Review: How Rivers Made America

Martin Doyle’s 2018 The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers educates you on politics, economics, technology and society by telling you the history of how rivers defined America’s development in five areas: Federalism, Sovereignty & Property, Taxation, Regulation and Conservation.

As usual, I will provide a series of notes and thoughts that came up while I was reading rather than a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book. 

1. Rivers in the New World had important recent impacts compared to rivers  the Old World has known for millennia. These impacts came as white settlers displaced First Nations with their technology, expectations and institutions. In some cases, those paradigms were helpful (e.g., shipping or producing power), but most focussed on short-term profit (e.g., pollution, depletion, and deviation) over long-run sustainability.

2. Rivers played a major role in economic and political development. Settlers used rivers to explore the vast country, ship goods from the frontier to the settled East, and join growing cities into what became — before rail roads — a national market.

3. Plenty of companies went broke trying to take over shipping routes, build canals, etc. Their troubles often undermined state finances, which forced states to set strict budgets and the Federal government to get involved in unforeseen and increasingly invasive ways. These origins explain why the US Army Corps of Engineers plays such a big role in building dams, “controlling” rivers, and settling flood plains.

4. Shipping companies lobbied against tolls on rivers, which aided navigation and lowered shipping costs, but also shifted their private costs onto society. These subsidies and distortions grew in 1860s (when the Swamp Acts encouraged settlement in wetlands) and 1930s (when jobs mattered more than productivity).

5. Technology and ideology jointly destroyed any notion that rivers should be left to their own course and flow:

…the 1930s were the apex of the Progressive Era, when leaders were enamored with systems planning, optimization, and engineering… which meant that a central agency—the Corps of Engineers—had to be in charge of planning, engineering, and coordinating. [snip] In the late twentieth century, flood control infrastructure had created an enormous sense of hydrologic security. But it also unintentionally created a perverse incentive that drew people into areas previously considered too high risk for developing. [Locations 1077 and 1224]

6. A small step in Federal involvement often led to massive influence, spending and harm. In 1950 disaster relief meant repairing a local, flood-damaged bridge. By 1988, the Stafford Act “explicitly prohibited the use of ‘arithmetic formulae’ (such as benefit-cost analysis) as a basis for disaster declarations. Disaster relief became codified as a solely political decision, outside traditional economic evaluation.” [Location 1254] The resulting flood of federal money meant that locals didn’t have to pay for recovery, which encouraged “moral hazard” (i.e., ignoring risks) and thus larger  disasters.

7. When Doyle goes west, frontier mentalities clash with historic institutions, and miscalculations multiply:

…water in the West is a zero-sum game. The tribes can’t keep enough water in the river to sustain the salmon if the farmers upstream divert all the water they need for crops and cattle. Someone has to lose. [snip] Downstream groups inevitably prefer rights based on historic use, like those outlined in the appropriation doctrine. For their part, upstream users tend to prefer rights based on contribution to river flow, like those of the riparian doctrine. [snip] In 1976, Stockton and Jacoby showed that the decades of data used to estimate flow on the Colorado River and then divvy it up in the Colorado Compact were in fact the wettest years in half a millennium. The basis of the Colorado Compact was an estimated mean annual flow of somewhere around 16.5 MAF per year; tree-ring data over a much longer period of time suggested that a more realistic estimate would be about 3 MAF per year less than that [meaning the CC is flawed]. [Locations 1598, 1761 and 2121]

8. A tradition of cleaning drinking water (“my problem”) but not sewage (“your problem”) led to public health disasters in the late 19th century and an ongoing battle over water quality that continues to this day. Too few polluters pay, so public waters are often abused in ways that laws allow but the public (if asked) would never support.

