Following Up on Dire Predictions About Water in the West

25 years after the publication of Cadillac Desert, scientists have scrutinized the predictions of the hallmark history of water in the Western U.S. and find that its dire warnings are not far off.
May 12, 2011, 12pm PDT | Nate Berg
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Published in 1986, author Marc Reisner's book was the most comprehensive look at water issues in the West. But few if any studies had ever been done to see how its predictions turned out, which inspired John Sabo, an Arizona State University professor, to take a look.

"[W]hile Sabo thinks the term apocalypse is overstated, he believes Reisner accurately depicted "region-wide hydrologic dysfunction" in the West. "In many ways," says Sabo, "Reisner was visionary." And that was before widespread knowledge about climate change reshuffled the cards.

The late journalist's insights and analysis extend to the mid-19th century, when "Go West, young man" echoed through the urbanizing East. Back then, Los Angeles had fewer than 2,000 people, and Denver barely existed. But the now-iconic call to action was followed by an equally transformative, if lesser-known maxim, "Rain follows the plow," a cultish belief inspired by a mere coincidence. For in a key period of those heady days of relentless western expansion, the so-called Great American Desert was soaked by uncharacteristic rainfall, prompting many to attribute the increased moisture to the building of towns, creation of mines and plowing of land.

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Published on Friday, May 6, 2011 in Miller-McCune
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