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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

Finally, one should note the authors' concerns for the future in light of worsening water quality and increasing scarcity. Worster argues that Americans, Westerners in particular, must reject the role of authority over them with respect to water matters and must pursue a strategy leading to a "more open, free and democratic society." We must respect the intrinsic qualities of rivers, reject domination of them, permit management to be in the hands of smaller, localized communities that would rely on their own capital and labor rather than on experts and their grand technologies; and we must divorce ourselves from world markets. The future, he argues, will be better for the lower classes if we do so, although worse for those who have dominated the "rivers of empire" in the past.

Reisner, consistently more concerned about the environment than about the class impact of irrigation agriculture, worries that the future will bring yet more audacious water development projects. Faced with siltation of dams, drying up of ground-water aquifers and salt accumulation on once-productive farmland, engineers and desperate communities may persuade politicians in both the United States and Canada that something like the North American Water and Power alliance should be revived to bring water from Northwestern Canada to many parts of the United States. It would be the biggest engineering project and the most disastrous of all time in terms of economics and the environment. God save us from such efforts to "save" irrigation agriculture.

What do these two books teach us? That it is usually bad politics and bad economics to deliver a commodity or service like water supply at less than its true social cost. Cheap water means benefits for a few who don't need them and unintended consequences for the environment that can't bear them.

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