Published by EH.Net (October 2018)

Martin Doyle, The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018. 349 pp. $27 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-393-24235-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Brooks A. Kaiser, Management and Economics of Resources and the Environment (MERE) Research Group, University of Southern Denmark.

Martin Doyle’s The Source provides an excellent new source for anyone interested in understanding how the natural environment of American waterways, the public and private economic landscapes that have developed in response to them and (re-)shaped them in return, and the institutional frameworks that have evolved to govern them have come together at various scales throughout American economic history. Through its integrated approach to these topics and the dynamics of riverine development, it is also a useful primer on where to expect tensions and challenges in adapting to future demands on rivers as both human demands and climatic uncertainties evolve.

The book would make an excellent addition to American Economic History syllabi at the undergraduate level and beyond. In collecting relatively well known but disparate strains of economic, legal, institutional, and environmental history with aquatic and river science, Doyle provides new insights into how rivers, their uses and governance have co-evolved with demands for transportation, irrigation for agriculture, power generation, flood control, waste removal, recreation and conservation.

In the last chapter of the book, Doyle introduces Scott Campbell, a western rancher who is successfully and cost-effectively replicating the benefits of missing beaver from his riverine ecosystems. He does this by placing small boulders and beaver-dam-like structures at key locations. Like Campbell with his boulders, Doyle has artfully placed the cowboy, the scientist, the river navigator, the politician, the lawyer, the underemployed housewife, the businessman, the farmer, the fisher, the Native American, and most frequently, the engineer and the public or private financier and their individual scale stories throughout the text to direct the flow and pace of his narrative. Their stories create the rifts, pools, and eddies that form the flowing, efficient exposition that scales up to broader impacts on the rivers, their users, and the regulations that govern them. The result is a well-paced and interesting read that covers a great deal of complex literature in clear and informative ways.

The book particularly brings out the important interplay between river systems and government finances at multiple scales, from local municipalities through to the federal level. Water presents a particularly complex set of goods and services. It can create value through consumptive or non-consumptive uses, which vary with water quality at different rates. These myriad water uses can create hard-to-value indirect and/or passive-use values, including those driven by a host of supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural ecosystem services. River water that flows among individual, state, regional, national and international properties, that may change paths easily, and that flows with variability that both humans and nature can affect, adds to the complexity.

The history of American economic development is such that the use of rivers for everything from irrigation to sanitation has rapidly and visibly become more congested both within and across these uses. Doyle has picked episodes in American river history that highlight the origins of these congestions, their impacts, their proximate solutions and the longer term impacts of the solutions and their additional unintended consequences. As such, his selection of cases emphasizes the path dependency created by the choices of technology, skills, budget concerns, and institutions used to navigate the problems created by rivers’ intricacies. A reliance on engineering and science that, for example, first regraded the Chicago landscape for waste flow and then eventually reversed the flow of Chicago River to reduce complications to the freshwater supply led to cost-sensitive engineers defining policy that favored upstream waste producers. These sorts of interactions between a water quality or quantity dilemma and its technical resolution have directly affected the overall net benefits available from river resources as well as the distribution of those benefits.

In many cases, the upstream user has benefited at the expense of the downstream, so that the solution is primarily spatially determined; in others, such as the prior appropriation doctrine used in western water law, the solution is primarily temporally determined. The tradeoffs involved in these choices are generally well understood. Doyle, however, delves further into the spatio-temporal implications of America’s decisions over water resource priorities and conflict resolutions by connecting them to the stories behind the massive infrastructure financing requirements. He shows how the budgetary decisions and crises tied up with rivers almost always had the predictable temporal challenge of borrowing today for an uncertain and rapidly developing future, and that this temporal problem is intertwined with the spatial realities of federalism in ways that increased the effects of water crises as they evolved. The budgeting and finance concerns have ranged from early canal and related transportation financing primarily through state borrowing until the Panic of 1837, to flood control and local power generation from municipal sources until the Great Depression and World War II brought significant increases in federal spending to many rivers for many purposes, and then back to a Reagan-era push to return these responsibilities to private-public partnerships between the states and municipalities and financiers.

In essence, Doyle uncovers a nuanced ratchet effect where the ratcheting up of interventions varies with not only the dimensionality of the crisis presented by the stressor to the water resource, but also by the contemporaneous ideology of the country and the tolerance for the scale of risk accepted in efforts at taming rivers for evolving uses. This makes the book not only excellent economic history, but particularly relevant for today’s audiences who wonder how we should be building and financing resilience for our vital river systems and the benefits they provide in light of the increasing number of river and water uses and uncertainties we face.



Brooks Kaiser’s publications include “Watershed Conservation in the Long Run,” Ecosystems (2014).

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