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
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.