Book Review: America’s Long Struggle to Tame Its Greatest Rivers

By Lina Tran, a science writer from the Alabama coast who is based in Washington, D.C. Originally published at Undark.

Journalist Tyler J. Kelley’s debut book, “Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways,” was born of a rescue. Kelley and a friend were moseying down the Ohio River in a small boat when their motor went kaput downstream of Lock and Dam No. 53, once the country’s second busiest. A worker spotted the pair and towed them back toward the dam, which rises from the river to form a roaring curtain of whitewater. There, Kelley met the lockmaster and his mechanics, who repaired their motor and refueled their tank before sending them off. “I had glimpsed a world, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Kelley writes.

The product of Kelley’s fixation is a spirited tour of America’s great rivers — the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio — and the structures built to tame them. It’s a rigorously researched and empathetic account of those whose lives and work are linked to the rivers. Myriad farms, cities, and industries depend on them. Annually, $220 billion dollars’ worth of goods flow through the nation’s waterways. But they are sorely underfunded and outdated. The American Society of Civil Engineers rated U.S. waterways a “D” across the board.

As climate change raises the pressure and politicians lament our “crumbling infrastructure,” Kelley sounds the alarm. “A long line of American leaders from both parties has lacked the will, power, or imagination to build what the country needs,” he writes. Kelley explores how we got here, and why it’s time to rethink the relationship with our rivers.

In dry seasons, most of America’s rivers would naturally slow to a trickle. This plagued Lewis and Clark’s westerly expedition, which frequently stopped to shoulder their boats across the so-called riffles. Early on, they recognized a river’s quirks were incompatible with the country’s burgeoning commerce. In the 1820s, Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to improve navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi, which kicked off the ubiquity of dams, and later that century, they assumed flood control duty. The Corps has since been tasked with managing droughts, river wildlife, the sediment that rushes through the river — all, Kelley says, “events once written off as acts of God.”

Dams block the flow of water, creating a pool deep enough for boats; locks work like water elevators that shuttle boats from pool to pool. Together, they enable the steady transport of goods. Not so reliable when the nation’s busiest, shabbiest dams — No. 52 and 53 — had been waiting to be scuttled since 2001, when a state-of-the-art dam was supposed to replace them. (This would not happen until 2018.) We meet the stressed workers operating irascible, hole-ridden locks. The impacts of delays are dire. Up to 60 percent of U.S. farm exports ride the waterways. One boat’s delayed grain shipment means chickens at the poultry plant downstream go hungry.

Levees stand high on the riverbank, running parallel to the river to contain water and keep land dry. Kelley visits the southeastern corner of Missouri, home to the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. We meet those who farm the rich floodplains, and those who live in the small Black community Pinhook. (When the village was established in the 1940s, the Black farmers weren’t permitted to buy land on high ground.) In 2011, unprecedented rainfall and warm temperatures forced the Corps to make an impossible, still-contentious decision. They blew a levee and flooded the plain — the first time they’d done so since 1937 — in order to relieve pressure on the Mississippi. The blast released the equivalent of four Niagara Falls upon homes and land.

In the final chapter, Kelley turns his attention to sediment. Thousands of dams were erected in the first half of the 20th century, and most were not designed to manage the silt and sand that rivers funnel through the continent. In South Dakota, backed-up river silt has converted farmland to bog, while in Louisiana, excess earth has transformed cypress swamps into oak forests. Dams on the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers have slashed the Mississippi’s supply of land-building sediment. That, combined with erosion and sea level rise, is erasing Louisiana’s coast.

Climate change stresses these aging systems. As more rain pours into the rivers, Kelley says we “will need more floodways, not fewer, operated more often, not less.”

Reading Kelley, one gets the sinking feeling that the solutions are fraught. Despite the heartache of the 2011 Missouri flood, he suggests it was for the greater good. One person’s flood is another’s relief: The flood reduced risk of levee failures and damage to dozens of towns elsewhere. That said, Kelley notes, what follows these events is hardly justifiable. He references sociologist Junia Howell, who found after disasters like the Birds Point-New Madrid flood, relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency drives inequity. Designed to restore property rather than rebuild communities, FEMA “rewards wealthy more than poor, White more than Black,” Kelley writes.

Like many great books that usher readers into a new world, “Holding Back the River” opens with maps. I found myself flipping to them constantly, tracing winding branches to find where rivers meet, how what happens upstream impacts others downriver. Kelley excels at tracking such connections and competing interests. He lets his sources argue on the page. There is, for example, the oysterman in Plaquemines Parish who worries he will lose his livelihood to the torrent of freshwater that the head planner at Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority says is necessary to build new land and keep the state from sliding off the continent.

