An unruly river

  • Book cover of "Unruly River"

 

In Rivers of Empire, historian Donald Worster argued that the West's dams and irrigation systems and hydroelectric facilities were imposed on the region by an all-powerful water elite. The elite built a hydraulic empire, which thwarts democracy and subjects most of us to a peasant existence.

Now comes historian Robert Kelley Schneiders with a different interpretation. In Unruly River: Two Centuries of Change Along the Missouri River, he argues that a water elite isn't to blame; we did it to ourselves. At least on the Missouri River, chambers of commerce, mayors, governors and farmers came together to convince the federal government to screw the river, the land and the Indian nations.

The irony, as this book shows in great detail, is that in the end the boosters screwed themselves. They did this because the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation did not understand the river. When the lower-basin states channelized the river, cut down all the trees in the floodplain and started farming to the edge of this fast-running, clear canal, they set in motion events that have spelled misery.

Without the floodplain, even the immense reservoirs in the upper basin couldn't prevent the floods that were to have become events of the past. More important, now that the silt that once made the river sluggish and dirty in appearance was trapped behind the upstream reservoirs, the river began to race, and eat into its channel.

As the channel deepened, the water table dropped, and the oxbow lakes that had provided the lower-basin states with recreation disappeared. Tributary streams that once flowed into the Missouri now fell down new waterfalls to reach the incising channel. The swiftly moving canal, of course, was itself no longer habitat for native species or for Sunday boaters.

A sinuous, chaotic river with a thick protective belt of forests and wetlands that were home to many wild creatures became a contained, channelized canal.

The upper basin was also denied the fruits of its crime. Its reservoirs have oceans of water, but the politically powerful lower-basin states have prevented that water from irrigating land on the Great Plains or carrying the region's immense amount of coal to the Midwest by slurry pipeline.

The most ironic quote in the book comes from South Dakota Gov. William Janklow, who says, "For the first time in my life, I honestly don't understand the selfishness and greed that comes from all sorts of people." Janklow is talking about a slurried coal project he wanted for South Dakota that was blocked by the lower basin.

It's a quote that could also have come from the Indian leaders whose nations' farms, ranches, homes and communities were drowned by dams Janklow and his upper-basin constituents and lower-basin allies caused to be built.

It's no doubt cold comfort to the innocent victims of what was called the Pick-Sloan Project that the project hasn't worked for anyone. The question now is whether the grassroots groups and individuals who Schneiders says drove Pick-Sloan forward can begin to undo what they and their predecessors did. And, another question: Can Janklow understand the full meaning of what he said?

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.