The ongoing flooding disaster along the Missouri River in the Great Plains and Midwest is a sobering reminder of man’s tenuous relationship with nature. Despite all our engineering feats and illusion of control, the earth still conjures up torrential rains, ice packs and snowmelts that make our levies and floodgates look pretty puny indeed.
The evacuation and inundation of Minot, North Dakota – just the latest community to go under – calls to mind the horrific Missouri River flood of 1993, which destroyed more than ten thousand homes, killed fifty people, inundated millions of acres of farmland, halted river and rail transport, and resulted in billions of dollars in damage. As the flood and its consequences roll downstream, we may be looking at an awful repeat.
For some perspective on the 1993 flood and some background on the more recent state of the Missouri River, I recommend a thoughtful book called Rivers of Change: Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark, by water resources consultant Tom Mullen. (We had the pleasure of meeting Tom on a Lewis and Clark trip along the Columbia and Snake Rivers in 2005, where he was the guest historian.)
Around 2002, Tom returned to the United States after years of helping developing countries set up water systems overseas. As a way of easing his “reentry” into life in the United States, Tom went on a six-month, cross country odyssey – following the rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled, the Missouri and the Columbia.
Along the way, Tom talked to dozens of people who live and work along those rivers: farmers, waitresses, small-town historians, freight boat captains, ecologists, Native Americans, Fish and Wildlife employees, dam operators. As the context for his conversations, Tom asked the people about the floods of 1993 and 1997 that devastated the areas along the Missouri River. He also asked them how the building of dams in the 50’s and 60’s had changed their lives.
The result is a fascinating picture of the effect on lives and ecosystems when man attempts to harness nature. What Tom found out is that we have made terrific strides in using the power of the rivers for energy production, literally making it possible to “make the desert bloom.” On the other hand, dams and levies have tamed wild areas of the river along the Lower Missouri, making river channels deeper and more consistent, the current faster, and commerce more predictable – but also making for fast rising waters in times of flood. Development and dams further up the Missouri have provided power for residents but destroyed unique wildlife habitat along the rivers, with surprising consequences. They have also cut Native American tribes off from an important part of their culture.
There are tradeoffs everywhere, and one of the most refreshing things about this book is that Tom does not attempt to moralize. Reading this book is like taking a rambling road trip with a friend. You might not think of water management as a fascinating topic, but your eyes will be opened by the effect of the great rivers on the communities that live along them. Especially at a time when the devastating power of water and our inability to control it is all too evident.