Water Wrongs

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

Mar 8, 2000 at 4:00 am
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."

Such environmental awareness is necessary not just in farming but also in ranching. "We have this romantic view of the rancher as the cowboy out there," Heat-Moon says, "and in some cases that's true, but in many, many cases it's not true. To take a local illustration here, Anheuser-Busch controls through leases a great many of the lands in the West. Hewlett-Packard, as I mention in the book, has a lot of acres out there. We can keep going, and you get into foreign corporations: The Japanese and Canadians control a lot of American leases. When they're grazing public land, that means that the American taxpayer is underwriting these corporations to graze cattle, because the lease fee in no way returns what it costs us as people, as a government, to protect those lands. In places it's just utterly outrageous: to get into a wilderness area and find, as happened several times, we couldn't take a step without trying to step over cowpie. Now in what way cattle qualifies as a wild creature is well beyond my ability to comprehend. So we really have to do something about this archaic grazing act. It's a 19th-century law that probably made some sense 100 years ago; it makes no sense now. It's destructive, it costs all of us money, and it's degrading our waters and our lands, it's polluting our health."

Another remnant of the 19th century -- the 1872 Mining Law -- causes similar problems. Heat-Moon provides a disturbing example: "There's a whole mountain face near Lewiston, Mont., not too far from the upper Missouri, that I first remember seeing in the early '90s -- the face of the mountain was there. When I saw it in '95 on this trip, half the face of that mountain was gone, and it really shows up. It comes up out of the ground like Mount Rushmore -- there's this plain and then there's the face of the mountain. It's gone. And who took it down? Canadians. It's a goldmine. And what process did they use to try to leach the gold, it's in such low quantities? Cyanide. So we lose the face of a mountain -- and when you lose granite, you've lost granite forever. You don't restore that. This is not like a coal strip mine where you can go in and contour the hills again. It's gone -- it's that way until humankind disappears from the face of the earth. The best we can do is go out there and try to chisel faces in it. And the cyanide remains there to run off into groundwater and other things. It's just a horrifying thing to think again that American taxpayers are not getting the proper return for this. Not only do we lose the mountain, not only do we add these poisons to our groundwater, we also are underwriting these companies to do this."

Heat-Moon continues his angry recitation: "Bad timber practices -- not only clear-cutting but other things -- throw incredible siltation into the rivers. Again, the American taxpayers are underwriting that when it happens on U.S. Forest Service land rather than private lands. A whole lot of that timber is going overseas. Japanese hot tubs are being made out of West Coast redwood and cedar. Pulp is going to make Japanese newspapers. That's fine, but let's make the Japanese pay fair market price for what they're taking. There's no reason that somebody who works in Fenton in the Chrysler plant should be paying a Japanese citizen to read a paper cheaply. If he wants to read that paper in Tokyo, fine -- then we should get fair return here, and that includes restoration of these lands that we undo when we clear-cut."

As his boat, Nikawa, made its way across America, the cumulative impact of all these factors was evident on many fronts -- the plastic detritus floating in the Ohio and clogging its banks, the unnaturally high water on the Mississippi, the siltation accumulating near the dams of the Missouri -- but Heat-Moon notes that he was especially distressed by the near-absence of fauna on the voyage: "Our great shock and disappointment of the entire trip was how little wildlife we saw compared to the number that we thought we were going to see, particularly after having read so many 19th-century accounts. And I'm not talking about millions of buffalo -- we knew we weren't going to see bison, but we did think that we would see some big, big masses of birds, and we didn't. If they were there, we weren't seeing them; for over four months we just weren't seeing them."

Part of Heat-Moon's purpose in undertaking the River-Horse voyage was to call attention to not only the continuing degradation of but also the general disinterest in the country's rivers. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly to natives, he judges St. Louis with kindness in this regard: "I give St. Louis credit," says Heat-Moon, "particularly when I judge it against my hometown of Kansas City on the other side of the state. St. Louis was one of the early cities to start opening the river up again to downtown. The park down there under the Arch; that's one of the great illustrations for all of America of what a city can do, with a great deal of federal government help, to make the river accessible again. I think it's a tremendous project. In that way, I think St. Louis has been in the leadership of trying to help people reconnect. I'm not aware of ways people in this area can easily get to the Missouri River, partly because it's a harder river to deal with: That marvelous valley of it is so wide, and the Missouri keeps moving back and across that -- you put something up there, you know it's going to be washed away before long. But I think the proposed conservation area at Columbia Bottoms is one good way that I think people can begin reconnecting with the Missouri. I would love to see some boat tours go up the Missouri. It's navigable down here. The Corps of Engineers has gone to great trouble and expense in remaking the Missouri River to make it navigable, so there's no reason not to go up there."

Although fond of the Arch and its grounds, Heat-Moon is less enchanted by the gambling boats docked nearby on either side of the Mississippi. "I don't think gambling boats do anything to increase the awareness of the rivers," he observes. "People get on those gambling boats, and they're paying attention to turning wheels and flashing lights and ding-dong bells going off and the jingle of coins. They're not looking at the river; they're not there for the river. And for that reason, I think the boats ought to be kept in the moats rather than turned loose on the rivers. That's what the gamblers want, so if we're going to have gambling, then I would say keep them off the river. A lot of those boats, the ones that do get under way, you've really got to work to see anything from the boats anyway. They don't want you looking at the river -- they want you looking to the machines. That would be in a way like a movie theater building big windows in the theater so you can look outside: You're supposed to be looking at the screen."

Heat-Moon encourages us to find our entertainment not at the gaming table but on the riverbank. The risks we run in ignoring our waterways are high, he says in River-Horse. And the rewards for paying attention to their needs are great.