Recommended Reading: “Holding Back the River” by Tyler J. Kelley
A reader recommended a book recently. I found it so interesting that I’m recommending it to you. It’s called “Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways” by Tyler J. Kelley. It’s about the unintended consequences of mankind’s struggle to reduce flooding.
Author’s Voyage of Discovery
Mr. Kelley employs a narrative approach in writing this book. It literally represents a six year voyage of discovery for him that started with a recreational journey down the Ohio River in a small boat. Before the book ends, Kelly takes us along the route of Lewis and Clark up the Missouri River to the Dakotas and Nebraska. He also takes us down the Mississippi from Illinois to to Louisiana and the Netherlands. And on a jaunt through history with the Army Corps of Engineers, French explorers, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Thomas Jefferson, and Ulysses S. Grant.
Along the way, we learn about dikes, dams, diversions, cutoffs, and other flood-control measures superimposed on the American landscape in a well-intentioned effort to foster commerce and protect people.
Mr. Kelley has a gift for explaining complex engineering projects in down-to-earth ways that non-technical people can easily understand. And he describes those projects through the eyes of hundreds of interviewees whose lives have somehow been affected. It all underscores the difficulty of flood mitigation at the intersection of engineering, politics, and geology.
From oystermen in Louisiana whose catches have been affected by fluctuating salinity to Sioux in Nebraska forced to relocate villages, first due to dam construction and then again due to sediment build up. Kelley’s stories about sediment buildup behind dams reminded me of the challenges faced by Lake Houston Area residents after Harvey living downstream from 20 square miles of sand mines.
The beauty of Kelley’s book is that even though the lessons learned come from other watersheds, many of those lessons can be applied to our own. As I read it, I found myself thinking back to stories I had reported during the last four years.
- The buildup of deltas and sand bars where rivers meet standing bodies of water
- Loss of lake volume over time due to sedimentation
- Conflicting regulations in adjoining jurisdictions
- Upstream vs. downstream interests
- The inability to forge political consensus
- “Now or never” moments like the push for political consensus after Hurricane Harvey
- “Equity” issues in flood control
- The threat of dam and dike failures
- Endless lawsuits involving “takings” claims
- River migration
- The role of subsidence in flooding and more.
Do I flood A or B?
One of Kelley’s more gripping stories was about an Army Corps commander being forced to decide whom to flood during a major storm – the town upstream or the farmers downstream – and the political uproar that ensued. Remind anyone of the Lake Conroe release?
Another gripping story pitted the people on one side of the Mississippi with those on the other. Armed residents on each side patrolled dikes during a major storm, fearing sabotage from someone on the other side. Letting floodwaters escape through one dike would take pressure off the other and thereby prevent flooding on the other side.
Ounce of Prevention Worth a Half Billion $ of Cure
Then there were the stories about the hundreds of millions spent to mitigate flooding when damage to property could have been avoided for free just by building homes in less flood-prone areas. Alas, that would have required some private properties to be conserved for the public good – which led to a discussion of the political will (or lack thereof) to exercise eminent domain.
Those hundreds of millions, of course, turn into a tax on children and grandchildren over time. But expedience being the better part of re-election campaigns, it’s easier for politicians to say, “We’re going to fix it,” rather than “We’re going to take your property to save your neighbors.”
But the most tragic parts of this book were the stories about trying to outmuscle Mother Nature and how flood-control efforts in one area often simply relocated problems to another after a while. It made me thankful that one of Harris County Flood Control District’s core values is not flooding one area to save another. Time and again, throughout the pages of this book, you saw that scenario play out.
If you’re looking for insight into the dilemmas that engineers face everyday, this book is for you. It will help you understand the agonizing tradeoffs that professionals often have to make.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/5/2021 based on a book by Tyler Kelley, with thanks to Beth Leggieri for the recommendation
1498 Days since Hurricane Harvey