September 14 — Marc Reisner, Author of Cadillac Desert (1948)

Our understanding of the importance of water management in the West, including the pros and cons of massive water projects, began with the publication in 1986 of Cadillac Desert:  The American West and Its Disappearing Water.  The author was Marc Reisner, born on September 14, 1948.  He died at the early age of 51, from cancer, depriving the world of an effective spokesperson for common sense and common purpose in our use of the environment.

Reisner was born in Minneapolis and studied at Earlham College, earning his undergraduate degree in 1970.  He worked as a writer, mostly free-lance, for his career.  As a writer, he remained independent of the constraints of an agency job or the editorial board of a non-profit or other organization.  As one obituary stated, “he hustled to earn a living while saving fish and creating bird habitat.”

His seminal book, Cadillac Desert, was published in 1986 and became an instant classic in the field of environmental journalism.  The book is a combination of contemporaneous interviews and investigation, broad environmental history and an unapologetic viewpoint that the West is in danger from inappropriate use and waste of precious water.  The main culprits in the book are the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which built and operates dozens of irrigation dams and reservoirs in the western U.S., and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the use of navigable waterways throughout the country. His research was supported by an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship, which allowed Reisner to dig deep into the obscure files of the Bureau of Reclamation and interview many former employees.

Cadillac Desert was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986.  It was the basis of an award-winning PBS documentary a decade later, and the inspiration for the major motion picture Chinatown.  The book is listed as one of the top 100 non-fiction English-language books of the 20th Century, praised for being both authoritative and readable.

Reisner published his second book, Game Wars:  The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers, in 1991.  As with his first book, he researched extensively, following undercover game agents for five years.  The Los Angeles Times wrote of Games Wars,

”As in most books about the environment, there is a kind of pall of doom floating over the text, but unlike most such essays, this one has fights, busts — in short, action. This time the good guys strike back, and if the outcome of the war is in question, a few battles are won here and there.”

References:

Hertsgaard, Mark.  2015.  If You Only Read One Book About the Water Crisis: ‘Cadillac Desert.’  The Daily Beast, July 11, 2015.  Available at:  http://www.thedailybeast.com/if-you-only-read-one-book-about-the-water-crisis-cadillac-desert.  Accessed September 13, 2017.

Marston, Ed.  2000.  Farewell, Marc Reisner.  High Country News, August 14, 2000.  Available at:  http://www.hcn.org/issues/183/5929.  Accessed September 13, 2017.

Oliver, Myran.  2000.  Marc Reisner, Environment Writer, Dies.  Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2000.  Available at:  http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jul/25/news/mn-58530.  Accessed September 13, 2017.

Pace, Eric.  2000.  Marc Reisner, Author on the Environment, Dies at 51.  New York Times, July 25, 2000.  Available at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/25/arts/marc-reisner-author-on-the-environment-dies-at-51.html?mcubz=1.  Accessed September 13, 2017.