Book Review: "River Republic" by Daniel McCool

 

Daniel McCool begins each chapter of River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers with a verse from the 19th century romantic poet William Cullen Bryant’s hymn to nature, “Green River.” If McCool’s book is his own hymn to America’s rivers, history and environmental policy are among his poetic devices.

McCool, who serves as the director of the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program at the University of Utah, describes a movement that has emerged in the past twenty years among grassroots river organizations to challenge the status quo of water policy. 

McCool’s writing is fluid and illustrative, incorporating poetry and music at times, which makes it a particularly enjoyable read. His personal narratives also supplement the secondary research of the book, reminding us what we each have at stake in protecting our rivers. 

McCool evokes a hopeful tone for the future of America’s scenic rivers by chronicling this “new era in national water policy,” wherein citizens and activists are collaborating to challenge federal and state agencies, thereby democratizing their rivers for public use. For example, he highlights a recent trend among watershed groups, who are publishing report cards on water quality and infrastructure. GRN championed this movement back in 2009, when we released our own report, entitled “Clean Up Your Act!,” which evaluated the deficient extent to which Gulf states are enforcing the Clean Water Act. The Gulf States’ average grade of a D+ spoke volumes about the lack of federal sanctioning to protect our waters and public health. 

Central to McCool’s narrative is the history of the Army Corps of Engineers. Dating back to the days of the Louisiana Purchase, the Army Corps was set to work to build coastal forts and harbors to protect the US’s rapidly expanding borders. Army Corps projects became a form of political currency that legislators used to get reelected. Because the Corps received bipartisan support, they expanded their work to build massive dams, levees, and channels. McCool is quick to point out that agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation were founded upon missions that are now entirely antiquated. Moreover, they have been practicing varying forms of what McCool calls “water hubris” for the past century through infrastructural development and environmental mitigation with no thought for ecological loss. This fatal flaw essentially comes down to the misguided notion that human works and engineering marvels are more important than the natural world. As the Corps began to reform in the 1970s through regulation like the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), they started to temper a tenuous balance between mitigation and effective environmental restoration. 

Groundbreaking ceremony for the Mississippi River
Gulf Outlet. Photo courtesy of the MRGO Must Go
Coalition.

McCool devotes an entire chapter of his book to the subject of coastal land loss in Louisiana, which of course is central to our work at GRN. While he provides a comprehensive explanation of the negative impact of the leveeing of the Mississippi River on sediment build-up in the Louisiana Delta, he understates the role of the oil and gas industry in the calamity that journalist Bob Marshall has called “losing Louisiana.” Instead, he analyzes the long-standing tension between our dependence on levees for flood control and the land loss that they induce. Although McCool does stress the massive erosion, saltwater intrusion, and increased vulnerability to hurricanes that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) caused, his treatment of land loss emphasizes the fallout of leveeing the Mississippi. This focus makes sense in the context of the book’s overarching narrative but neglects to underscore the grave responsibility of the oil and gas industry in the Louisiana coastal crisis. 

In the face of myriad obstacles, McCool does offer us several insightful solutions for the future of American rivers. On a policy level, he suggests that we start to compare the number of river miles that are allocated to extractive industry with the number dedicated to fish and wildlife in order to establish sensible economic outcomes for river use. McCool also reveals a larger pattern throughout our history of managing rivers, which is a structural tendency to build “human-made disasters in waiting.” The examples that he uses to illustrate this pattern of unsustainability – coal, oil-shale development, the Dead Zone, and the BP disaster – resonate deeply with us in the Gulf South. Unfortunately, all too often state and federal policy lack the foresight to prevent these problems, which creates the disconnect between water policy and water needs that McCool elucidates in his book.

On a broader level, McCool carves out a collective visioning for what his utopian “River Republic” would look like. With a collaborative and inclusive bottom-up approach, this vision has the potential to engage with citizens who are most impacted by environmental policy.  McCool’s chronicle of water policy and river democratization is a refreshing perspective on the fight for healthy water that GRN has been waging for two decades, and inspiring for anyone looking to join the fight.

Sarah Holtz is GRN’s Development Associate.

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