Reading L.A.: Marc Reisner’s ‘Cadillac Desert’


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Marc Reisner’s ‘Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water,’ the 11th title in our Reading L.A. series, is not, strictly speaking, a book about Los Angeles or its urban form. It is a book -- a monumental, sharply opinionated and terrifically entertaining book -- about the role that struggles over water have played in shaping the modern American West.

And yet it is fair to say that Los Angeles -- as a city, as a region and as an idea -- haunts ‘Cadillac Desert’ from start to finish. For Reisner, L.A. represents everything that has gone wrong in the relationship between man and nature; L.A is what happens when politicians, engineers, hydrologists, architects and urban planners operate, as he puts it, ‘on the pretension that natural obstacles do not exist.’


Published in 1986 and turned into a four-part PBS documentary series in 1997, ‘Cadillac Desert’ focuses in the main on the great, often disastrous efforts the United States has taken to support massive irrigation projects in the driest sections of the West. (The book has arguably been as important to debates over water policy as Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ had been to those about pesticides a generation earlier.)

But in a long and pointed chapter on the history of Los Angeles, Reisner details the raid our city fathers made on the Owens River a century ago to capture its water and send it coursing down a massive new aqueduct to the western edge of the San Fernando Valley, a project finally completed in 1913. The villains of the Owens Valley episode are familiar to followers of our series: Harrison Gray Otis, from 1882 to 1917 the publisher of this newspaper; Harry Chandler, his successor and son-in-law and the owner of a giant real estate empire with its roots in the Valley; and of course William Mulholland, the ruthless, brilliant czar of the Department of Water and Power and the most powerful bureaucrat in Los Angeles history. Reisner brings them to life in a way few had before him, with prose as memorably critical as anything written by our old friends Louis Adamic and Morrow Mayo.

On Otis: ‘He was a large blubbery man with an intransigent scowl, an Otto van Bismarck mustache and a goatee, and a chronic inability to communicate in tones quieter than a yell.’

On the ‘cherubic’ Chandler: ‘a rugged individualist and a ferocious competitor, and if there was money involved he would rarely pass up a dare.’

On a photograph of a young Mulholland: ‘The face is supremely Irish: belligerence in repose, a seductive churlish charm.’

Reisner is right, of course, that the map of contemporary Los Angeles -- with the San Fernando Valley extending L.A.’s reach nearly 30 miles west of City Hall -- looks the way it does because of an effort, beginning in 1915, to stretch the city limits as close to the new aqueduct as possible.


But many others have made that point -- and have noted, as Reisner does, that ‘Los Angeles employed chicanery, subterfuge, spies, bribery, a campaign of divide-and-conquer, and a strategy of lies to get the water it needed’ from the Owens Valley.

Reisner, though, goes a step further and argues that Los Angeles developed the character it did because of water and water alone (and not, say, because of our love for the single-family house or the freedom offered by the car, or because in L.A. you could get the cultural and economic benefits of an urban region with none of the messy density). For him, the essentially suburban quality of Los Angeles is the direct result of a lust for water in a near-desert region, the natural architectural outcome for a city that stretched itself unnaturally (and immorally) to quench its growing thirst. Water for Reisner is what makes it all possible: not just the lawns and the golf courses but the boulevards lined with parking lots and hamburger joints and the subdivisions filled with ranch-style houses. The suburban lifestyle at a metropolitan scale.

Generally speaking, Reisner dislikes cities; in the afterword, painting with a rather broad brush, he calls them ‘contained cancers.’ Yet he saves his sharpest disdain for Los Angeles and its relationship with water.

‘The Owens River created Los Angeles, letting a great city grow where common sense dictated that one should never be, but one could just as well say that it ruined Los Angeles, too,’ writes Reisner, who died in 2000. ‘The annexation of the San Fernando Valley, a direct result of the aqueduct, instantly made it the largest city in the world in geographic size. From that moment, it was doomed to become a huge, sprawling, one-story conurbation, hopelessly dependent on the automobile. The Owens River made Los Angeles large and wealthy enough to go out and capture any river within six hundred miles, and that made it larger, wealthier, and a good deal more awful.’

--Christopher Hawthorne

Photo (top): William Mulholland (pointing). Credit: Los Angeles Times

Photo (bottom): An image from the 1997 PBS series based on ‘Cadillac Desert.’ Credit: Skeet McAuley