When archaelogists from another planet sift through the bleached bones of our civilization, they may conclude that our temples were dams, says Reisner in this angry, exhaustive and gracefully written account of America's quest to turn the inhospitable, irredeemably dry West into a Garden of Eden. In this century, a quarter of a million dams have been built in this country, two or three thousand of which are imponderably massive, holding back rivers the pioneers swore could never be tamed. Reisner chronicles the rise of the US Bureau of Reclamation into one of the most self-serving of bureaucracies. The agency, which F.D.R. saw as a vast public works program, turned into a full employment program for engineers. It used fraudulent economics to justify projects, mastered the art of manipulating Congress, ushering in a 50-year spree of pork-barrel politics, almost flooded the Grand Canyon and still has plans to bring water to the parched West from as far away as Alaska. Reisner also recounts how the founding fathers of Los Angeles, now the second most populous desert city on earth (barely surpassed by Cairo), raided watersheds hundreds of miles away to fuel its runaway growth. Though reclamation began as an admirable idea and transformed scorched earth into valuable farmlands and lush cities, it turned into, in Reisner's words a nature-wrecking, money-eating monster that our leaders, particularly Congress, have lacked the courage to stop. Illegal subsidies continue to enrich big farmers, whose excess production depresses crop prices nationwide and whose waste of cheap water contributes to an environmental calamity that could cost billions to solve. Within the next century, hundreds of reservoirs will turn to solid mud; today, millions of acres of reclaimed farmland are threatened by groundwater depletion and salt buildup in the soil. Only a government that disposes of a billion dollars every few hours, says Reisner, would still be selling water in deserts for less than a penny a ton. Not the first book on the subject, but one of the best.
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