A vigorous look at American history through the nation’s waterways.
In at least some measure, writes Doyle (River Science and Policy/Duke Univ.), federalism was born of an effort to regulate the use of waterways that, in the eastern portion of the country, often lay entirely within individual states: the James, for instance, in Virginia, and the Hudson in New York. In the 18th century, private river companies had formed with “modest ambitions: keeping their river cleared of logs, sandbars, and any other blockages.” The newly formed federal government stepped in, placing rivers in the national domain; it’s no accident, writes the author, that the U.S. Military Academy was sited alongside a river, since its graduates were trained to be river engineers above all else. Where states retained power, they sometimes governed for the eventuality of a flood, as with the levee districts along the Mississippi in the South. However, when Ronald Reagan’s administration made moves to revert power to the states, “this meant putting the impetus back on local and state governments to spend their own money on projects,” which was a nonstarter. Doyle links subsequent developments in taxation, environmental policy, energy, and resource management to the management of water, with all its many tangles; as he notes, for example, “fences dividing fields or lines dividing a map; both are intuitive. Dividing water is not so intuitive.” Thus, the fight continues over such things as the allocation of the Colorado River or the ownership of the mouth of the Columbia. Doyle is not the first to look at history through the lens of water; Wallace Stegner and Donald Worster, among others, have written signally important books in the field. This book is a comparatively minor entry alongside them but still worthy of a place in any water-centered library.
Waste, restoration, and efforts to use a scarce resource wisely: Doyle speaks well to issues that are as pressing today as in the first years of the republic.