Reading the Missouri River as a complex, hybridized infra-natural system

Mammoth has been doing a summer long, series of posts on floods (both national; international) and flood control (man-made;natural responses) explored through the lens of the infrastructural landscape. All of the posts are excellent and thought-provoking but I wanted to respond to two  in particular: six dams and six reservoirs and dredging fort peck.

Chiefly, because they allow me an opportunity to refer to a fascinating book I read earlier this year, River Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America. Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1999, it was written by Ur-American traveler writer, William Least Heat-Moon. The book chronicles the author’s successful attempt to cross the USA from East to West traveling solely (almost completely), by river boat or canoe alone.

I had previously published a short post, Discovering the Garrison Dam inspired by my ongoing reading of Heat-Moon’s book. At that time I wrote the following:

Suffice to say, the tale (particularly the part from whence the above passage is excerpted, regarding the author’s time on the Missouri during his cross country, East to West, only by river navigation) is deeply fascinating for what it says about America, rivers and a sense of nature and place. It especially makes me think about my time in the Midwest and of the fact that my father’s land of birth is up North, near the Missouri headwaters.

Meanwhile, Mammoth has argued for viewing the current flooding, occurring along the Mississippi and Missouri for instance, as “not natural disasters, but infra-natural disasters” . 

What exactly does this mean? As Mammoth described it, the infra-natural disaster is a complex hybridized entity “rather than merely natural disaster; nature may have provided the floodwaters, but the specific velocity and volume of floodwater was produced by the configuration of infrastructural systems, and the confluence of physical and legal infrastructures controlled where disaster appeared.]

Heat-Moon has much to say about this hybrid state of the American waterways. The waters are to him: historic, mythic yet vibrant, urban-rural, wild and natural but also controlled and man-made…

Mammoth’s six dams and six reservoirs focuses on the six reservoirs of the Upper Missouri — Fort Peck Lake, Lake Sakakawea, Lake Oahe, Lake Sharpe, Lake Francis Case, and Lewis and Clarke Lake. Heat-Moon was about two thirds of the way through his cross-continental adventure by the time he reached the Upper Missouri. What is interesting about this section of the book though is that he describes  the flip-side of the condition Mammoth has documented this summer. While Mammoth highlights the flooded conditions of this stretch of the Missouri and the fact that the Army Corp is having to discharge high volumes of water from the six reservoirs, during Heat-Moon’s visit the Army Corps was “releasing minimal water” (pg. 303) as a result of the high water levels further downstream and the chances of Heat-Moon reaching Garrison Dam are described as “aught to naught“.

Heat-Moon describes the way the contemporary river has been changed by the Corps from the river of “ten thousand channels, chutes, islands, towheads, meanders, marshes, backwaters, slackwaters, sloughs, sandbars, and wrenchingly tight bends into a ildly curving conduit” (pg. 211) All of this was done for the purpose of ensuring navigational usage of the river. Resulting in what some groups would argue is a market skewing , un-needed high-rate of industry subsidization. Industry groups would counter however, that barging is used chiefly for high volume, bulk commodities. Barging, therefore earns the support of many environmental groups because it is highly efficient, in terms of energy usage and carbon reduction.

Heat-Moons’ thoughts on the equation though, are clear. He writes “Channelizing destroyed thousands of acres of natural habitats, removed spaces that formerly absorbed high waters to lessen the impact of floods, and forced Americans to pay millions of dollars to benefit a few companies and bottom farmers and people who should never have built houses and businesses in the altered floodplain in the first place.” (pg. 211)

The passage I quoted in my earlier post perfectly illustrates the immensity/scale of our conceit. Garrison Dam is just one node with an enormous infra-natural project, which has resulted in the current complex, hybridized system that exists today.

More than two miles long and 219 feet high, it is one of the largest (eds note: the fifth largest per Wikipedia) earthern structures in the world, a thing so massive, from the river at least, it didn’t look big, any more than, say, North Dakota looks big from a highway; it was just simply everywhere.  (pg. 307)

While awe-inspiring in scale and ego, the folly of such attempts are made clear.  But the river’s hybrid condition is not the fault of dams alone. All manner of industries benefit from subsidies at the river(s) expense. Heat-Moon again does not hide his sympathies. Besides the six dams and their reservoirs how patterns of land use on river adjacent lands have also  totally, the riverine ecologies that once existed. Exclusively, for the good of man. His travels bring Heat-Moon to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge , where due to the antiquated Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the “foul stench of cattle manure made us hurry our snack” (pg. 253). Aside from this more aesthetic condition a host of other ills result from the $500 million subsidy to corporate cattle operations. One reads, “Considered against declining species-birds, plants, animals-the need for more meat in this nation is ludicrous; considered against the soil erosion and siltation that cattle create, the consumption of more beef is stupid; considered against the fecal pollution of our waters, the sale of more franchise burgers is criminal.” His solution? “Windmills and pumps should water stock, not natural waterways.”  (pg. 353-354)

Finally, in a recent Sunday Edition of the NYT, an article discussed the possibilities of a new and different era wherein Americans’ relationship with (the) river(s) could change, for the better. In After Floods, Debate Over Missouri River Rolls On we read:

Asked about the continued emphasis on navigation despite the sparse traffic, Jody Farhat, the chief of water management for the Missouri River Basin for the Army Corps of Engineers, said: “The primary reason is it’s because it’s the law. The Corps of Engineers does what Congress tells us to do.”

This passage makes clear the Corps is just serving it’s mandated purpose. Design-as-intended. As mammoth has elsewhere noted, this “success” points to the fact that the Corps may be one of the most pre-eminent organizations of practicing landscape designers. Particularly, in terms of scale and ambition. What the above passage and Heat-Moon’s contempt for the Taylor Grazing Act  both suggest is that re-shaping the landscape, either by re-orienting the Corps mission or landscape management practices of the BLM, through the legislative, rule-making process, could hold the key to the beginning of a re-engagement with the river(s). It could be argued that this sort of affective, political design, is a great example of “going soft“. Dealing not with the hard (current) infrastructural realities (a la dam-busting). Rather, reshaping those realities, via “soft power and soft politics“. Such a trajectory could be extremely meaningful. Moreover, emphasizing the fluid, time-tested processes of natures’ design as opposed to the hard infrastructure of dams and control structures, is the easiest way to develop, ecologically balanced design.

For as a young Corpsmen said to Heat-Moon.

It was just imbecilic to think we could dam off one of the biggest rivers on the planet in fifteen different places and not upset balances…I’m not really an enviro, but if I were, I wouldn’t be running scared. Green thought has the whole natural system on its side-thats about three billion years of trial and error posed against a couple thousand years of human engineering.”  (pg. 259)


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