The mighty Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers are part of a vital transportation network in America’s heartland, yet they are precariously held in place by a series of locks, dams, dikes and levees. Even minor floods have proved catastrophic, and the issue continues to worsen due to an aging infrastructure coupled with the effects of climate change.
This escalating situation is presented in vivid detail by journalist Tyler J. Kelley in his debut book, Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways. Piecing together historical accounts from diaries, journals and letters alongside interviews with modern-day experts such as engineers, geologists and farmers, Kelley describes the delicate dance performed every day to ferry massive amounts of goods along these waterways and relays how they came to play such an important role in America’s economy.
It’s a symbiotic relationship, as “the vast levee network protects the farmland where grain is grown, and grain is among the biggest commodities moving on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.” But like a wild stallion, these rivers are powerful forces of nature that are difficult to tame. As Kelley writes, “In the last five thousand years, the [Mississippi River] has used six different outlets,” a natural process of delta-building and abandonment that “created all of south Louisiana.” The same formidable energy that rearranges the earth in the Mississippi Delta eventually weakens the structures holding the rivers in place, and the expense to build, repair and maintain them is astronomical.
And when a hurricane or flood hits, countless communities are impacted or displaced. As Kelley notes, income inequality and natural disasters go hand in hand. Yet ferrying goods is often prioritized over the people whose livelihoods are affected by the river’s destructive power.
There’s no clear, quick solution to these interlocking problems, but Kelley suggests some interesting possibilities, such as creating more river commissions to plan for worst case scenarios before they actually happen. Holding Back the River is a riveting depiction of an issue that is not going away anytime soon.