Cadillac Desert: An American Nile

Cadillac Desert: An American Nile


Part 2 explores the history of dam building and water control of the Colorado River.

Cadillac Desert: An American Nile


7 thoughts on “Cadillac Desert: An American Nile”

  1. Part 2 of PBS’s series Cadillac Desert follows a vey similar format as part 1; an eye opening experience into the past decisions of leaders in the south west of the United States and how it affects us today followed by remorse because the land that’s been lost and the continued struggles surrounding the issue. Part 2 deals with the damming of the Colorado River to supply water and energy to major cities throughout the Southwestern United States. While the reasons and intentions behind the dams seem reasonable, the impacts and reliance they’ve created pose difficult questions regarding the validity of these projects.

    Similar to the idea in Part 1 that Los Angeles has no business being were it is, Part 2 proposes that all cities in Southwest have to business being located in a place devoid of the natural resources needed for sustainable growth. The fact that the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea except on extremely wet years is a stark reality of the impact humans can make.

    The film also evokes remorseful feelings due to the incredible flooded canyons it takes the time to explore and recount tales of the last people to see them. Overall, the film is in awe of the possibilities of the Colorado River and illustrates the benefits of both abusing it and leaving it untouched. Yet it falls short of pursuing a substantial amount of change because of the sense of finality the amount of dams in existence have already created.

  2. This documentary depicted the stories of how the Colorado River became overly utilized by the excessive numbers of dams. During the Great Depression, in an effort to create more jobs, Hoover Dam was constructed by thousands of workers between the year of 1931 and 1936. This project greatly motivated people nationwide to further utilize hydrologic power by developing dams, which lead to environmental changes and animal extinction within perimeters of these rivers. For example, because of a dozen more dams were developed after the Hoover Dam, Colorado River, once flowed fast and contained silts, was slowed down and the water was cleared after the settling of silts, which caused the extinction of the indigenous fish. By that time, a small number of people had realized the negative effects of excessive dams and tried to stop several proposals of dam building, including the Glen Canyon Dam, but their voice was overwhelmed by the majority of the public who only saw profits created by dams. Later, when the government proposed to build two dams in the Grand Canyon, these environmental protectors finally stopped this proposal and saved the Grand Canyon from being flooded.

    Although we cannot reverse most of the damage, there is an important lesson to be learned: we should not sabotage the environment in exchange with economic growth. In this film, people exploited the hydrologic power from the Colorado River to an extent that it was not able to reach the ocean. They built 55 dams along the Columbia River and made almost every stretch of it to a reservoir, which resulted in massive animal extinction. Now, some existing cities, such as Phoenix, rely on these falsely-developed projects which makes it impossible to restore the environment. Learning from these inappropriate developments, we should realize that environment is the foundation of our society and economic growth. They are positively related which means that we cannot expend environment to create wealth in the long run.

  3. Does the Hoover Dam represent the ingenuity of Americans in the west as they attempt to settle seemingly unlivable land or an environmentally taxing solution to a problem that never was? Continuing in the Cadillac Desert series, An American Nile tells the story of the Hoover Dam and the war of water that continues to this day in the American West. Once an ecologically diverse and beautiful landmark, the Colorado River barely touches the sea even after the heaviest of rains today thanks to the Hoover Dam and the continued expansion of American life into places like Phoenix, Arizona and Los Angeles, California.

    An American Nile demonstrates how once the flood gates opened, metaphorically, with the construction of the Hoover Dam that nearly every other major river in the west, from the Columbia to the Grand Canyon, had businessmen and water reclamation experts drooling over their potential reservoir capabilities. If it weren’t for the war waged by the Sierra Club on its behalf the Grand Canyon would have great swaths of the national landmark underwater, much like Glen Canyon. In the end as the west grew for man it shrunk for nature, leaving great lakes where none existed before with a startling lack of life in all of them. An American Nile brings to the forefront of the viewers mind how convenience, and indeed the ability of humans to live in inhospitable places, is not merely technologically wondrous but also costly.

    Authored by Julie Fowler

  4. An American Nile poses a strong question – is large-scale human modification a “cherished feat” or longterm planning disaster? The Hoover Dam is unquestionably an engineering marvel, and proved man’s ability to “harness” nature. However, in doing so, the dam has caused earthquakes due to its weight, debilitated the natural landscape and biodiversity of the river system, and completely halted entire communities’ water sources. As a society, can we justify such destruction, aggression, and most likely, greed?

    The film continues by demonstrating how the Hoover Dam caused a flooding of national and international dam construction. It offered communities astronomical economic potential with the ability to harness water reservoirs, and from their understanding, a manageable power and water source. As Julie already mentions within her comments, the Hoover Dam motivated the damming of almost eery single major river in the West, and almost the entire United States. And since, we have finally begun to see the effects. My hope is that films like this push the statement that unsustainable cities cannot suck the precious resources we have.

