AWRA Water Blog

Book Review: ‘Mississippi River Tragedies’

Cutting to the chase: Read the book! Well-written and researched with a strong message: no more floodless floodplains – let rivers flood!

Disclosure notice: I received a free, unsolicited copy of this book from the publisher. I know the first author, Christine A. Klein, from our time on the NRC Bay-Delta Committee and I consider her a friend. She’s the Chesterfield Smith Professor of Law at the University of Florida. I know Sandra B. Zellmer by reputation but have never met her. She is the Robert B. Daugherty Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska. And you’ll once again have to tolerate my semi-rambling, stream-of-consciousness ‘review’ style.

So what’s my connection to the Mississippi River? Other than being a 24/7 WaterWonk, the best I can do is this: at the end of summer 1964, my mother presented me with a bottle (a corked RC Cola bottle, no less) of Mississippi River water, taken from the river at Memphis, TN. My parents and my late younger sister Ann had embarked on a westward auto trip – NY to CA. I was working on Cape Cod and could not go. They made it only as far as Memphis. Seems Ann, on the verge of teenagerhood, and my father were not seeing eye-to-eye so the trip was aborted. I was quite Bookglad to get my water. I have no idea where it is today.

Fast forward 50 (!!) years and I am renewing my love for the mighty Mississippi, thanks to two ‘Mississippi River basin girls’ who have penned a remarkable book, Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster. No, it is not a 21st century version of Life on the Mississippialthough I might have to rethink that perception. Life on the ‘Father of Waters’ is quite different from that depicted by Mark Twain.

KleinBoth authors grew up in the Mississippi River Basin: Klein (left) in the St. Louis, MO, area and Zellmer on a farm in the Sioux City, IA, area. They know the river. Klein actually spent time as a river guide on the Arkansas River while in law school. Their knowledge shines right fromZellmer_0910 the start: the book begins with the authors’ delightful recollections of growing up in the basin. “The Headwaters’ is by Zellmer and ‘Downstream in St. Louis’ is Klein’s work. Nice touch!

I classify this book in Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert genre – a Cadillac Heartland, if you will (Cynthia Barnett’s Mirage was Cadillac Swampland). Major differences: It’s not about the Colorado River, but the Mississippi River. The focus is not water supply, but flood management/control. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, not the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is the agency most scrutinized.

It’s instructive to note the book’s full title:Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster. Wait a minute – isn’t the book primarily about flooding? So what’s the deal with ‘unnatural disaster’? Everyone knows floods are natural disasters, right? Well, maybe not. Sarcasm alert: Klein and Zellmer want to set us on the path to truth, justice, and the American (read: USACE) way. Do they ever!

First things first. The book is extremely well-written. What would you expect from law school professors? You don’t need to be a WaterWonk or a lawyer to understand what’s going on. I found myself very disappointed when the text ended at page 203. I wanted more. There is more – 54 pages of notes, bibliography, and an index. Again – think ‘law school professors’.

We quickly learn of our ambivalence towards nature. We glorify it, name things after it, but we are also quick to point the finger at it when nature ‘misbehaves’. Think of the terms ‘natural disaster’ or ‘act of Gods’. How often do we think that perhaps disasters are unnatural. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Mississippi River Basin, which drains 40% of the Lower 48. And when you think Mississippi River Basin, the agency that comes to mind is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

So here are the things that struck me:

1) The disastrous effects of the ‘levees only’ approach to flood control. Who would have imagined this? Levees = good, right? Despite critics of this approach (see quote at bottom) the USACE would not be diverted. Nor would the local and state agencies who built levees with or without the Corps’ acquiescence. Then the great flood of 1927 intervened. That was a game-changer, in many ways. The Flood Control Act (FCA) of 1928 was passed. Floodways and other engineered facilities were added to the levee system. The Act also protected the USACE from responsibility ‘for any damage for or by floods or flood waters at any place’. Safe, right?

2) The racism. Nothing like using prostrate or supine African-American men (slaves, then freemen) as levees or upright as human dikes. Yep, just stack ’em up right on top there. Or maybe we’ll just conscript them at gunpoint and force them to sandbag. Evacuations, or lack thereof. Native Americans being forced from their land to make room for reservoirs, especially in the Missouri River Basin. Environmental (in)justice. And let’s not forget Katrina.

3) The legal evolution. Floods were deemed to be natural disasters; no one could be held responsible. Tough luck! Well, that started to change in the early 20th century. Some flood damage was an unnatural disaster, for which someone or some organization could be held liable.

4) The FCA of 1928 gave the USACE relief from responsibility for floods. But what if a USACE facility, not related to flood control or management, caused/exacerbated a flood and caused damage. Could the Corps be held liable? Think of MRGO, The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a navigation structure, and Hurricane Katrina.

5) Flood insurance and moral hazards. Building and rebuilding in floodplains. Risk takers and risky business. Taxpayer subsidies. The Galloway Report after the 1993 floods. Coastal wetlands. MRGO.

6) More legal stuff – eminent domain and its bastard child, regulatory takings. I really liked this chapter – ‘Law 101’ for people like me. Made sense.

7) Great ‘Conclusion’ – How the law can hurt, how it can help. Excellent recommendations.

Klein and Zellmer correctly state that we have spent more than one hundred years trying and failing to hold back the water from the people, when we should have been holding back the people from the water. We have employed a dumb concept: a floodless floodplain. Let’s give rivers room to flood. What a novel concept!

A river disconnected form its floodplain. Wow. The stream ecologists and ecogydrologists have been telling us that for years. Now we have two more articulate voices to heed.

An excellent book. Whether you are a Missippi River groupie or not, you need to read this book. Its influence and relevance extend beyond the Mississippi. I am going to use it in my US Water Management class.

To Ms. Klein and Ms. Zellmer: thank you!

“The problem of the Mississippi is a fascinating one, but more a problem of your national psychology than of your river. You treat the Mississippi as if it were a river apart, differing utterly from all other streams. It is nothing of the sort.” – Sir William Willcocks, British engineering expert, 1914, interview in the New York Times, 1914 (see page 57 of the text)

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