutes for eating salmon.” With a pause and a wry smile, Dominy adds “You can eat cake.”

Stunning words for anyone familiar with current citizen, governmental, and business efforts to save the salmon in the Northwest! Times have indeed changed. That new watchword  “sustainability” raises a host of issues clearly not in Dominy's purview. For him, productivity was the issue. The film captures the cultural climate that assumed engineering prowess to be an unmitigated good. We watch the gorges dynamited, the concrete poured, the rivers backed up – and see it done with boundless energy and enthusiasm. We see the sprawling cities and vast areas of mechanized agriculture made possible by the numerous dams and miles of canals. And we see what was lost.

In the series' first part, “Mulholland's Dream” (which won Best of Festival at the May 1997 Mountain Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado), we see the Owens Valley – made famous in the 1970s movie Chinatown in which Jack Nicholson uncovers the City of Los Angeles' plans to steal the Valley's water rights. But in “Mulholland's Dream,” the Owens Valley is not just a dusty outpost in a larger power game, it is a real place – and one of extraordinary beauty. We see the valley with the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains rising in the distance and meet the people who knew it when it was a thriving community of orchards and farming families. They mourn its loss.

The billions of federal dollars spent for dams and canals in the West have always been justified politically in the name of family farmers. Indeed, the 1902 Congres- sional Act that established the US Bureau of Reclamation specified that the federally subsidized water was only to be supplied to farms of less than 160 acres.

In “The Mercy of Nature,” the third part of the series, we see the current reality; family farms have largely given way to giant agribusinesses, with farms as large as 20,000 acres and beyond. From a helicopter's viewpoint, we see endless unbroken rows of crops in California's Central Valley – all receiving cheap water subsidized by American taxpayers. At one point some specks are evident in a vast field. As the camera zooms in, we realize that those specks are farm workers, minimally paid, sidelined by society, yet critical to agribusiness's profitability.

Another haunting image is a boat stranded in a dry and sandy landscape. The boat belongs to a Cocopa Indian community in northern Mexico. The Cocopa sustained themselves for centuries fishing in the wetlands where the Colorado River spreads before reaching the Gulf of California. We see the once verdant wetlands now parched and cracked. In the fourth part of the series, “Last Oasis,” Sandra Postel explains that the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea; its waters have been diverted by the dams and irrigation channels.

Watching the series one cannot help but wonder whether the social injustice and environmental destruction so evident in the footage is simply an inevitable part of the play of power and progress in the modern age.

Yet we also learn that since 1980 the US Congress has not allocated funds for any major new dam. When California's Mono Lake began to disappear due to water diversions to Los Angeles, local citizens, biologists, and lawyers stopped the lake's demise with “public trust doctrine” suits that successfully maintained that the lake is a public resource that must be protected. The Mothers of East Los Angeles have mobilized to save water and money by installing low-flow toilets in the homes of their constituents. The Imperial Valley farmers got Los Angeles to pay to line their irrigation canals – and let the city have the water saved.

The series shows how much has changed – our culture's unreflective celebration of man's power over nature has been sobered with an awareness of unintended consequences. It reveals that there are more just and environmentally friendly solutions if we simply choose to follow them. And again and again, we see that it is citizen action that makes the difference.

Reviewed by Frances F. Korten, Executive Director of the Positive Futures Network and former program officer for the Ford Foundation, which provided partial funding for the series.

The series was first broadcast nationwide on PBS in June and July, 1997. It is available on video from Home Vision Select, 800/343-4727. A discussion and viewers' guide is available from the Civil Rights Project, Tel 617/867-4095.

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