  5. The Colorado River was litigated over, and paddled. It is unpredictable, unruly and some said needed to be controlled and modified. The wild unruly Colorado River is precious for the American west. It is not a single channel that slices through the Grand Canyon. Various tributaries collectively make up the Colorado River Basin. It spread throughout several states including Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Cities need water and human dared to tame the wild for what they need. Building dam seems to be a perfect solution. The question is: how do dams influence the complex river system and how to assess the impact of human needs of water in larger scale and in the long run? Unlike the previous episode of Cadillac Desert series, An American Nile didn’t just focused on LA. It widely discusses the regional water management issues and urban expansion through the means of human modification of environment.

    Hoover Dam construction was marvelous and heroic in a sense. The construction workers were carried up in the air and worked under the harshest circumstances. The temperature was so high that workers died from the heat. The enthusiasm and buzz of the dam constructions reminds me of the ambitious building projects in China and other developing countries that rely on manual labor and economic growth. Hearing the pride in the interviewed dam builder, I can see that he thinks himself a part of the history making. Taming the nature is always an endeavor. Forcibly changing the flow and routes of river seem to be larger than life. What it is that humans cannot do to support their farming, settlements, and cities? The dam frenzy changed the natural flows of rivers and the animals that inhabit the rivers. Nearly 100 dams were built in Colorado River. These dams changed the river drastically. Biodiversity is threatened and the flow shrank dramatically. The look, structure and life forces all changed. Fishes are endangered while the population of people in cities that rely on Colorado River keeps increasing. Most river users live outside the basin. What can the people in the Southwest do if the Colorado River becomes dry? Maybe conservation will replace dam building as the new heroic undertaking.

  6. Film Review of Cadillac Desert: Water and the Transformation of Nature

    Released in 1997 and directed by Jon Else and Linda Harrar, Cadillac Desert explores the issues of the Los Angeles water supply during the turn of the twentieth century. Constructed on a virtual desert, Los Angeles’s original water supply came from Owens valley thanks to the foresight of William Mulholland. A highly approved project, Mulholland’s aqueduct even had the support of President Roosevelt who designated a national forest around the river to protect LA’s future water supply. When the project was finished under budget and ahead of schedule, in effect what they had built was the “world’s largest water hose.” While Mulholland had no formal education and never graduated from grade school, he was acting as civil engineer for the aqueduct project.

    This film chronicles a great shift in public opinion. Today we are all now more knowledgeable about the importance of water and concerned about running out of it. However, early in the 20th century, people were not thinking about this. In thinking about possible ways to prevent such things from happening again, it may be effective to add some sort of environmental tax to the cost of water in LA. Over time these taxes should grow larger but not initially to encourage conservation, relocation and eventually to govern environmental changes reducing artificially watered ‘natural’ urban gardens. But who is going to see this as important? And how is this argument sold and implemented to/for the public? Learning from this experience, we need to think about city planning and how our urban environments (future ones included) relate to their underlying landscapes.

    In critique of the film, I would have liked to have had a different ending, as the conclusion was too idealistic. In 1988 the State of California forced the city to return water to Mono Lake. The film seems to oversimplify the issue of returning water to Mono lake. It seems like the film wanted to complete the arc of the story, but I’m not buying it. In addition, I felt as though the film could have shown a larger geological scale of things to magnify the impact of these actions.

    The film makes the viewers wonder what kind of laws are in place to prevent this from happening again. How do we regulate drawing from a communal well? Is it ethical to profit off a resource that other people have rights to, and if so there should be a mathematical way to figure out how much water one is allowed to take? Is it wrong to shift water to where we want it, effectively relocating a desert to put water somewhere else? In thinking of contemporary parallel, I am reminded of the dangers with fracking as explored in 2010 film Gasland. While the resources and environment effects are different there are similarities in their greater socio-political implications.

  7. Cadillac Desert Film Review

    Cadillac Desert: An American Nile details the birth of modern Los Angeles by giving a history of its water system. The film employs a mix of modern and period footage to present the landscape. In terms of narration, the film has guests ranging from family of William Mulholland to historians specializing in history of the American west. Though the film glosses over some details relating to colonization, it skillfully presents the magnitude of the task of providing Los Angeles with its municipal water supply.
    Though the film explains the geology of the region, it does not spend much time discussing the peoples who populated the area before white settlers moved in. In fact, the film flatly states that they were pushed off of their land. However, to their credit, they did feature some Native American voices discussing how their ancestors viewed and shared water. This is a useful contrast to Mulholland and subsequent users’ ideas about water use.
    It is interesting to consider how Mulholland’s intentions were only to supply enough water to maintain LA, not to allow it to expand further. His task of keeping the city alive eventually became larger and larger. In a way, his plan was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. The more obvious it is that LA is a good, plentiful place to live and work, the greater the population grows. Not to mention that enterprising landowners are also buying up more land to make it part of the city for their own benefit. This whole time, everyone is focused on getting enough but never on using the right amount. Conservation does not become relevant until there are almost no other options for getting more water.
    In truth, that is the takeaway from Cadillac Desert: unrestrained growth will only lead to ruin.

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