Nation needs a fresh view of its rivers

By Mark Davis, Special to Viewpoint, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee
11 August 2011

"But the basin of the Mississippi is the BODY OF THE NATION."

— Mark Twain, "Life on the Mississippi"

For several months this spring the Mississippi and Missouri rivers flexed their muscles and reminded us of their power. The images of the Mississippi and Missouri running high and strong brought at least momentary attention to those rivers and helped put normally obscure names like Morganza, Bonnet Carre and Birds Point into the headlines as focal points of the flood fight of 2011. Though the waters and the potential for greater catastrophe may have receded, we cannot afford to forget how close we came to disaster or to be complacent about how we manage our nation’s rivers.

It is scarcely possible for most Americans today to comprehend the role that rivers played in building our cities, the development of our industries, the movement of goods, and the provision of cheap, reliable power. Similarly off the radar is how rivers — rivers like the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Colorado, the Columbia, the Sacramento and the Hudson — sculpted the landscape, creating the flood plains, canyons, estuaries and deltas that underpin much of our nation’s natural bounty.

It has not always been that way. Not so long ago rivers and river management dominated much of America’s public works and natural resource management agenda. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, flood control levees and navigational improvements were state and federal priorities bordering on obsession. The need for dependable water supplies and electric power added additional demands in the last century. The result was an awe-inspiring commitment of public will in the form of programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Mississippi River and Tributaries Authority, and the Boulder Canyon Project and the Colorado River Compact. It was the legacy of that era of bold works that was tested on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers this year.

By and large the flood management system worked as it was supposed to, for which we should be thankful, but the simple fact is that this year’s floods revealed as much about the limits of our current approach to river management as they measured its success. The system of reservoirs, dams, levees and diversions was designed for a different time and for a far narrower set of values and uses than should be the case today. No one should call a flood protection system a success that protects against occasional river flooding but that ensures the permanent flooding of thousands of square miles of land. But that is precisely what is happening in the lower delta of the Mississippi River due in large measure to levees that have divorced Louisiana’s vast coastal wetland plain from the river that built it, resulting in the inundation of roughly 2 million acres of land since 1900. And no one can seriously claim that rivers play the same role in commercial transportation as was envisioned when the management objectives of the Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee rivers were set years ago. Times change and our understanding and approach to managing rivers needs to change with them.

We urgently need a fresh appreciation of the nature and value of our nation’s rivers. The days when we could view them in narrow utilitarian terms or as adversaries to be tamed are long gone. Similarly, we need to recognize that we are entering a new era in which water will play a decisive role in energy development and regional water supply. This will necessitate revisiting the wide array of state and federal laws that currently govern water management.

Finally, as we enter this new era we need to develop a "water ethic" akin to ecologist Aldo Leopold’s landmark land ethic of an earlier generation to guide our understanding and uses of water in general and rivers in particular. These things won’t make conflicts over water go away, but they will help to ensure that we resolve conflicts wisely and that we do not sacrifice long-term sustainability at the altar of short-term expedience.

America’s rivers are on the brink. The question is: On the brink of what? On one hand is the possibility that we will stand pat with a system of levees, dams and dredging that is not sustainable economically, ecologically or culturally.

On the other hand is the possibility that we wake up to the fact that we can be served well by our rivers and water resources only if we serve them better and treat them as things with intrinsic, comprehensive value. This choice will require a significant investment of financial and political capital assets, and yes, it will demand governmental action. But this is not a choice between big government and small government, but rather about choosing good stewardship and good public service.

In a rational world this would unquestionably be the course we take, but the tone of recent political debate and the uninspiring responses to the floods of 2011 and the ongoing collapse of the Mississippi River’s delta in southern Louisiana, the Everglades and other river-driven treasures suggests that we can take nothing for granted.

When it comes to America’s rivers we have to do better and we need to start now. After all, it is only the body of the nation that is at stake.

Mark Davis is senior research fellow and director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He also is a board member of America’s WETLAND Foundation.

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