We residents of the St. Louis area know the importance of rivers. We know that our city is located here because of the proximity to the confluence of two of the longest rivers in the world. We know that when we go hiking or biking or floating, we are likely to do so on or near some beautiful waterways. And we know, living in flyover country, that when we do fly we can look out the plane windows and try to identify our location by spotting some of the 250,000 American rivers below. We thus know a lot about rivers, but we can also learn a lot more from Martin Doyle’s The Source.
I hope readers will forgive me for using an obvious metaphor to organize this review. Reading The Source is like taking a trip on a river in several important ways. First, you know where you are going from the launch. Second, even if you know the destination, the trip is also inevitably full of surprising twists and turns. Third, it is a fun ride, even more so when it is a bold and challenging trip. Fourth, the journey gives you a lot to think about during and afterwards. Fifth, and finally, after the trip is over, one cannot help but consider what might have been done differently. I will use each of those parts of the metaphor to review the book, but allow me to begin with a personal disclaimer.
Having written a book on river restoration efforts titled Dam Politics, I admit that I had hoped to see my name in Doyle’s chapter on this specific topic. I did not, but in reading the chapter, I quickly understood why not.
The personal disclaimer is the following. The author and I have at least two big things in common that affect this review. First, we are both river rats. In his Acknowledgements, Doyle confesses to an “inordinate enchantment with rivers” (309). I plead guilty. I have rafted, kayaked, and canoed waterways all over the country, from the Kennebec in Maine to the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. I love rivers. And it is easy to tell that Doyle does as well. Readers who share that affinity for rivers may find it easier to immerse themselves into this ambitious book, but that does not mean that those who have never dipped a paddle in a stream will not also get quite a bit out of it. Second, both of us are academics who have studied and written about rivers. That relates to this review in the following way. It is no secret that academics like to see themselves cited and are at least a bit disappointed when they are not. Having written a book on river restoration efforts titled Dam Politics, I admit that I had hoped to see my name in Doyle’s chapter on this specific topic. I did not, but in reading the chapter, I quickly understood why not. He offers a creative take on river restoration that I frankly did not know and had not seen before. This reflects the work of an author who is providing new ideas and perspectives. I am confident that all readers will find fresh material in here.
Back to the metaphor used to organize this review, there are few unexplored rivers any more so on most river journeys the ultimate destination is well known. So too with this book. In short, Doyle states at the outset his goal to provide a history of the United States and the ideas that are fundamental to the country, using rivers as a lens. As the subtitle suggests, rivers have been key to the concepts that have shaped and continue to shape this nation. These concepts include federalism, property rights, taxation, regulation, environmentalism and conservation. But as the subtitle further states, the evolution of those concepts has also shaped our rivers, from making them the transportation conduits for exploration to using them to divide and unite us to utilizing them as trash receptacles to trying to restore them to a more pristine natural condition. To understand these relationships, Doyle uses history, politics, economics, geology, geography, river morphology, and engineering. No big deal, right? Impressively enough, Doyle pulls it off and produces a classic account of the role and importance of rivers to American life.
Knowing from the outset where we are going, Doyle is a good guide throughout the journey. He uses broad arguments such as the use of market incentives to change behavior and important legal concepts such as riparian and appropriation rights to rivers but he explains them in clear terms and then applies them to specific cases. In doing so, he takes us to rivers all over the country and introduces us to the people who shape them and are shaped by them. In weaving these big ideas and real-world examples together, Doyle covers a lot of American history. For instance, the first third of the book uses a broad overview of river usage and development in early American history to show how the institution of federalism produced an odd mix of governing structures such as local levee districts and decentralized river jurisdictions. As river usage changed over time, so did the institution of federalism. Thus, the huge floods of the early 20th century (especially the 1927 Mississippi flood) led to greater federal power in river management and in other policy areas. That power changed again with efforts to decentralize, starting with Reagan administration policies in the 1980s and again, rivers are at the heart of those efforts. The ultimate outcome of shifting jurisdictions is a confused structure involving federal, state, and local governments that led to all kinds of problems when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.
