Water Wrongs

William Least Heat-Moon tests the current state of America's rivers

Never pedantic and often passionate, William Least Heat-Moon delicately weaves brief but detailed examinations of the major problems confronting America's waterways into River-Horse's narrative -- like the colored threads in U.S. currency, they aren't meant to attract undue notice but are among the distinguishing characteristics that give the book its value.

In St. Louis, of course, the record floods of 1993 and '95 brought forcefully home one of the key issues with which Heat-Moon deals: the channelization of rivers through the building of levees and the dredging and straightening of river courses. "I think nationally, and specifically in Missouri, we've come a long, long way toward understanding channelizing rivers," Heat-Moon says. "We're not there yet, but we're beginning to understand that in our case -- and this is true of other rivers, too, but let me use it as a case in point -- the Missouri River above all things is going to answer to natural law. We simply are not big enough or smart enough or powerful enough to control natural law to the degree that we might like to. There's only so much we can do, and then we take it right in the jaw. The Missouri will behave as the Missouri must behave.

"The thing for us to do that makes sense, and certainly eventually will save not only lives and property but save all taxpayers a whole lot of money, is to have the human aspects of the riverine system in concord with nature. We're beginning to take down some of the levees here and there on the Missouri so that it can spread out a bit, but it still doesn't have the room it needs. It's a fascinating thing, and a real education for anybody, to go up the river here just a few miles and see New Haven, Mo. It sits right down there -- it seems almost level with the river -- but they never needed a floodwall until other people started putting up floodwalls. One man puts up a floodwall, then somebody else is probably going to have to put up one, and if he makes it higher, then the other guy must make it higher. So now what happens is, you get water coming up to the foot of the Arch in St. Louis. That's not a freak of nature -- that's a freak of man."

Heat-Moon points the finger of blame at commercial interests: developers who profit from the wetlands "reclaimed" through levee-raising; barge companies that benefit from channelization. "I think anytime you manage a natural resource primarily to the benefit of one (interest), you're going to have tremendous loss," he says. "That's what happens with the lower Missouri, from Sioux City, Iowa, down. It's managed as a barge channel, even though there's almost no barge traffic on it -- it's negligible. On the Mississippi there's more traffic, and certainly below the Ohio it's so big that their managing it for a channel still leaves some room for other things -- much more so than on the lower Missouri. But I don't think there's any way you can manage a river for barge traffic without having incredible environmental loss: loss of species, loss of diversity of all sorts of life-forms.

"On the Ohio and the Mississippi, there are certainly a lot of things getting moved, a lot of tonnage getting moved. Whether it's economical or not, I don't know, but it certainly costs U.S. taxpayers a whole lot of money, I think. I believe I say in the book that there's no end of the transportation industry that is so subsidized as is the barge business. What we essentially do is lay down the equivalent to highways or rails, and they pay virtually nothing to use this very expensive platform to move their goods on."

Heat-Moon acknowledges some incremental progress on other fronts, including the demolition of problematic dams, which often wreak havoc on the ecosystem: "Since we made this trip, one dam has come down in Maine. There are a couple more -- I believe it's a series of four -- that I just recently heard about that are going to come down in California. And now there's serious talk about taking down those four new and huge dams on the lower Snake River, which I mention in the book. These are some of the newest dams, with massively big locks. We're starting now to do something about those, because those dams virtually destroyed the run of salmon."

The reduction of water pollution is progressing with similar slowness, like a badly injured patient taking small, painful steps in rehab. The legislation of the 1970s has produced "incredible improvements in American waters" in Heat-Moon's estimation, but a relapse is always possible: "The very year we started out," he says, "in April '95, right-wing extremists in Congress were attempting to undo the Clean Water Act. It didn't happen because Americans wouldn't buy into that Contract with America and Newt Gingrich, but at the time it looked bad." And Heat-Moon emphasizes that however real the gains, much work remains undone: "We're better, it seems to me, than we were in, say, 1950, when I was a boy, but we've still got a long way to go. We've gotten rid of a lot of the easy things. The point-source pollution I think we're doing very well on, thanks to the Clean Water Act. But non-point-source pollution -- the pollution that's running off from farm fields or parking lots -- those things are harder to solve. We really have to get agriculture trying to realize the importance of our waters."

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