Cadillac Desert – The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Prior to 1900, the western United States comprised less than 5% of the country’s total population. By 2000, that number had quadrupled to over 20%, and was on track to continue growing as a percentage of the total until only recently, where the southern states have begun outpacing it in term of number of people added per year. Once known as the ‘Great American Desert’, the conquering of the West came not just from the Winchester repeating rifle and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, but also by fundamentally transforming the landscape with massive hydrological projects in places like Southern California and Arizona, which naturally have little water, and harnessing the massive power of rivers like the Columbia in the Pacific Northwest to generate electricity. As with any physical system, however, there are limits to growth, and with recent record-breaking droughts compounded by never before seen populations, the rapid pace of expansion in the western United States may be coming to a close. Tonight we discuss the often untold history of how that growth was enabled, and why it may no longer be set to continue.

Myth of the 20th Century – Episode 243 – Cadillac Desert – The American West and Its Disappearing Water

— References —

– High Plains Drifter, Eastwood (1973)

– Cadillac Desert, Reisner (1986)

– Mulholland Drive, Lynch (2001)

– America’s biggest source of renewable energy is crumbling to bits, Harrington (2016) –

– Wetworks – a History of Water Management in America, Myth of the 20th Century (2019) –

– Colossus – Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century, Myth of the 20th Century (2019) –

– Herbert Hoover – Building a Legacy, Myth of the 20th Century (2020) –

– Hydroelectric Power – IB Physics,  Andy Masley’s IB Physics Lectures (2020) –

– Calculating the power a turbine can generate on a hydroelectric scheme using Bernoulli’s equation, Fluids Explained (2020) –

– What Really Happened at the Oroville Dam Spillway?, Practical Engineering (2021) –

– Benefits of Snake River dams must be replaced before breaching to save salmon, report says, Geranios (2022) –

– Hydropower Resource Assessment and Characterization, Oak Ridge National Laboratory –


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Eric says:

    Reblogged this on Calculus of Decay and commented:
    As always, eye opening broadcast

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Danny says:

    I used to be guilty of romanticizing the past, but thanks to podcasts like yours, it’s a habit I’m curbing. Little snippets of history like the story about men waiting for other workers to die of heat exhaustion so they could take their jobs, help paint a clearer picture of what it took to get here. And what an ugly picture it’s turning out to be.


  3. Anon says:

    Hey great episode. In Europe a lot of the dams were built in the 1920s and usually have a megawattage of less than 20mw so are now largely obsolete considering the cost of upkeep and downsides to the river ecology so a lot of them are being removed especially weirs and so on.
    I think a show on European infrastructure would be interesting considering the dichotomomies between damaged stuff in West Europe after 45 to the underdeveloped East and peripheral places like Ireland that had to build a grid from scratch using a third of the national budget in some cases.


    1. unityostara says:

      Allegedly Franz Kafka invented the hard hat.


  4. amalekite says:

    I have never heard Adam talk so much or be so animated on a topic. Dam nerd supremacy. Illuminating as always, gentlemen. Off topic, but do you all know Devon Stack AKA BlackPilled? I recently listened to your old podcast on the FBI. Mr. Stack has been doing an in-depth multipart series (six episodes so far, each hours long) entitled “PatCon” going over Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City, etc, by juxtaposing it with a new shitlib TV show on Jan 6 which references these events (in of course the most offhand and misleading ways). Another guy, Thomas777, has been doing a multipart series with Pete Quinones on the Nuremberg proceedings. I could see you guys doing any number of collaborations with either of them, and I also recommend listeners to check out this content. Fairly mind-blowing content that has further aided me in understanding how we got here.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Joe says:

    Great episode guys. I’m a Californian and have an aunt who works for the Los Angeles Dept. of Water. You only scratched the surface of the malfeasance that takes place in the Owens Valley. Currently LA pays to literally run sprinklers on the dry lake beds in the valley to keep the dust down due to past lawsuits while at the same time hasn’t done a single thing to build up greater reservoir reserves. Our current water restrictions aren’t actually proactively enforced, instead the department is reliant on neighbors to inform on one another. My aunt says that in the end the rich neighborhoods can afford to pay the fine and keep their lawns green and face no other consequences.
    The current projections for the water supply assume 100% compliance with water restrictions being followed. There is no contingency plan if they aren’t followed and the projections don’t match reality. LA will run out of water in the near future and find itself paying top dollar to buy it off from our neighboring states which already hate us.
    When we had a good rainy winter in 2016/17 LA actually had too much water and they just let it go straight into the ocean as there’s so much concrete now that there’s not much of a chance to recharge the aquifer. Also Adam, the San Bernardino Mountains to the east of the LA area is where the majority of the rain and snowfall occur, not too much ever reaches the much closer San Gabriels.

    Keep up the great work! It would be great to have more infrastructure focused episodes especially after these past few years everyone suddenly realized that ports, trucking, and freight (hello once again to LA and the ridiculous theft from and even derailment of freight trains going thru the city).

    Liked by 1 person

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