Water and the West: Cadillac Desert

Hello, everyone. As I begin my reading for the winter encampment, I plan to post short notes and comments, just to help me prepare and perhaps to inspire you, too. I'm starting with the classic of this genre, readable too, Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. I met him several times back in the 1980s. If you are wondering what all the fuss is about per Water and the West, once you have read Cadillac Desert I think you will be hooked—and concerned.


As someone who lives smack in the middle of the massive industrialization of the Missouri River—from the Pick-Sloan Plan of the 1940s—I am well aware of what it means when human ingenuity and engineering decide to hydrologize a living river. The entire Missouri in North Dakota is damaged (culturally altered!) by two massive reservoirs, Lake Sakakawea behind Garrison Dam and Lake Oahe behind Oahe Dam. The 80 or so miles that are not reservoir are rip rapped and channelized, not really anything like what the Missouri River was before 1930.

Here's a passage from the very beginning of Reisner:

"On the east side of the Sierra-Cascade crest, moisture drops immediately—from as much as 150 inches of precipitation on the western slope to as little as four inches on the eastern—and it doesn't increase much, except at higher elevations, until you have crossed the hundredth meridian, which bisects the Dakotas and Nebraska and Kansas down to Abilene, Texas, and divides the country into its two most significant halves—the one receiving at least twenty inches of precipitation a year, the other generally less." page 3

Reisner would be the first to admit that most of this comes from the great John Wesley Powell (one of my heroes and one of my characters), who chose the hundredth meridian as the line of demarcation between east and west. By the way, I actually live on the western lip of the hundredth meridian (Bismarck, ND), and my house is called Meridian House, much to the bewilderment of my neighbors. Reisner is exaggerating a bit, by the way, with 150 inches (almost nowhere) and four inches (most places get more than that), but you take his point. Interestingly, John Steinbeck decided that the Missouri River at Bismarck/Mandan, ND, was the line of demarcation between east and west, and I don't think he was very familiar with Powell's work. See the John Steinbeck cultural tour also described on this site.

You can see that Reisner is readable. I'll post more bits from the first 100 pages to whet (not wet!) your appetite.

Clay Jenkinson