In the West, of course, where water is concerned, logic and reason have never figured very prominently in the scheme of things. As long as we maintain a civilization in a semidesert with a desert heart, the yearning to civilize more of it will always be there.
The simple need for water is incontrovertible. We will, quite simply, die without enough of it. And while it may seem in this modern era that water isn’t an issue any more, at least not to those of us in the United States, Reisner shatters that myth. The idea of simply turning on the tap and finding water there is one we’ve grown up with; however, that water itself is still a scant resource and the fact that we’ve invented more efficient ways of transporting it doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t a resource that is simply not renewing as fast as we’re using it.
On the face of it, one wonders if a book about the political and social history of water in the United States might be a little dry, pun very much intended. If you tried to read Hundley’s The Great Thirst, you’ll be afraid to pick this book up. But put Hundley out of your mind; Reisner has a gift for prose that sings. The book is filled with prose that ascends to the beauty of poetry and I can honestly say that I laughed out loud at least five times to a chapter. Reisner has an eye for the absurd and there’s certainly enough of it going on in this book to feed the humor mill. Besides that, Reisner has a wicked voice of sarcasm and he applies it to the federal government and its actions with a satirical bent that is sure to set even the most humorless into a couple of laughing jags.
There are still people who say they hate history or hate non-fiction books; this is one of the books to point them towards if you want to see them change their tune in a hurry. It’s a story, a story that stretches over centuries, but a story nonetheless and with characters as vibrant as any that could have been dreamed up by a fiction writer. John Muir, William Mulholland and his occasionally corrupt efforts to build Los Angeles, two brothers in a small town in Owens Valley who steadfastly resist the efforts of Los Angeles to take their water, perhaps most stunning of all the hilariously irascible and pungently anti-heroic Floyd Dominy, head of the Bureau of Reclamation. Even Reisner, for all his attempts to keep things moving, can’t help but bog down and devote an entire forty page chapter to Dominy, giving not just the details of his career with the Reclamation but often entirely unrelated anecdotes about his foul mouth, sexual proclivities and all around hilarious philosophy of life. How can one not be fascinated by someone who, when asked about his tenure with the Bureau, flatly stated, “I was the Messiah?”
If this sounds like an epic novel, it very well could be. The section dealing with the growth of Los Angeles is begging for the miniseries treatment; there are lifelong friendships shattered and then reformed on the deathbed, there are standoffs with militia, there is sabotage of pipelines, there is industrial espionage of the most blatant kind and it all ends with a trumped up charge and jail time that’s politically motivated. If you’re not on the edge of your seat through this section, maybe real life isn’t for you. This stuff is infinitely more suspenseful than most novels and the amusing thing is that we know how it comes out, at least, if you’re one of the few who’s actually heard of Los Angeles and happen to be aware that it’s a booming metropolis. I’ll admit to even shedding a tear at that deathbed reunion scene. This isn’t to say that Reisner is sappy or even pandering. It’s just that his readable prose flows into the eye like a voice flowing into the ear and the story comes across.
Finally, the book devolves into an utter screed against the federal government and the war between the Corp of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. It’s a simple fact that people cling to life. If people are like this, so are government agencies. And so, despite the fact that every conceivable dam had been built, the Bureau and the Corps had to justify their existence by continuing to build them in places that didn’t need them, in places where the building of a dam actually made water transportation more difficult, not less, and occasionally in places where the terrain would not support a dam. This leads, in Reisner’s eyes, directly to the horrific Teton dam collapse in 1976. Reisner, writing about this collapse, ascends to levels of righteous indignation that pushes his prose to the level of apocalyptic. It’s like reading the book of Revelations in modern vernacular as he follows the sweep of water across Idaho, literally wiping towns off the map. For instance, Sugar City didn’t show up on the next map publication.
Reisner’s predictions look a bit off in the wake of twenty years of progress. He claims that the underground aquifers are being depleted at a tremendous rate (they are) and that the US will have to eventually abandon the desert states, having no pure water from underground and not enough facilities to either pump water in from the green states or desalinate ocean water. In a new afterword for a republication, he claims that disaster has been staved off this long because of changes in policy; whether that’s true or whether he simply overstated his case back in 86, it’s up to the reader to decide. Most probably, it is a combination of the two.
But the book isn’t fascinating for what it predicts but for what it shows us about human nature and the desire to improve, about government bureaucracy and the will to survive, about history and the authority to break the law. It’s a book of history that becomes a book of deep social and psychological insight. It’s a staggering work, one of the great American non-fiction works of the twentieth century. It deserves to be rediscovered.
5 out of 5 stars.