Rating: ❤❤❤❤

The life in us is like the water in the river. – Walden or, Life in the Woods
My soul has grown deep like the rivers. – Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

“Moon River,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Big River,” “Green River,” “Black Water,” “Roll on Columbia,” “Following the River,” “Lazy River,” “Proud Mary,” “Yes, the River Knows”: it’s no wonder that rivers are subjects of or central features of so many songs. And it’s no surprise that they are directly and metaphorically revered in poetry and literature. Besides having been life-sustaining resources for thousands of years, rivers tend to affect us deep inside, perhaps awing us as the veins of Earth, or maybe because we sense that “the river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over from the basement of time,” as goes the final line in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.

In Life on the Mississippi Mark Twain fills the first few chapters with a fine, flowing, virtuosic rundown of the Mississippi River’s physical, historical and commercial aspects, drawing on, of course, his own knowledge as a pilot on that very river in his younger days. Wielding those grand riverboats up and down that magnificent, ever-fluxing, eventually world-famous river (up there with the Nile, Amazon, Congo, Seine, Danube, Thames, Yangtze, Ganges, Rhine, Volga, Tigris, Ohio, et al.), Twain experienced the still-swelling pioneering spirit of the United States’ expansion, whose rapid success relied fundamentally on the continent’s river-richness. Rivers became so important that the folks who ran rivercraft became embodiments of frontier autonomy, as this passage from Life on the Mississippi shows:

…a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that live in the earth…His movements were entirely free; he consulted no one, he received commands from nobody, he promptly resented even the merest suggestions. Indeed, the law of the United States forbade him to listen to commands or suggestions, rightly considering that the pilot necessarily knew better how to handle the boat than anybody could tell him.

Twain noted that by the time of De Soto and La Salle the Mississippi was in particular demand: “…Why did these people want the river now when nobody had wanted it in the five preceding generations? Apparently it was because at this late day they thought they had discovered a way to make it useful…” Whoomp. There it is: perhaps the best way to introduce Martin Doyle’s new book, The Source: How Rivers Made America and How America Remade Its Rivers, a long and winding history of “America’s riverine society.” (The author seems to particularly dig the term “riverine” and repeats it a few times in the book. With good reason. It’s lovely.)

Doyle’s introduction gushes that “the defining feature of America’s landscape” are its 250,000+ “world-class rivers” and that “demographics, technology, and the economy – all these aspects of America’s history have played out on a landscape defined by rivers.” The effect was reciprocal: Americans learned to alter rivers to benefit society, though serious mistakes happened – and still happen. As Doyle writes, “we have drained, straightened, leveed, and dammed [rivers]; polluted and befouled them; cleaned up and restored them.” Coincidentally, a few months before reading The Source, I had the pleasurable privilege of touring Pittsburgh’s almost miraculous ALCOSAN (Allegheny County Sanitary Authority) with my family. By the time the tour ended, I was boggled by the contrast between today’s sewage treatment and the rampant pollution of rivers not too long ago in this nation’s past. This passage sums up the stellar achievement of cleaning water perfectly:

Being able to blithely drink water from just about any faucet in the United States without concern is one of the greatest achievements of American society…A functioning water system – clean tap water and a reliable sewer system – is a staggering accomplishment of technology.

Equipped with new knowledge of the heroic industry of wastewater treatment – not to mention living in a hometown that is famous for its three merging rivers (the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio) – I was quite receptive to Doyle’s book. To kick off his pollution coverage, he tells of Chicago engineer Ellis Chesbrough, whose legacy is none other than Chicago’s early sewer system. In his day, sewage emptied into the Chicago River and ended up in Lake Michigan, which also supplied urban residents with drinking water. Needless to say, this made people vulnerable to deadly diseases. Then, over in New Jersey, there was bacteriologist William Sedgwick, who believed that proper treatment of water was necessary for disease prevention, leading him to promote filtration and chlorine treatment, as well allowance of enough time for rivers to self-purify. Despite the step in the right direction, this self-purification faith “established the justification to continue polluting rivers without restraint.”

