Q&A with Martin Doyle, professor of river science and policy

The Nicholas School professor is also the author of The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers
April 20, 2018

What sparked your interest in rivers?

I went to college for physics. One day my undergraduate adviser pulled me aside and told me I would not be a good physicist. I left college and meandered around the West for a while, and I got a job assisting a hydrologist at Mount Rainier National Park—basically schlepping water samples for the National Park Service. I discovered I loved hydrology, so I went back to college to finish my degree in physics and then became a hydrologist.

With more than 250,000 rivers, is the U.S. unique in how waterways shaped the national character?

Rivers have shaped where we live. Many cities of America’s interior, for example, lie at important river confluences. Rivers allowed movement between the different states, sixteen of which are named for rivers, and their borders are typically set by rivers. The commercial trade rivers made possible helped bind the residents of those states. Commerce on interstate rivers, then, would contribute to the idea of a single national economy rather than a collection of independent state economies.

What was it like, in researching the book, to join a towboat captain on the Mississippi?

One strong impression was the sheer industrial scale of the Lower Mississippi River and the fact that it’s still such a funnel point for international trade. It’s also a river with romantic associations: Think of Mark Twain, the steamboat pilot who tries to make his fortune on the river. Abraham Lincoln’s first trip was on a little flatboat all the way down the Mississippi to New Orleans. It was the way people in the Midwest saw beyond their little part of the world. And for me, riding that tow down the river was a career highlight.

Part of what made America what it became was the presence of hydropower, right?

In building all those small dams in the mid-nineteenth century, New England stole the textile industry from England. Hydropower was really how the U.S. got its foothold into the international economy. That was especially in grinding grain. During World War II, we were able to refine aluminum on the Columbia River and uranium on the Tennessee. You could make the argument that our ability to ramp up as a wartime industrial power was related to the fact that we had hydropower coming out of our ears.

What does climate change portend for rivers and their impact?

It will cause droughts to get drier and floods to get wetter. Climate change is primarily affecting the extremes, not necessarily the average. So the backbone infrastructure of the U.S. becomes critical. In 2011, they had the flood of record on the Mississippi River. In 2012, they had the drought of record. And look at California: mega-drought in 2016, and mega-flood in 2017. I’ve called it “hydrologic whiplash.”

But we keep building on floodplains, don’t we?

We’ve allowed people to move into areas that we shouldn’t have allowed them to move into in the first place. Are we willing to spend the money to make the infrastructure that much more robust? Or do we spend the money to get people out of there?

Was there one sparking event behind the move to clean up our waterways?

Urban legend or not, the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland illustrated just how bad things were. The environmental policies that followed in the 1970s were extraordinarily successful. Within weeks of the blaze on the Cuyahoga, the federal government threatened six industrial firms with prosecution if they did not reduce pollution. Over the next six months, another sixty- six federal prosecutions had targeted industrial water polluters. From there came the Clean Water Act, along with the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

On the other hand, there’s the unhappy example of Flint, Michigan.

Flint is an ultimate conundrum. What are we going to do with cities like Flint that don’t have a growing population with a generous tax base, but that do have these extremely expensive infrastructure problems?