Water for Food

Book Review: Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster

March 13, 2014

book cover

Mississippi River Tragedies: A century of unnatural disaster. By Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer.
NYU Press.

Reviewed by guest contributor John H. Davidson, president of the Northern Prairies Land Trust

Few topics in our national story are as pervasive and fundamental as water resources development – the federal (and sometimes local) government’s investment in the physical manipulation of our rivers, shores, lakes and wetlands. Whether as developer of engineering projects or licensor of private enterprises, these federal initiatives touch every aspect of human activity. Many have brought positive changes: facilitating trade and commerce, developing hydroelectricity as an alternative to coal, expanding agricultural opportunity and creating aesthetic attractions. But the scale and ubiquity of water projects alter the biophysical, social and economic landscapes, and have resulted in serious negative consequences. Whether one is concerned with flooding, a changing climate, land use and development, agriculture, urban affairs, pollution, wildlife protection or the politics of federalism, the subject is central and inescapable. It is no coincidence that the history of conservation and environmentalism in the United States largely track the development of water resources. Our two pivotal environmental protection laws – the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act – are, functionally, integral to our water resources laws. Similarly, the nation’s federal agricultural policies are so deeply intertwined with water resources that the two must be studied and understood together.

Despite its central place in our physical and policy world, water resources development policy is arcane and difficult for even the most dedicated student to comprehend. It is a babushka doll of policies, laws and informal practices tracing to the Articles of Confederation, and few writers have succeeded in explaining it. Those who have include Marc Reisner in his 1986 book Cadillac Desert and John M. Barry in Rising Tide, published in 1998. Now, Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer join this small cadre with Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster.

Klein and Zellmer succeed in explaining the intricacies of water resources development by avoiding the plodding style of typical academic policy writing. They bring the topic alive by weaving it into a rich tapestry that includes history, personal recollections, literature and anecdotal reports of the human condition. But, ultimately, their story focuses on the great flood events in the history of the Mississippi River – the floods of 1902-1913, 1927, 1937 and 1993, as well as hurricanes Betsy in 1965 and Katrina in 2002. They explain how the effects of these events were transformed from natural weather into unnatural disasters by our policy of constructing levees, dams and channels.

How is it, the authors ask, that Katrina, a relatively weak hurricane, could have destroyed an entire region? The answer is in a flawed federal water development policy responsible for causing unnatural disasters many times before 2002, making Katrina’s devastation altogether predictable.

The authors lay out a compelling theory of “double takes,” by which federal policy encourages property owners in flood-prone areas to “take” taxpayer dollars in a series of overlapping waves. First, a rich pile of subsidies, including flood control structures, federal flood insurance and after-the-flood disaster payments, encourages construction of homes, businesses and municipal infrastructure in high-risk areas. Having thus encouraged development in floodplains, landowners denied building permits bring suit claiming that, by limiting their development, governments are obliged to pay damages for “taking” under Fifth Amendment theories. At times, the same landowners benefit from both the subsidies and the subsequent “takings” damage payments.

We seem determined to ignore the lessons. Our great water infrastructure does not stop floods, but rather provides some modest tools with which to manage them. Despite this, our subsidies encourage development of homes, businesses and towns in floodplains, which will flood at some point. Simultaneously, subsidies, including post-flood damage payments, create an endless drain on the federal treasury. The authors conclude with their own set of recommendations for reform, which also help readers understand this fascinating policy area.

Our water development experience is intertwined with agricultural policy. Many of our most productive and iconic agricultural lands are in flood-prone areas, dependent on structures no more reliable than those that protected New Orleans in 2002 or the lower Mississippi farm lands in 1993. Our agricultural producers have developed a reliance on these structures so strong as to be thought of as entitlement. In addition, this mix of water development and agricultural policies is all too often transferred and mimicked overseas, where the same tragedies occur and re-occur. Those who advise others on agricultural development are encouraged to consider the lessons so agreeably described in this fresh book.

John H. Davidson is a retired professor of natural resources law at the University of South Dakota School of Law.

Author Sandra Zellmer is a DWFI fellow and law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Christine A. Klein is a law professor at the University of Florida.

Disclaimer: The Daugherty Water for Food Institute welcomes blog articles from guest contributors. Please note the comments shared by guests represent their own views and not necessarily those of DWFI, the University of Nebraska or any institutions with which DWFI may be affiliated.

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