The purpose of rivers

The century just ended will be recognized as the time when America’s water resources were attacked with all of the sophistication and power that one would expect of an economic and technological superpower. Unruly rivers were straightened and channelized , massive levees and dikes were thrown in the way of encroaching water, cheap electricity was wrung from falling water, harbors were carved from shallow inlets, locks and dams turned wild rivers into barge canals, salmon were butchered in turbines on their way down rivers – and are proving inconveniently resistant to lessons to teach them to climb ladders on their return journey , wetlands were drained to grow crops we probably did not need, and yes the “desert was made to bloom as the rose.” The nation grew rich as a few well-situated entrepreneurs prospered. The rivers were to foster commerce, and federal water policy was the single-minded pursuit of that goal with the nation’s taxpayers putting up the money.

Was this history a mistake? Of course not. To insist otherwise would be Whigish. Young nations have different needs from mature ones, and America is, alas like some of us, no longer young. Now it is time to re-direct the purpose of the rivers. Dams and dynamite now conjure a very different image than in the early years of the century. But what dynamite helped to create, dynamite can help to undo. Is this transition in water policy fair to those whose lives and livelihood are inextricably bound up with the shifting purpose of the rivers? There is no easy answer to that. A civilized nation cushions the inevitable transitions for those caught in the vise of shifting priorities and purposes. Perhaps Water War II will concern the nature and scope of policies to alleviate the social and economic harm of the new purpose of the rivers. How will the Axis and the Allies align themselves this time? (emphasis added)

Bromley, Daniel W. “Program evaluation and the purpose of rivers.” Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education 116, no. 1 (2011): 3. (pdf)

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