9. We can see the switch from local to federal control in the tax system:

In 1902 local government tax revenues exceeded state revenues by 260 percent and national government revenues by almost 40 percent. [snip] Because local city governments bore the burden of providing most services in the early twentieth century, by 1902, property taxes accounted for 42 percent of all government revenues (national, state, and local levels combined). [snip] Before the Depression, there was general consensus that federal funds should be spent only on projects of national need, and local funds would be spent on projects of local interest. Property taxes would be linked to municipal projects, tariff taxes to national projects. But the New Deal created a fiscal system through which the federal government collected income taxes nationally and then spent that revenue via grants to state and local governments—an enormous redistribution of funds and government power across the country. [Locations 2543, 2571, and 2702]

10. Women played a big role in promoting water quality. Although it’s clear that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring raised awareness, it was the efforts of thousands of women across the country that brought laws and funding, but not an end to the problems:

Even FDR’s New Deal, with its expansive building programs, had been minor compared to the spending spurred by the Clean Water Act. In the first twelve years after the act was passed, the federal government spent over $40 billion on wastewater treatment. [snip] For all the benefits of the Clean Water Act, it had an enormous blind spot: Farmers and suburbanites with Irish-green lawns were let off the hook. When a farmer fertilizes a field, or a homeowner uses a bag of fertilizer from the local garden store, they play a role in changing the chemistry of the planet. [snip] By the turn of the twenty-first century, the EPA had classified just under half of the 3 million river and stream miles in the United States as either threatened or impaired, and the cause was fertilizer from agricultural and suburban runoff. [snip] by 1991 the federal share of spending on wastewater infrastructure had dropped to 5 percent. This was a jarring reality for local governments, which suddenly faced the reality of paying for the requirements of the Clean Water Act on their own dime.  [Locations 2852, 2867, 2897 and 2928]

11. The plethora of special-interest districts with poor governance, vague goals and taxing authority resulted in projects that were bad or ruined via corruption and amateur errors (e.g., Flint).

12. America’s obsession with profits (and relaxed view towards the damages resulting from those profits) can be traced to the water-powered mills that turned from grinding grain to generating electricity in an assault on property rights that eventually backfired:

…the desire for economic progress in the early nineteenth century was so strong that it shifted government regulation from favoring established property to supporting whichever use best served economic development. Thus, with the government’s encouragement, dams and mills proliferated in number, complexity, and economic output. As a result, textile manufacturing via hydropower in America quickly surpassed that in England. [snip] When a private power company built a dam or a steam power plant, it had to recoup all those construction costs through higher rates. But when the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] built a dam, the federal government covered some of the costs in the name of broader public interest such as navigation and flood control. This support reduced the cost of power generation and thus reduced the rates TVA needed to charge, so Lilienthal could set far lower power rates than his for-profit private power competitors could afford. [Locations 3173 and 3406]

13. The TVA used to be pretty good. Then it got too big.

14. It took decades of mistakes and wasted effort before “in-channel river restoration” was replaced by allowing the river to move and evolve. Sadly, many rivers are handicapped by Army Corps barriers protecting farms and towns built in flood plains. 

Meanders like those seen in the Mississippi, with their varied flows, depths, and sediments, are considered by ecologists to be the root of the extremely high biodiversity of rivers. Physical diversity begets biological diversity. Yet there are few reasons for industrial society to tolerate meandering rivers [snip] Rivers could be taken from complex, unruly tangles of swamps and floodplains and converted into straight, linear, trapezoidal forms. Channelization made rivers rational. These benefits, however, came with enormous impacts and losses to ecosystems. From destroying fish habitats to eroding banks, channelization inflicted ecological havoc. [Locations 3826 & 3844]

15. A combination of naive-optimism and broker lobbying led to the creation of a market for “river offsets” that would encourage river restoration as a way to pay for destruction elsewhere. This system looked successful on paper, but its emphasis on quantity meant that quality, let alone sustainability, was ignored. 

16. The best way to restore a river is to leave it to flow in its own bed according to seasonal variations, with its own mix of flora and fauna. #CaptainFuckingObvious

My one-handed conclusion is that this book provides a welcome portrait of the many ways that rivers shaped — and were shaped by — America’s urban development and environmental condition. I highly recommend it, and thank JT for the tip.

Read all my reviews here.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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