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WATER AND THE AMERICAN WEST : RIVERS OF EMPIRE: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West by Donald Worster (Pantheon: $24.95; 402 pp.) : CADILLAC DESERT: The American West and its Disappearing Water by Marc P. Reisner (Viking: $19.95; 462 pp.)

August 10, 1986| Dean E. Mann

In a 1960 book, economist Jack Hirschleifer declared that the shortage of water in the United States was like the shortage of $500 Cadillacs. When price is kept artificially low, demand will naturally exceed available supply, whether an automobile or water is the object of desire.

In two remarkably comprehensive and well-written books, Donald Worster and Marc Reisner consider the role that water--especially artificially cheap water--has played in the development of the West. Both books are concerned primarily with federal water policy, particularly the role of the Bureau of Reclamation in water development, and both take strong issue with the dominant popular view of irrigation agriculture and its meaning for the West and for American society.

For most Americans, the term irrigation--like the term democracy--has both descriptive content as man-made technology for the application of water to agriculture and a value-laden content as the mastery of nature and the development of otherwise useless land for human economic purposes. It has had a positive valence for most Americans, and particularly for Westerners, because it arguably rendered an otherwise forbidding land not only livable but hospitable to the good life, providing millions with opportunity that would not have been available to them in the Eastern part of the country.

In challenging this perspective, both books have a strong historical orientation, describing the conditions that led to the passage of the Reclamation Act of 1902 and the consequences entrained by that legislation and its subsequent modifications. Both, for example, describe the exploits of John Wesley Powell and his epic expedition down the Colorado. Both describe events and forces that surrounded the passage of the Boulder Canyon Project Act and resulted in the construction of Hoover Dam and the canals that transported water to the Imperial Valley and to Southern California more generally. Both devote considerable space to descriptions and analyses of the conditions that led to the development of the State Water Project in California. From a thorough examination of the public record, both authors provide a wealth of detail as well as a comprehensive understanding of federal and regional water policy and its effects.

Their characterizations of federal water policy are somewhat different but perhaps in general terms, complementary. Worster's analysis is derived explicitly but not uncritically from the writings of Karl Wittfogel, who first developed the concept of the hydraulic society, a society characterized not by freedom for the individual, or a broad sharing of whatever benefits accrue from irrigation, or a democratic process of decision-making with respect to its adoption, but rather by the imperial rule of a political/economic elite that gathers the benefits to itself and ensures virtual indentured service for those who make the enterprise profitable for that elite.

Drawing upon a vast historical record reaching back to early Egyptian and Chinese civilizations, Worster describes the development of the West in terms, first, of individual and group efforts at irrigation and, then, of more grandiose arrangements to promote irrigation through the use of the public treasury and the application of sophisticated engineering technology. He finds the seeds of empire in even the most local arrangements but its true florescence in the development of such schemes as the reclamation program of the national government. The record in the West, as Worster adduces it, is replete with evidence of empire by irrigation: the avarice of land promoters who saw gold in the water made available to the Salt River and Imperial Valleys; the pride of engineers who saw their technology as the salvation of the region; the self-interest of bureaucrats who sought larger budgets and of politicians out to feather their nests electorally. The result was highly integrated control systems for the management of water, heavily subsidized water projects benefiting largely corporate landowners, a dispossessed population of individuals and classes who labored with little reward, a powerful surge toward large-scale farming that drove the notion of the small independent farmer virtually out of the realm of possibility, and unsuspected but nevertheless ever-more-critical ecological problems

that may doom the entire Western enterprise to failure.

This is a brilliant book, clear in its argument, exceptional in its literary qualities. Worster is capable of making the most prosaic facts come alive through his mastery of the language, his imagery, and his ability to weave his ideas with events and personalities into a fascinating historical record.

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