Marc Reisner, who alerted authorities and environmentalists to the problems inherent in irrigating the American West in his landmark 1986 book “Cadillac Desert,” has died at age 51.
Reisner died Friday of colon cancer in his Marin County home.
Environmentalist, conservationist, lecturer and writer, Reisner recently had become involved in two private companies dedicated to turning a profit--responsibly. One is the Sausalito-based Vidler Water Co., which promotes ground-water storage and transfer to prevent the building of dams that might drain lakes and rivers. The other is a company working with California rice farmers to make fiberboard and other products from discarded rice straw.
“I’m not too old to be making money,” Reisner responded affably a year ago when one financial reporter kidded him about “selling out.”
Reisner’s writing never made him rich, but it earned him respect and fame, and it taught, in a highly readable way, important lessons that he personally had put to use, even in his new for-profit ventures.
The seminal book on misuse of water resources--its full title is “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water"--sparked ongoing water policy reform to curb and reverse depletion of water supplies caused by dam building and other policies of the federal Bureau of Reclamation and state and local water management agencies.
“This is well-written history and analysis, thoroughly researched, and abundantly clear in its message,” Dean E. Mann wrote in The Times when “Cadillac Desert” was published.
“Once, I thought water was the most important issue facing the West . . . and the most boring. ‘Cadillac Desert’ makes it clear as the cascading waterfalls in Yosemite that it is neither,” said reviewer Grace Lichtenstein in Washington Post Book World.
Another Times reviewer looked back on the book five years after its publication as “the only readable account of the Bureau of Reclamation’s campaign to destroy the American West with concrete acts of love.”
The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986 and was ranked by the Modern Library as 61st on a list of the 100 most notable nonfiction English language books published in the 20th century. With Reisner’s help, the book was turned into a documentary miniseries of the same title for PBS in 1997, earning a Columbia University Peabody Award.
Financed by a 1979 Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship, Reisner meticulously researched once-secret files of the Bureau of Reclamation and talked to its former employees.
Future generations would suffer, Reisner asserted in the book, because of flagrant waste of water for both cities and farming and from salt deposited in the soil by excessive fertilization.
“Marc was instrumental in raising awareness of the damage being done to fish and wildlife,” Michael Sherwood, staff attorney for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “and in recent years, he showed ways environmentalists and irrigators could work together to find solutions that both protected natural resources and allowed commercial uses for water.”
Before Reisner’s remarkable book, Sherwood added, “the general public perception was that dams and water manipulation were an unmitigated good thing.”
Reisner wrote another important and entertaining book in 1991, “Game Wars: The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers.” The book detailed the harrowing life of about 200 agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, particularly game warden David Hall, whom Reisner followed for five years.
Times reviewer Charles Bowden, in reviewing “Game Wars” in 1991, noted that Reisner made Hall come alive as “a game warden who operates out of Louisiana as a kind of gonzo mixture of the Lone Ranger and Indiana Jones,” cracking down on poachers of alligators and crappie.
“As in most books about the environment,” Bowden wrote, “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. . . . This time one can learn a lot and still have a good read.”
Greg Thomas, executive director of the Natural Heritage Institute, a nonprofit environmental group based in San Francisco, told The Times on Monday that Reisner’s books would serve as his “permanent monument.” Reisner had served on the organization’s board of directors for the last six years.
“It’s a wonderful gift he had,” Thomas said, “to take these arcane subjects that are just too dry for the average American to pay attention to and turn it into recent lore and legend.”
Thomas said Reisner was “a handful,” but widely respected as a free thinker capable of changing his mind. Although Reisner had early attacked California rice farming as a ridiculous taxpayer-subsidized effort to create “monsoon” crops in a desert, Thomas pointed out, the environmentalist was later persuaded by Sacramento Valley rice growers that the flooded rice fields benefited wildlife--serving as winter grounds for millions of ducks and geese.
Reisner also co-wrote, with Sarah Bates, the book “Overtapped Oasis: Reform or Revolution for Western Water” in 1990 and wrote numerous op-ed articles on the environment for The Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times and several magazines. At the time of his death, he was working on a book about the influence of natural disasters on California’s history and politics.
Born in Minneapolis, the son of a lawyer and a scriptwriter, Reisner earned a bachelor’s degree at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind.
He worked a couple of years in Washington, D.C., on the national staffs of Environmental Action and the Population Institute as a lobbyist and scriptwriter for an environmental telethon. From 1972 to 1979, he was a staff writer and communications director for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
Reisner was named an honorary trustee of the Tuolumne River Preservation Trust after serving for many years on its board, and earned a Rene Dubos fellowship, a Bay Education Award from the San Francisco Bay Institute, and a commendation from the American Whitewater Affiliation.
He was planning to use funds from a Pew Fellowship in marine conservation, which he received earlier this year, to restore native salmon habitats in California.
Reisner was a distinguished visiting professor at UC Davis, lecturing on the interaction of civilization and the environment.
He is survived by his wife, Lawrie Mott, a biochemist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and two daughters, Ruthie and Margot.
Times staff writer Nancy Vogel in Sacramento contributed to this story.