Back in Chicago, clever humans altered nature as a corrective against water contamination by reversing the Chicago River. (Yes, some rivers can be reversed!) The goal was to use Lake Michigan only as the source of water, rather than as both its source and outlet. However, this became a detriment to downstream towns and cities, since they ended up with the sloppy seconds, so to speak. The water problem was so bad back then, historian Louis Cain said that Chicago was “in an abominable condition of filth beyond the power of the pen to describe.” Thankfully, such fetid situations led to conscientious waterworks development nationwide. Municipal governments invested heavily in water systems, and, eventually, oversight and regulation were really amplified by the Clean Water Act of 1972 and beyond.

Though I must admit that I was less interested in the contemporary stories interspersed throughout The Source, one about John Dodson, supervisor of a wastewater treatment plant in Durham, North Carolina, is worth mentioning. Each day his plant processes more than 8 million gallons of sewage and gives organisms time to process waste naturally in 24-hour cycles. “The main substance to be handled in sewage is poop – alternatively, and perhaps preferably, called sludge,” writes Doyle. Multiple ecosystems allow the poop/sludge to be devoured by microbes. And, as a bonus, useful byproducts are produced by much of what’s left over. What really impressed me about this focus on the Durham plant is how remarkable the ALCOSAN plant (in my hometown) is in the world of wastewater treatment. ALCOSAN treats up to 250 million gallons per day.

Doyle nails the motivation for prioritized investment in water care:

Why is it that sewers are at the cutting edge in finance? Because having clean water in a developed country is a nonnegotiable expectation. A government is not considered competent if its citizens cannot drink the publicly provided water without dying.

The stuff about sewage was my favorite part of The Source, but that came later on, after much about river exploration and, more important, flood control. The book starts with George Washington’s surveying excursion into the West in 1784 (20 years before Lewis and Clark underwent their expedition) and the concern over flow of commerce from region to region, as well as rivers’ effect on political situations and vice versa. Commerce between the states was difficult due to the nature of the Articles of Confederation, but thanks to the Mount Vernon Compact, an agreement between Potomac River-abutting Maryland and Virginia, the path to the Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was paved. “As Teddy Roosevelt would argue over a century later, the Constitution had its roots in interstate river navigation,” writes Doyle.

Companies dealing with rivers and canals sprang up, forming some of “the earliest forms of publicly recognized private corporations,” and tolls for river/canal use supplemented states’ treasuries, since rivers were completely state affairs rather than federal ones at the time. The book covers the importance of the Erie and Barge Canals, the breach of the Appalachians, Westward expansion and the explosion of movement of goods. And then it introduces a certain invention which revolutionized the rivers: Robert Fulton’s steamboat in 1807. Eliminating the need for tow paths, and diminishing wind and tidal concerns, steamboats were monopolized and franchised. As fate would have it, this led to the famous Gibbons v. Ogden case of 1824. Aaron Ogden, a leasee, sued a competing steamboat entrepreneur, Thomas Gibbons. Gibbons won the case, due to the determined unconstitutionality (violation of the commerce clause) of the steamboat monopoly. From then on, river navigation fell under federal enforcement by the Army Corps of Engineers. This responsibility expanded to overall involvement in river activity, construction and regulation.

The Source’s presentation of the nature of floods and how they were and are dealt with has considerable depth. I’d bet that for most people the word “flood” is usually associated with “levees.” But there are other methods of dealing with floods: meander-removal, diversion of flow via outlets/bypasses, and reservoirs, which time-release floodwater at safer levels. Levees once dominated flood-control strategies, though their efficacy and stability was questioned from their beginning. First of all, here’s how Doyle summarizes what levees do:

Levees simply constrict the flow of the river to a controlled pathway and have the additional benefit of narrowing the river, which increases water velocity and makes the river deeper. Making the flow deeper and faster causes the river to further erode its own bed and so reduces the elevation of floods.

