Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways

Avid Reader. Apr. 2021. 256p. ISBN 9781501187049. $27. NAT HIST
Journalist Kelley examines navigation along the Mississippi River and its tributaries (primarily the Missouri and Ohio Rivers) in the central United States. His book is a sobering tour of aging infrastructure built under different circumstances in the first half of the 20th century. Outdated levees, dams, and locks are a tragedy waiting to happen, he predicts. Kelley speaks with people invested in the success of these structures, from farmers to barge masters to civil engineers. The author also tells how Indigenous peoples are disproportionally affected by natural and infrastructure disasters. The interviews with the book’s subjects bring to life the problems they face and the balancing acts they engage in. Farmers need the rich soil that is deposited during controlled floods, but the volume of these floods has dramatically increased with climate change. Cities along these rivers are partly built on flood plains, which makes residents in those areas extremely vulnerable. The commerce along the rivers is essential to the U.S. economy, so civil engineers juggle limited funding and changing dynamics as they struggle to keep rivers controlled and navigable. Cities in the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana illustrate the inexorable changes wrought by nature. Kelley also compares water management in the U.S. and the Netherlands.
VERDICT Kelley’s engaging work will draw in those interested in personal stories of the effects of climate change, and use of natural resources.
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