The Source; How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers by Martin Doyle. W.W. Norton

            If our water resources are carefully managed, Martin Doyle claims, there would be sufficient rainfall for our needs. A big if!  Commonly there are shortages of rain, particularly in the dry areas of the country west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. On the other hand, we have floods resulting from abnormal amounts of rainfall east of those great rivers. Variations in the amount of rainfall have their effect on river systems, so we have devised a system of levees – elevated banks – that keep the “flood waters” contained. Shortages of rainfall- dry spells – are less well managed.

            In those years when the rains are insufficient, “water wars” occur. Users compete for water. Long-term water shortages are mostly the result of an ever-expanding land use, which we call “suburbia.” Water shortages are also the result of increasing “industrial uses,” an essential part of the manufacturing processes. “Waste” water is also used to help us deal with the various effluents polluting the environment.

Nature supplies bacteria to help with the process of ridding ourselves of those effluents. That works fairly well, given enough time. Given enough time, the water that reenters our streams and lakes should have been stripped of a major effluent – methane. The methane can then be used to produce some of the energy needed for the restorative process. Given time and the right processing, this breaking down of waste water can also produce both nitrogen and phosphates, also useful byproducts of our water treatment plants.

Water in the Eastern U.S. has also been a source of power, the “fall line.” Doyle has a description of how water, over the centuries, has powered our economy.

In the eastern US, there is a geological feature involving falling water, the fall line. The earliest uses of the fall line in the U.S. were to power lumber and grist mills, and to manufacture flour. If the supply of water was erratic, it was useful to dam up and store water above the fall line in a lake that, when, needed, could produce a fall and source of water power. Hence water power “in storage.”

It took time to adopt steam – heating water by burning coal to produce steam. Steam could be used to power machinery connected to a power source by belts. We then learned how to convert steam power into electrical power. Happy ending: from falling water to an electric light switch.

 Martin Doyle tells another interesting story. How were these power sources financed? Private enterprise, or mostly state enterprise? There are thousands of dams and power sources throughout the country that are the result of “private enterprise”. On the other hand, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Hoover Dam, and other huge projects are government enterprises created and run by a “public sector.”

Before this federal intervention, there had to be a means of paying for this infrastructure. The early canals built in this country collected tolls and fees. But Doyle reminds us that these larger state financed projects had to await the Income Tax Amendment (1913). This constitutional amendment gave the government the authority to collect income taxes and hence the where-with-all to finance such huge projects as the TVA.

It was during the two presidencies of Ronald Reagan (1980 to 1988) that we entered the world of derivatives, options, and swaps and the ability to issue municipal bonds with lower interest rates, new financial mechanisms to pay the bills. Infrastructure costs could be sliced and divided up into federal debt allowing it to be bought and sold by private investors.  Pollution permits were now saleable. Hence President Reagan’s version of the free-market would enable the costs of the environmental activism of the public sector to be financed by the money market. Even the roadbuilders could buy “stream credits” when planning their new roads.

For many years the Army Corps of Engineers went around straightening our meandering rivers so that they were better able to serve river transport. But that had its costs, Doyle reminds us. Straightened rivers ran faster and deeper, resulting in more erosion. The disappearing meanderings had been important breeding grounds for fish and other animals. The artificial lakes behind the hundreds of dams made for good fishing. However removing the dams as they aged became a necessary, but often neglected, component of the dam-building. We are now restoring those “meanderings” and hence the environment for wildlife.

Those who look after our rivers and lakes are now taking an interest in beavers and their dams.

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