Following the footsteps of John McPhee, Kelley explores dogged attempts to control nature. Unforeseen consequences abound because rivers are live entities. Alter its flow, and a river will respond — though it might take humans time to notice. But the rivers are not vengeful. “Rage doesn’t come naturally to a river,” Kelley writes. Destruction ensues when our systems fail. In defiance of nature, we’ve created the conditions for disastrous flooding by settling the floodplains, then neglecting the structures that shield them.

The solutions that most interest Kelley would have the U.S. cede to the rivers. He admires passive flood control, such as the Sacramento River’s, where floods are more frequent and much gentler. He looks to the Dutch, who live below sea level with the world’s best flood defenses and who, after Hurricane Katrina, realized their coastlines weren’t equipped for the storms and seas of the future. The Dutch have since reimagined their strategy. They won public support, raised taxes, and retreated, displacing homes and businesses to give the rivers more room.

Built into the very foundation of our infrastructure, Kelley writes, is “a set of values, and a set of assumptions about the economy and the climate.” The question is, given the funds — Congress is currently negotiating Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan — shall we rebuild and return to those values or seize the opportunity to redefine those of the future? Russell Beauvais, operations manager at the Mississippi’s Old River Control Complex spoke plainly of the current approach: “You’re really trying to fight Mother Nature. Who’s gon’ to win?” Maybe it’s time to call a truce.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Darius

    We know we have to work with nature, not dominate it. Yet nothing happens. Western cultural imperatives and protection of property are ironclad.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Unfortunately, the engineering mentality when applied to rivers tends to be to ‘fix’ the most apparent problem, rather than view watersheds holistically. A lot of flooding problems could be fixed by, for example, rewilding the upper stretches of catchments rather than building flood walls at enormous expense. Here in Ireland, they’ve found in some cases that simply blocking drains in upland blanket peat can have a very significant impact on downstream flows (both in terms of reducing flooding and maintaining a more constant year round flow) at an almost negligible cost compared to the alternatives.
    Just yesterday I passed the headwaters of the Liffey (the source of Dublin’s drinking water) where a project doing this was funded by, of all institutions, Intel. They are acutely interested in having a constant supply of clean water for one of their big FAB plants downstream.

    1. deplorado

      “‘fix’ the most apparent problem, rather than view watersheds holistically”
      Well said!

      So much can be improved if we had a governance, business, engineering. and even personal culture of looking at things systemically. Alas…

  3. The Rev Kev

    This article mentions Lewis and Clark’s westerly expedition but some historian mentioned that if you wanted to follow their journeys down the rivers, that some of it you would be walking on solid ground because the rivers have shifted over the years. The Mississippi River is the same and in one of his books, Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, was called to the bridge of a riverboat to witness the remains of a town that the river was destroying because it had shifted its course and was now sweeping the town into the river itself. Rivers are dynamic systems and trying to damn them up with dams and concrete barriers can bring up unexpected consequences so as PK mentions above, an engineering solution is not always the best one.

  4. tennesseewaltzer

    For an interesting river journey from New York Harbor to the Columbia River, William Least Heat-Moon, of “Blue Highways” fame, describes our waterways in “River-Horse: Across America by Boat.” The trip started in April of 1995 and ended many months later. His lyrical writing gives a different dimension to the issues raised in this article.

    1. Rainlover

      I highly recommend this book as well. After I read it, I felt like I had been there myself. Least Heat-Moon is a master of poetic prose.

  5. John Emerson

    An aside on the Mississippi – Ohio – Missouri River system: that’s where jazz came from, originating in the Siuthbut immediately moving north. That’s why unexpected places like Cincinnati, Ohio, Davenport, Iowa and Bismarck ND have a place in jazz history.

  6. John Emerson

    Mark Twain is generally known as a Mississippi River author, but Herman Melville’s “The Confidence Man”, which takes place on a Mississippi River riverboat, is as good a book as has ever been written about America’s fraudulent optimism. The title of this book is one of the first recorded uses of the phrase “confidence man”, and perhaps the first.

    And William Burroughs and TS Eliot were also Mississippi River authors.

  7. juno mas

    Great post! Haven’t read the book, but it’s on my list.

    As, RK says, rivers are dynamic systems. They follow the rules of Physics. As I’ve mentioned many times, here. Read “A view of the River” by Luna Leopold to get a better understanding of what those “dynamics” entail. You will be amazed.

