By Daniel McCool
Columbia University Press, 2012
Reviewed by Hal Crimmel
Since 1986, when Marc Reisner published Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, no book about American rivers has come close in stature to Reisner’s now classic account. Enter Daniel McCool’s latest book, River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers, which may well be the most important book published on rivers in the last 25 years. McCool, a professor of political science, delivers a tightly researched, witty, and inspirational story of everyday citizens who have worked against all odds to restore local rivers for the enjoyment of all—not just for industry and agribusiness. Particularly noteworthy is McCool’s idea of instigators, people who are “typically average Americans” with a “passion for a river” and an ability to “get society to think in new ways” about the status quo: polluted streams, ineffective flood-control projects, or wasteful agricultural practices, to name but a few. As McCool notes, “Instigators from throughout history inspire us” and provide “confidence that an individual can make a significant contribution to humankind.
As readers learn about the work of these instigators, they too may be inspired to take action on behalf of rivers, but also, perhaps, more broadly, for the environment in general. McCool illustrates that citizen action leavened with a balanced approach to working with multiple stakeholder groups can result in a successful new water ethic: one that benefits people, the economy, and the environment. This ethic is exemplified in the idea of a “River Republic,” characterized by sustainable public use of waterways, from fast-flowing high country streams to the languid meanders of bayou country. By breaking the stranglehold of special interests—government agencies, water districts, deep-pocketed businesses—Americans can democratize their rivers and in so doing restore ecological health to them.
The book is divided into three sections, and the tension felt between advocates for river restoration versus those supporting the status quo provides the foundation for Part I, entitled “The Fall.” Beginning with first-hand accounts of the debates about river restoration across the country, readers learn how two major agencies responsible for many of the nation’s river problems—The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation—are defined by cultures that contribute to as many problems as they solve. They may well be “Oldsmobile agencies in a Prius age,” as McCool suggests. In Part II, “Dismemberment,” the focus shifts to the way agriculture, hydropower, barging, flood control, and pollution have “diminished the value of rivers as a whole and instead allocated them to narrow, extractive uses”. Part III, “Resurrection,” celebrates the potential rivers have to provide habitat for wildlife, recreation, and renewal for the human spirit while still contributing to the economy. Far from being a condemnation of society and its excesses, the book instead advocates not for a “wholesale rejection of the past, but a frank, objective analysis of what best serves society in the long run”, and that, as McCool notes, means becoming “partners with our rivers, not exploiters of them.”
By unpacking much of the rhetoric and questionable economic data that historically has been used to justify misuse of rivers, River Republic illustrates how reasonable it is to think of our rivers in new ways. From exposing flood control boondoggles on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, to pointing out artificially cheap water rates in the western states, to revealing lax water pollution laws, it’s clear that Americans (and their politicians) have spoiled rivers for short-term gains. At the same time, hopeful stories of dam removals on the Ventura River in Southern California or those on Maine’s Penobscot River, along with urban river restoration projects in Seattle, Cleveland, Richmond, Washington, D.C., or Boston illustrate the success of citizen-led river restoration initiatives. With its mix of first-person narration, interviews, economic data, long-term sustainability goals, government data, and innovative economic and political analysis, River Republic is no policy-wonk treatise; the book reflects the author’s own ironic sense of the preposterousness of much of the nation’s water policy. “Under the current system,” writes McCool, “the American people are paying via taxation for the destruction of their own rivers”. On the other side of the coin, it’s clear that Americans are also taking the initiative to reverse the damage, with over 37,000 river restoration projects to date in the United States, so many in fact, that the process has become “something of a cottage industry.”
Learning about our shameful treatment of rivers may leave the reader upset and perplexed. More likely, readers will leave feeling hopeful about the wave of river-related environmental consciousness sweeping America, and perhaps with a new faith in the human capacity to effect meaningful change and undo previous mistakes. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, McCool explains the process of change: “’First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’” Ultimately, the book suggests, each of us may be inspired to act on behalf of rivers for future generations.
Hal Crimmel is the author of Dinosaur: Four Seasons on the Green and Yampa Rivers, coeditor of Teaching About Place: Learning from the Land, and editor of Teaching in the Field: Working with Students in the Outdoor Classroom. His essays appear in Pacific Northwest Quarterly, American Whitewater, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, and ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, among others. He lives in northern Utah, where he directs the Master of Arts in English Program at Weber State University and teaches writing and literature—including field-based courses—in Montana, Colorado, and Utah.
Header photo by Simmons B. Buntin.