While always keeping the thesis in mind, The Source, like nearly all river trips, is still full of surprising twists and turns. Doyle uses numerous surprising specific examples to reinforce the argument that rivers are at the heart of the evolution of American ideas. For instance, he makes the point early on that “the Constitution had its roots in interstate river navigation” (23). As another example, early in American history, rivers in the Eastern U.S. flowed in horizontal directions, West to East, and reinforced the divisions between North and South. Later in American history, people made greater use of long, North to South rivers like the Mississippi that necessitated tying together different regions. Still another example, the Erie Canal led to New York City being the commercial heart of the United States.
While always keeping the thesis in mind, The Source, like nearly all river trips, is still full of surprising twists and turns. Doyle uses numerous surprising specific examples to reinforce the argument that rivers are at the heart of the evolution of American ideas.
The book, like river journeys, makes for a fun ride. Again, characters and anecdotes provide good reading and new insights. These characters range from towboat pilots on the Mississippi, one of whom compares the work of deckhands on barges to being in “prison with a chance of drowning” (46) to a rancher in eastern Oregon who is applying free-market principles to improve the efficiency of water use on his lands. The cases make clear how the big ideas play at ground, or make that, river level. And the anecdotes are fun. Most students of American literature will remember, for instance, that Mark Twain took his name from the terms used on steamboat for the depth of rivers. One fathom was called a mark and mark twain indicated two fathoms, a safe depth for passage (51). As another example with some local flavor, Doyle makes the case that Monsanto was a more responsible company than most by burying its toxic waste in the 1940s rather than dumping it into the Mississippi River (195). Doyle sheds new light on famous cases such as the burning of the Cuyahoga River in 1969. Even though I have mentioned this case in my lecture on water pollution many times, I did not realize that the river had burned numerous times before, contributed to the growth of the League of Women Voters, and gained salience when it covered in the same issue of Time magazine as the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts from the moon and the infamous Ted Kennedy scandal at Chappaquiddick (201).
Similarly, I have discussed the snail darter vs. Tellico Dam case in my classes many times but I learned new things about the case in Doyle’s treatment. To refresh the reader’s memory, the discovery of an endangered species, the snail darter, led to the Supreme Court aborting a major Tennessee Valley Authority dam project even though it was near completion. The case was reviewed by an ad hoc government committee called the God Squad who also decided against the dam. Until now I did not realize that when the God Squad reviewed the case, it was one of two simultaneous controversies and they overruled concerns about endangered species in the other case. Ultimately, Congress exempted the Tellico Dam from Endangered Species Act protections, the result being a dam that provided few benefits but flooded rural areas the TVA was supposed to help. In Doyle’s words, “farms were sacrificed for industrial developments that never materialized” (253).
The book, like river journeys, makes for a fun ride. Again, characters and anecdotes provide good reading and new insights. These characters range from towboat pilots on the Mississippi, one of whom compares the work of deckhands on barges to being in “prison with a chance of drowning” to a rancher in eastern Oregon who is applying free-market principles to improve the efficiency of water use on his lands.
River trips area always thought-provoking as well as fun, whether when just floating between rapids or even with the memories after the take-out at the end. The Source too leaves the reader with a great deal to think about. The book covers the basics anyone would expect from a discussion of river usage such as the role of the Army Corps of Engineers, the channelization of waterways, and the impacts of levees on flood control. But Doyle, to his credit, makes us all think deeper about how these developments affected river ecosystems. Many scholars have written on channelization, but Doyle provides a fascinating summary of how scientific views of river morphology have changed over time. Few people realize the extent to which scientists and engineers have tried to alter the shape and flows of rivers over the last two centuries. And yet, as Doyle points out, the jury is still out as to the benefits. Floodplain development created a significant moral hazard when the government subsidized not only commercial building near waterways but also low-cost insurance for people who live on floodplains. As Doyle states in his discussion of the seminal Galloway Report on the massive 1993 Missouri River floods, only twenty percent of flooded properties had insurance and over a third of those polices were purchased within a few days of the flooding since only a five-day waiting period was required. Thus, people living along the rivers simply watched the flood forecasts and then, within a week of peak flooding, purchased insurance and received full coverage (96).