    An example of river dynamics is the function of sediment in the river/stream water column. As the energy of flowing river water accumulates sediment, that sediment (silt,sand,pebbles, rocks) consumes the force/energy of the watercourse. Dissipating energy is also the function of the floodplain; it decreases water depth and velocity (energy).

    Sediment doesn’t flow along a river course evenly/smoothly. It moves in pulses, depending on the water force (energy) at any point instream. Therefore, there will never be enough sediment arriving at the Gulf from the Mississippi River to recreate enough shore lands in Louisiana to overcome sea level rise. RETREAT!

  8. Laura in So Cal

    Anyone interested in the history of floods in the US should read John M. Barry’s “Rising Tide” which is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. It isn’t just about river management but also about the southern culture of the time. I read this a few years ago and found it fascinating as this stuff wasn’t covered in any of my history classes in school at all.

  9. Phil in KC

    I’ve spent many an hour tracking my hometown river, the Missouri, from Fort Osage to the Missouri/Iowa border. The way I imagine how the river would have looked to Lewis and Clark is to imagine a much larger version of the Kansas River (which is not navigable and hence is not subject to the exacting efforts of the Corps). There are braided channels, and sandbars and shifting islands and here and there a sandy beach with all sort of swarmy insects. Eagles and herons loft in the sky while deer and coyotes emerges from the poplars and cottonwoods lining the bank to sip from the edge of the river. It would have been lovely to have kept the river as it was, but that was not possible given the tide of enterprise overtaking the frontier.

    George Caleb Bingham’s paintings give an interesting view of the untrammeled rivers and the men who plied them before they were tamed.

  10. Harold

    I second Laura in So Cal’s recommendation of John Barry’s Rising Tide about the great flood of 1927, one of the books that made the greatest impact on me in my life. By coincidence, I was reading it during Hurricane Katrina, which gave it an uncanny emotional resonance. Barry recounts how the army corps of engineers built the levees, because cheaper in the short run, ignoring the advice of experts who called levees totally inadequate to the flooding problem; how the Italian government at the turn of the 20th century posted notices on train stations in Italy warning emigrants not to go to Mississippi because of the debt peonage there, considered tantamount to slavery by the Italian government and the Catholic church. There was the malign influence of Mississippi’s Percy family, who did much to educate the black population of Greenville, but who then kept black citizens (including middle class professionals) prisoners for months on the levees to do forced labor after they had been rescued from the flood waters, while allowing the whites to leave on Riverboats with bands playing “Bye-bye, Blackbird.” It was the federal response under Republican president Herbert Hoover to the 1927 flood that caused the black voting population to switch en masse from Republican to Democrat and vote in FDR. Hoover, the former head of the Red Cross had insisted on stricken farmers paying back the costs to the government of their rescue from the flood waters. Black farm workers huddled in back rooms listening to someone reading read aloud the forbidden newspaper, The Chicago Defender, which urged them to flee to northern cities, thus starting the Great Migration — the largest internal migration in world history. This was truly a pivotal event in our history.
    I also think that Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” ought to be a permanent part of the American high school literary canon.
    And speaking of the influence of rivers on American music, Kansas City, on the Missouri River (one of the world’s longest and sometimes considered a tributary of the Mississippi) is where the Jump Blues originated, the progenitor of Rock and Roll:

    1. John Emerson

      There’s good reason to consider the Mississippi a tributary of the Missouri, which is longer and which is the larger when they meet.

  11. scott s.

    Cover story for the 14 May edition of the journal “Science” is entitled “River Dance — Why rivers leap from their channels in deadly avulsions” The cover illustration is a 1944 map of the history of the Mississippi in the area of the confluence of the Red and Atchafalaya River systems. This is where the present Old River Control Structure keeps the Mississippi from changing its course into the Atchafalaya basin.

    1. juno mas

      The natural banks of a river are created by the 2 yr., bank-full, storm event. The full channel of a river footprint includes the natural floodplain. That is why the unnatural banks of a levy-system eventually fail; and simply transmit flood impacts further downstream.

    2. freebird

      Those maps often just called “the Fisk maps” were a masterpiece of cartography and a leap forward in science (it was not well understood how much rivers could shift before then), strangely enough caused by our war machine wanting to assess and defend our major artery in case the Axis powers decided to strike.

      I love them and admire Fisk’s leadership but have to remind folks that Fisk did not make them alone, there were battalions of field workers and cartographers who slogged thru swamps, drilled innumerable strat holes, and compiled the data into meaningful maps.

  12. Mikel

    But Mars will be much more controllable. With a grift, grift here and a grift, grift there….

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