First let me say that I love just about anything having to do with water. I love driving over bodies of water, I love looking at dams, and perhaps my favorite place on earth is a marina just about anywhere. If you planned a trip with an itinerary consisting solely of visiting dams and marinas, I’d sign up in a heartbeat (and yes, I realize I’d most likely be traveling alone). All that to say, when I read a positive review on a book about America’s rivers and how they’ve been developed and utilized, I was all in.
Alas – and I know, this really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise – it was a fairly dry book (no irony intended). Parts were really interesting, but significant parts were a bit of a slog. And the author tended to spend a lot of time talking about sewers and waste removal and government policy instead of just rivers and waterways which is what ultimately interested me.
There were definitely some interesting facts. Did you know that because Chicago is situated on a large, flat plain that sewage disposal was a huge problem almost from the start? As the city grew in the 1800s they didn’t have any good way of getting rid of waste because there was no natural drainage. They utilized privy vaults – basically big holes in the ground – to store the waste. However, since the city grew by leaps and bounds and since in addition to human waste they had to deal with the runoff from the massive stockyards, the vaults were overwhelmed and the health of the city’s inhabitants suffered (not to mention the stench that was always present). In 1854, an outbreak of cholera killed six percent of the city’s population. Their solution entailed literally raising the city – raising many of the buildings (or razing them if they weren’t worth raising) and raising the streets to match – so that they could put in a sewer system that would drain away from the city. From the late 1850s through the 1860s, much of the center of the city was raised. The sewer system they installed, however, just emptied raw sewage into the Chicago River, which then emptied into Lake Michigan. This caused another problem as the city’s drinking water was pulled from the lake. The initial solution to this was to push the intakes for the drinking water farther out in to the lake to avoid the sewage. This eventually became untenable as the sewage kept seeping farther and farther into the lake. The final solution was to reverse the flow of the Chicago River (by building the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900 – which, according to another book I read about the Great Lakes, was ruinous to Lake Michigan) and send the sewage south instead of into the lake. You’d think that the cities south of Chicago would’ve objected to this, but the theory was that the natural ability of the river to clean itself meant the southern cities wouldn’t see any waste. This, as you might expect, had mixed results.
One other fun fact in the book. The Colorado River out west is a main source of water for seven states: Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah (known as the Upper Division); and Arizona, California, and Nevada (known as the Lower Division). It’s used for both drinking water and for agriculture. In the late 1800s and early 1900s as the population centers in those states grew, the states battled constantly for their share of the water. They finally drew up an agreement in 1922 called the Colorado River Compact that governed how much water each state would get. It established rights and priorities and actually set the number of acre-feet (amount of water needed to cover one acre of land in one foot of water) that had to be allowed to flow from the Upper Division into the Lower Division and then who had rights to what. This all worked great until late in the Twentieth Century and into today when there have been prolonged droughts in the area. What they have since realized – by studying the history of rainfall in the Colorado River Valley – is that the first few decades of the Twentieth Century – what was used to establish the baseline for water usage – was in fact the wettest period in the River’s history. So the acre-feet designations are largely untenable. The Compact, however, has never been adjusted. Hence all the issues with water out west that you read about now.
There were other interesting items like the fact that the Constitutional Convention was actually the culmination of a series of meetings first called by George Washington to discuss the building of canals across multiple colonies, the sheer number of dams constructed during the dam-building spree that was launched under the New Deal and then continued by the Army Corps of Engineers, how much of what we’ve done to control flooding along the Mississippi and the Ohio actually makes things worse, and how the federal government (and this is no surprise) getting involved in emergency management and relief has taken away much of the incentive to prevent/avoid flood damage (the floods of today aren’t worse than the floods of the past, there’s just so much more property that gets damaged today).
Recommendation? You’d have to be pretty hardcore to want to read this book. I didn’t really have any trouble finishing it, but I honestly can’t think of anyone I know who’d want to read it. Good stuff in parts, but not worth spending the time to digest the whole. Just appreciate the rivers that are in your area and admire the ones you see in your travels and I think you’ll be just fine.