Other topics common to any serious analysis of American rivers are also discussed in insightful ways. Several examples suggest the breadth of the work. Water wars have become prominent particularly in the western states because “water in the West is a zero-sum game” (118). Sewage treatment was as important to the New Deal as many of the more famous programs such as job creation (193). The “enormous blind spot” in the Clean Water Act is nonpoint source pollution (203). The chapter on hydropower provides a compelling account of how the use of rivers for energy drove ideas regarding regulation in the U.S. In short, regulation was necessary to not allow monopolies on whole rivers. Specifically, grist mills became America’s first public utility because they had potential monopolies on essential public services and therefore authorities were compelled to set their rates (223). These are all aspects of river use with which many are familiar but they are discussed here in new and creative ways.
I was particularly intrigued by the final chapter wherein Doyle completes his history of river engineering by focusing on recent efforts at what many call “restoration.” He uses river restoration efforts to discuss such prominent ideas as cap-and-trade policies and then applies that concept to rivers with the “no net loss” policy that prescribes swapping sections of developed waterways for comparable sections of restored waterways. While I still think my work on river restoration in Dam Politics may have provided some useful context, I also admit that Doyle found a very different take on river restoration by describing how this has become a business and the basis for a whole new economic sector. This account is insightful, and ultimately hopeful. His final anecdote about a rancher in eastern Oregon who restores rivers not least because it makes economic sense for his cattle business is brilliant.
Many scholars have written on channelization, but Doyle provides a fascinating summary of how scientific views of river morphology have changed over time. Few people realize the extent to which scientists and engineers have tried to alter the shape and flows of rivers over the last two centuries. And yet, as Doyle points out, the jury is still out as to the benefits.
After a river trip is over, one cannot help but think about what the traveler might have done differently. The same is true for this book. I offer these comments mainly to warn the reader that they may not see everything they want in this book. To some extent, this is inevitable when an author attempts to provide an account of the role of rivers in the entire history of American life. This is an ambitious goal and a single book can only do so much. But if someone wants to redo a river journey, or if Doyle wants to pursue a second edition, they may want to consider some revisions.
The first revision I suggest Doyle consider is to be thorough in using all the available and recent insights that might be relevant. Again, he is attempting to weave together history, economics, policy analysis, geology, and engineering. No single author can be expert in all fields. Still, some additions would be helpful. As mentioned, for instance, his discussion of channelization is compelling, but when I read the line that “channelization worked. It reduced the severity and duration of floods locally” (272), I wish the author had consulted Washington University’s own Professor Bob Criss whose work shows that deeper channels can, in fact, increase the risks of more dangerous flooding. The discussion of the reversal of the Chicago River is overly positive in parts and would have benefitted from the tremendous recent book titled The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan. Doyle’s accounts of resolution of conflicts over water rights do not use the analyses of political scientists like Mark Lubell and others. Finally, when discussing water wars in the American West, I am always amazed at any book that does not utilize Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert. Having said that, even a cursory perusal of the sources mentioned in the endnotes reflect a scholar who does an impressive job of utilizing sources from a wide variety of disciplines. By the way, do not expect to find the names of those other scholars in the Index as it is addressed at substance but not citations.
A second possible revision is related. In attempting to do such a thorough historical account, Doyle tends to end his chapters and his discussions of some cases when updates could be both relevant and intriguing. For instance, his discussion of water sanitation ends without reference to the toilet-to-tap systems that are likely to be a big part of our future in drinking water supply. As another example, his account of Colorado River controversies should include a discussion of the adaptive management program in use today to manage the Glen Canyon Dam that I describe fully in Dam Politics.
I was particularly intrigued by the final chapter wherein Doyle completes his history of river engineering by focusing on recent efforts at what many call “restoration.” He uses river restoration efforts to discuss such prominent ideas as cap-and-trade policies and then applies that concept to rivers with the “no net loss” policy that prescribes swapping sections of developed waterways for comparable sections of restored waterways.
A third possible revision is to be careful to not overstate the results. Doyle accomplishes a lot in this book but does, in some places, tout those accomplishments too strongly. As an example, on page 161, he writes that “The whole economic history of the United States is the saga of negotiating the fiscal roles and responsibilities of the different levels of government in providing the most basic of services for their citizens—the water supply and sewer systems.”
The supply of clean water is compellingly described as being incredibly important to American economic history but it is obviously not the only important issue.
I do not mean for these final comments to diminish at all the attributes of this fine book. Reading it is enjoyable, illuminating and thought-provoking, ultimately in many ways like taking a good river trip.