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West Virginia author and journalist Tyler J. Kelley takes a hard look at rivers, flooding and commerce on America’s waterways in his new book “Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways.”
Kelley spoke with Eric Douglas about the book and how the river plays into the ongoing national discussion on infrastructure.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: How did you decide to jump into this project?
Kelley: I was on a camping trip with a friend going down the Mississippi River and we came to a lock and dam. I was astonished that the lock and dam would operate for my benefit, like I could pull this little rope and the chamber would open, it would fill and let me out.
I began to realize very slowly that, first of all, these massive structures have been built across so many rivers in the United States. And second, that one agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, proposed to construct these structures and to control these tremendously powerful natural forces. I was really just sort of astonished when I realized the level of ambition and hubris, I guess, that these projects entailed. And from then on, I was fascinated.
Douglas: One of the big topics in the news is infrastructure. Why should we be talking about the river more than we are?
Kelley: Waterways infrastructure is always the last thing on people’s minds, especially now that the definition of infrastructure has been expanded so much. But the waterways are crucial for a number of reasons. In my book, I talk about two types of waterway infrastructure: locks and dams are vital to trade because they make the river deep enough for barges, which carry a lot of the staple goods to the United States economy — grain fuel, metal, fertilizer. And then there are also levees; these earthen walls that essentially make the river’s historic floodplain habitable so we can live and build and develop land that the river formerly flooded.
The United States is pretty much unimaginable without locks and dams, and without levees. Vast swathes of the middle of the country would be uninhabitable if those levees weren’t there. A tremendous part of our industrial base down in Louisiana would be unusable if those levees weren’t there. Agriculture as we know it wouldn’t really work without the lock and dams.
There are people who are opposed to the dams, and people who want to take the levees down and let the river flow back to where it used to flow. In my book, I don’t try to say we should or shouldn’t do this or that, but to say, this is what we’ve built based on these assumptions. If you advocate for taking this stuff down, you have to reimagine this huge part of our economy, these vast swaths of land, all these cities we can’t live in anymore. Basically, we can be smarter about this, but we also have to remember that we can’t let most of it fail.
Douglas: In the book you discuss the equivalencies of trucking versus trains versus barges. Can you give me some sense of the scale of barge traffic versus road traffic?
Kelley: A 15-barge tow, which is standard on the larger locking rivers, I think contains more than 1,000 semi trailer trucks worth of goods. If you talk about what would happen if we didn’t have these locking dams, you would have so many more trucks on the roads that would have to carry these goods, the price of transportation would go way up, which in terms of agriculture would mean that farmers were paid less for their crops. And there’s a lot more emissions and fatalities associated with truck and rail transportation. So all of those things would increase.
Douglas: I was astounded you were talking about locks 52 and 53 and that they were wicket dams. I thought wicket dams went out 70 or 80 years ago. That was old-school technology. I didn’t realize there were any of those still on the river period, much less on a river the size of the Ohio or the upper Mississippi.
Kelley: Wickets are basically panels that stand up in the river that can be raised one at a time. So it creates a dam that can be dropped down onto the riverbed when the water is high, or raised to hold back the river when it starts to run low. But the problem is you have to pull these panels off the bottom of the river one at a time, by hand. It is tremendously labor intensive.
There actually are still two wicket dams on the Illinois River, in Peoria and La Grange. They’re much smaller, but the Illinois River still has a lot of traffic. That technology came from France in the mid-1800s. It was implemented in many dams in the United States, especially on the Ohio River and its tributaries in the late-1800s. I don’t know what it says about the state of our infrastructure that it’s still operating.
Douglas: What about flooding in the U.S. and levees to control the river?
Kelley: One of the really interesting things I learned when I was researching flooding, is that to keep a lot of people dry, somebody has to get wet. You either build a reservoir where you flood out somebody’s land, or you create a spillway or a floodway, which is an area that you deliberately divert water onto when the river rises really high. I think this idea of the greater good is really important, and worth reimagining and revisiting. Because you always sort of end up with winners and losers.
You can build really tall levees, but that’s going to raise the height of the river. And that’s going to transfer that risk to someone downstream. If you have a high levee here and someone else has a low levee downstream, they’re going to get flooded more because your levy is higher. So it creates this really interesting set of interrelated relationships that can be managed really poorly if there isn’t a lead agency that can see beyond parochial concerns or concerns of individual landowners, maybe even cities, counties, and sometimes even states.
Douglas: Where do you see things going in the next 20, 30, 50 years?
Kelley: The word I keep coming back to is “reimagine” because I think the levees and the lock and dams reflect a set of assumptions about the climate and a set of social and economic assumptions that I’m not sure are valid anymore. I think the talk of crumbling infrastructure, which we’ve been hearing for at least four years now, sort of implies we should just rebuild everything just like it was. And I think that would be a mistake, because most of what we have on the ground now is 50 years old or older.
I think the economy has changed and the climate has changed, the things we value have changed. And so, for instance, I think there are some river systems where they should probably have all 1,200-foot chambers, because they’re important to the economy, and they should be able to operate efficiently. And yet there are other river systems that have virtually no traffic and the lock and dams are operated just for pleasure boats. Is it in the federal interest to spend a lot of money maintaining these locks and dams when you’d have tremendous environmental benefits, if you took the locks down? There’s really no process for the Army Corps of Engineers to efficiently evaluate whether a structure is still serving its authorized purpose. Some of these authorizations are 100 years old. I think there could be a much smarter and more forward-looking system. You say, “Okay, this was designed to last 50 years,” which most things are. At the end of 50 years, let’s look at it, and ask “Is it falling apart? Does it need to be rebuilt? Is it still doing what we said it was going to do? Is it still delivering the benefits that we said it was going to deliver in respect to the costs?” If not, you could take it down, or make it better. That method of reevaluating, reimagining isn’t taking place. That’s what I would hope would come out of these infrastructure talks that are going on right now in Congress, that sort of approach to the waterways.
Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways was recently published by Simon & Schuster.
This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.