Monday, April 4, 2016

My Review of Southern Water, Southern Power: How the Politics of Cheap Energy and Water Scarcity Shaped a Region

Southern Water, Southern Power: How the Politics of Cheap Energy and Water Scarcity Shaped a Region by Christopher J. Manganiello. The University of North Carolina Press, 320 pages.

I always lived near rivers. In Wisconsin, our home was near the Fox River in Racine County and my family had a summer cottage and farm near the Peshtigo River in Marinette County. When I moved to Florida in 1990, I lived near the Hillsborough River. Each of these streams was altered in some way by dams. The Fox River had an old dam that was important for flood control and milling. The Peshtigo River in far northern Wisconsin was dammed for hydroelectric power production. I spent many hours swimming and fishing on the reservoirs (Caldron Falls and High Falls) created by the dams. The spring fed Hillsborough River in Tampa was dammed for flood control and to maintain a steady water supply during Florida's pronounced dry season. If you think about rivers you know well, you will find that like my rivers, they too have been altered in some way. According to Christopher Manganiello in his new book, Southern Water, Southern Power: How the Politics of Cheap Energy and Water Scarcity Shaped a Region, the American south contains some of the most altered drainage basins and river systems in the world.

Manganiello's book takes an historical approach to the development of water resources in the south in that it transports us to the earliest days of water resource development in the region and then brings us forward in time to the new south era (1890-1930) and sunbelt south (post 1930) to nearly the present day. He takes a distinctly geographic approach in the book in that he focuses largely on streams in the Savannah River basin. In this masterfully researched book, Manganiello provides comprehensive historical case studies that weave together a number of important issues ranging from energy and development to government and access. Southern Water, Southern Power is a book that anyone who works in the field of water resources should read.

One of the book's major themes is historical landscape transformation associated with the development of drainage basins, particularly stream valleys for hydroelectric production. While many are aware of the spectacular dams of the west, such as Hoover Dam, the south, in fact, has more dams and more intensely altered landscapes as a result of development of southern rivers. While this transformation is significant, it has to be noted that the south goes through wide water boom and bust cycles that encouraged this transformation as regions sought to store or remove water depending on the season's hydrologic conditions.

Another major theme of the book is energy. With the exception of some areas of Appalachia (coal) and the lower Mississippi Valley (oil), the south is energy poor. Many saw the opportunity to develop the south's rivers for hydroelectric energy production as a means of broader regional economic development a la the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This so-called white coal energy was used to promote economic development in areas that did not have nearby energy sources. Unfortunately, due to the notoriously irregular rainfall in the region, the dams did not supply a steady supply of energy and other energy sources had to be developed. As a result, the region is now home to not only many hydroelectric systems, but also clusters of nuclear power plants.

The frenzy of dam building throughout the region created a conflict over who was going to build dams and manage the energy. Was it going to be a private or public effort? If it was a public effort would it be the Army Corps of Engineers, the TVA, or would it be state or local initiatives? If it was a private effort, how would the usage of water be regulated? These issues mattered since each organization managed water resources differently. Many intergovernmental and public/private partnerships emerged during this period that significantly transformed the region's landscape and political environment. The role of politics was strong in determining what got build, by whom, and where.

Another important theme in the book is access to water. There are many competing interests for southern water: hydroelectric facilities, agriculture, thirsty cities, industry, and recreational activities. Different rivers, and different segments of rivers, all have unique development trajectories that privileged one activity over another. The book's case studies clearly show how politics and money influenced local choices and hydrologic development.

While the book highlights human influence on the streams, it must be stressed that rivers are natural things and react in their own way to human influence. Much of the southern river developments outlined in the book made the region less sustainable and out of whack with natural cycles. In some cases, nature fought back and caused significant challenges for developers. In other situations, the story is still to be played out as reservoirs slowly fill with silt and as subtle climate shifts change rainfall patterns. Yet the degree of development of southern rivers makes one consider how much engineering we have done to the environment and how we are more vulnerable to natural disasters as a result of the changes wrought on the landscape.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it. However, I do have some critiques. The book contains only 5 illustrations and 4 maps. Given that the book covers a wide swath of time and place, there are many individuals and locations mentioned in the text that interested me. I found myself going online to find images of key actors or places. Since the book covers hundreds of years of history, I found myself wondering what images might exist in archives and special collections in the libraries throughout the region. I wish the author included some of these images and provided more geographic context in the maps. The addition of figures would have helped immensely since I found the writing dense at times. While I recommend the book for anyone interested in water resources, the general public may find it somewhat challenging due to the density of the writing. The addition of more maps, photographs, tables, or data would have made reading the book a more interesting and pleasurable experience.

I also take issue with the term Southern in the title. The south is sometimes a contested term in that what is southern to one person is not fully southern to a next. For example, some believe that West Virginia, Texas, or Missouri are southern states while to others, they belong in distinctly different regions. However, the south typically includes Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. When I picked up Southern Water, I thought the book would be about the entirety of the south. Instead, it focuses largely on a portion of the core of the south in North and South Carolina and Georgia. Given the complexity of water issues in other regions, particularly the karstic challenges of Florida and the highly complex hydrologic systems of the Mississippi Valley, I wish the book didn't have such a bold promise of reviewing the entirety of southern water issues.

Regardless, Manganiello's book is a fantastic addition to not only the topic of water in the south, but also environmental history in general. The case studies presented help to understand why water is so important to the region and its significance in the history of the United States.

Links to previous to On the Brink book reviews are found below.

Naked in the Woods: My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Commune 
William Cullen Bryant: Author of America

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