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.

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