Got it? Now meet Charles Ellet, Jr., whom Doyle calls “the Steve Jobs of nineteenth-century science and engineering.” Hired by the federal government to develop effective flood control way back in the mid-1800s, Ellet recommended reservoirs over levees, bothered by the results of the federal government’s Swamp Land Acts and its encouragement of residence growth in flood-prone regions, as well as upstream deforestation. In contrast to Ellet’s reliance on intuition in this field, his rival, Andrew Humphreys, a West Point graduate who approached flood control from a military perspective and what he considered demonstrable science, concluded that only levees would work. Sadly, prescient Ellet died in the First Battle of Memphis in 1862, but West Pointer Humphreys thrived in and survived the war. Then, as chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, he implemented his levee-only plans.

Eventually, however, Ellet’s ideas resurfaced and were taken seriously, resulting in wider employment of reservoirs and floodways/bypasses. Why? Well, when the Mississippi River flooded in 1927, the levees broke in one hundred locations. The loss of 700,000 homes and major disruption of goods exports were among the extreme overall damage. As if a falling line of dominoes, flood after flood followed in the U.S. during the following year, prompting the federal government to intervene in flood control via the Flood Control Acts of 1928 and, less than a decade later, 1936.

Flood control has always and will always be difficult and rife with error and failure. Doyle blames “complicated, redundant, and seemingly undisciplined” federalism for such error and failure, and he uses 2005’s Hurricane Katrina as primary proof: “Of all disasters, Hurricane Katrina has the dubious distinction of revealing the chaos of federalism, flood control, and moral hazards on live national television.” And: “Federalism created a backdrop for flood control infrastructure that failed during Katrina, and federalism also drove part of the chaos of disaster response.” In contrast, Doyle claims that “at the local level much also went right.” A discussion about this would require much more space, but I will note that much went wrong at the local level in New Orleans as well: implementation of its predetermined emergency plan was botched, evacuation was inadequate (and delayed) and the city was frustrated by institutional/political blight.

The rise of environmental consciousness and activism also is covered extensively in The Source, beginning with phenomenal industrial pollution of waterways. For example, as Doyle points out, “during the late 1930s, New Jersey investigators estimated that almost 7 million gallons of untreated industrial chemical waste were dumped each day into New Jersey’s streams.” And in 1952 the Cuyahoga River caught fire due to flammable waste, but it wasn’t until a photo taken of the disaster appeared in the August 1st, 1969 issue of Time that it gained popular attention. Coincidentally and fortuitously for the cause, the issue also featured two attention-grabbing stories: the U.S. moon landing and the Ted Kennedy-precipitated death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick (a whole other kind of water trouble). The resulting raised awareness and ensuing litigation led to the Clean Water Act and the foundation of the new EPA by the Nixon administration.

There is so much more included in this flood of historical, technical and anecdotal information (and I appreciate the book’s teaching very much, though the conclusion ran dry somewhat abruptly): the Western water wars, river-flow stabilization and rerouting, channelizing, re-meandering, geomorphology, stream/river restoration, and dams and dam removal. The third biggest topic in The Source is America’s dams. Doyle provides an in-depth overview of their history, technology, controversy and proliferation. (I was amazed to learn that by 1840 there were around 65,000 dams in the U.S.!)

Here’s a doozy. While the FDR-originated Tennessee Valley Authority’s Tellico Dam was still under construction in 1973, ecologist David Etnier raised hell about the endangered darter fish in the Little Tennessee River, renaming that particular group of darters “snail darters” to sweeten his defense. To make a long, combative story short, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Article 7 caused stoppage of Tellico’s construction until, after much conflict and litigation, the Supreme Court allowed dam completion (which ultimately led nowhere). “The snail darter and the Tellico Dam are inseparable,” writes Doyle, “bonded together in regulatory infamy.” If this doesn’t illustrate the oddness, intricacy and complexity of infrastructure and nature, I don’t know what does. It’s so goofy that it’s probably the most memorable thing I learned in this magnificent tome. After all the stuff about river networking, commerce, regulation, pollution and treatment, flooding and flood prevention, and this engineer and that engineer, I’m still stuck on and amused by “the idea that a tiny fish was deemed more important than a dam.”

– David Herrle