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article imageReview: University of Utah professor believes river dams are not obsolete Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Dec 27, 2012 in Environment
In his new book "River Republic - The Rise and Fall of America's Rivers" Daniel McCool talks about the "politics" of rivers and water management. On page 96 to 98 he mentions the "old guard" and its approach to tending to the waterways.
This reporter contacted the University of Utah professor to ask some questions and to foster dialog. Previously, this reporter has written about water issues, such as the "Restore Hetch Hetchy Project. This past November San Francisco voters got to decide whether or not the idea of demolishing the dam and empty out the reservoir was in the best interest of the people. The voters turned it down. Yet the non-profit group wants to continue to push the idea.
When this reporter spotted McCool's book in the library a few weeks ago, immediately the wheels of thought were turning. "What would the group at Restore Hetch Hetchy have to say? Or what about the Tuolumne River Trust?" This reporter was rather disappointed when neither of those two environmental groups responded. One representative politely declined. Then that spurred this reporter on to the obvious questions.
Even with more awareness of environmental issues and green-friendly techniques, I asked McCool, does a clique still exist among water management authorities? Cliques to this reporter was the only word fitting to the question, based upon the lack of response I got from the other groups.
"Yes, absolutely," said McCool. "In fact, traditional uses (barging, flood "control," beach erosion control for the Corps, irrigation for the Bureau, hydro-power and flat-water recreation for both) are still the dominant priorities in both agencies. "The new priorities that I discuss in the book are still secondary to these agencies."
And, so this reporter had to ask, does this new generation "clique" become short-sighted on some issues about water use, water conservation and water rights?
To that McCool responded with another question. "Do you mean the people within the agencies that prefer the "new" uses of rivers?" If so, he said, then yes, they form a devoted minority in each agency, attempting to change the agency from within."
McCool mentioned an interview he had and how Serge Birk of the Central Valley Project Water Association had been in his work. Birk had been some one with some power when he was in charge. Yet when he was with McCool at his old job, Birk was treated as an outsider, by the young and new "yahoos," as he referred to them. And, yet it was clear in McCool's account of this visit with Birk that Birk was short sighted about what he considered "his" during his tenure. And, interestingly, Birk had been hired by the CVPWA's Board of Directors working as a fisheries biologist. McCool also pointed out that Birk purchased items for his pet project with "taxpayer" money.
So, this reporter asked McCool, did or does this type of system still go on? But only in a different way?
"Yes, it does," said McCool. He continued, "agency people often develop a strong sense of devotion and ownership of their projects." "This can be a good thing, but it also blinds them to the costs and liabilities of those projects," he said.
McCool then said for me to read the section in the book on the Upper Mississippi River--where the Corps truly lost sight of its mission and became a lobbying organization for the barge industry (with disastrous results). What is really sad about much of the environmental activism is the lobbying that goes on. This reporter points to the Restore Hetch Hetchy Project, here in California. Why is this idea of demolishing a working dam and draining a reservoir that serves millions of people still being tossed around? Based upon what McCool is saying there must be a lobbyist out there.
I then asked McCool, with all the conservation groups out there, with the "new way" of thinking about the environment, do conservation groups often clash with one another over certain issues? And, if so, how do they resolve their issues?
"Yes, he said, there are conflicts between American Indian tribes and environmental groups; hunters vs. animal preservationists; commercial fishermen vs. recreational fishermen; motorized recreation vs. non-motorized recreation." And, as water becomes more scarce, this competition and conflict will intensify," he said. "We'll see, he noted, for example, river runners who want to augment flows or clear obstructions vs. endangered species protection." There are many concerns that weigh heavy upon the nation's riviers as this reporter has learned with an article about the work of the Tuolumne River Trust.
McCool pointed out that with regards to augment flows, "this is not necessarily a bad thing," he said. "It means we all want more from our rivers, so, we need more healthy, intact rivers to provide what the people want."
Which is related to the following question I had, "who really owns our water ways?"
"First of all, there is a big difference between who owns the water, and who owns the rivers," said McCool. "For both, he noted, it is a complex mix of federal, state, local, water districts, and private." There is no simple answer to this complex legal question," he said. "Your best bet is to read David Getches' book, 'Water Law in a Nutshell." Well, with all do respect to Professor McCool, that will be another article with lots of detailed investigation, no doubt. And, unfortunately, Getches passed away in 2011.
McCool also talked about how much of our water is fed to agriculture and yet agriculture is actually managed by large farm corporations, taking advantage of subsidies handed out by the government. This caught this reporter's attention since California, my home state has been a leader in agriculture for many decades. Yet, McCool pointed out that government intervention since the Great Depression in the 1930's changed much of the basic ideals, the American public perceives about a farmer society. As the nation moves further along into the 21st Century, mechanization and corporate-like conglomeration of farms is becoming the norm. The days of the citizen farmer and his family or a pastoral farming community are gone. Food in all its forms is big business. Water and food production are intrinsically intertwined.
America is a major food producer and distributor. With all this production of food and products related to food such as fabric, (cotton, wool) etc.I then asked McCool, why is hunger still a problem in the USA? Oops! maybe that was a bit too broad of a question!
McCool agreed, "that is a huge question, and somewhat outside my area of expertise. "I will merely want to point out that 1/3 of Americans is overweight, and another 1/3 is medically obese," he said. "These rates are even higher among the poor," he said "To a great extent, it's not the lack of food that is afflicting the poor, it's access to affordable healthy food," said McCool. He noted as he does in his book the ongoing government involvement that changed farming beginning during The Great Depression."This problem is exacerbated by government subsidies for the least healthy foods such as grains, animal products," he said.
Yet back to government. lobbyists, special interest groups and conservationist, this reporter wanted to know from McCool's perspective as a political science professor, how, with all the politics can anything get done for the sake of the river or the natural environment? Who really wins? And regardless of who wins, is the environment actually served and restored?
"Yes, (the environment) is served," said McCool. "That is the whole point of River Republic." Just look at what is happening on the Elwha River; he said, the good guys won!" "The environment won, the salmon won, the tribe won, and even the tourists won," he said. "I'd call that a victory!"
This reporter noted to McCool that from the several articles I have written on the topic of water resources, water is vital to survival. So are concepts like dams (such as Hoover Dam) now considered outdated? This is what groups like "Restore Hetch Hetchy would like to see, the removal of dams.
I asked McCool, "what do you think will take the place of dams like Hoover Dam and such as we move further into the 21st Century?
"The concept of building dams is not obsolete," said McCool. "Indeed, there are hundreds of proposals to build new dams. And as I say in my book, most dams still serve society admirably and must be preserved." "I'm not against dams, said McCool. "I'm against dumb dams."
Which then lead to my last questions for McCool, how will urbanization confine itself to respect its real dependency upon water? Is the future all about legislation or about a change in attitude? Or is it a bit of both?
"It is both, he said, they are mutually dependent." Also, he noted, keep in mind that in the most arid states in the United States, principally the inter-mountain West, only about 10 percent of the water is actually used for people." (Again, he referred to agricultural endeavors). "Unfortunately, there is enough water for many additional millions of people in this fragile environment," he said.
For more information about Daniel McCool and his new book, "River Republic - The Fall and Rise of America's Rivers," visit the Columbia University Press web site.
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