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A Call for a New “Water Ethic”

Anyone who has followed this blog even casually over the past months, or who has done more than glance at the newspapers and other media, knows that there have been epic floods on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers this year.  And as the hurricane season heats up, we are seeing that river flooding can be the greatest long term disaster from a storm like Hurricane Irene.  As I write Tuesday evening there are still entire towns in Vermont cut off by river floods.

Mark Davis, a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane Law School published a commentary column in the Memphis Commercial Appeal earlier this month that should be “required reading” for anyone interested in the bigger picture of what should be done to address these floods.  And you can bet that this WILL be required reading in my Honors Seminar this fall!

Davis argues that the nation needs a “fresh view” of its rivers.  It wasn’t that long ago, the early- to mid-20th century in fact, that such far-reaching policy debates took place and set management and policies for the Lower Mississippi, the Missouri, the Tennessee Valley basin, and the Colorado, among others.

But Davis is correct, I think, in his assertion that these policy and management frameworks are outdated, suited to a narrower point of view than we can afford to take now.  One of the transformative insights of the past 50 years has been recognition of  the varying, and substantial, values of our “natural” systems.  Translated, this generalization may mean that we should learn how to manage rivers for values beyond flood control.

Notice that I did not say “instead of” flood control.  To hear the political verbiage, the grandstanding, and the online comments and letters to editors (always a treat for people with a strong stomach and a taste for irony) you’d think that river management is an “either/or” proposition:  either manage for flood control, or manage for “other” values and, to quote a comment in response to Davis’ column, develop sustainable rivers “at the cost of peoples jobs or the collapse of our farming communities.”  It is quite likely that sustainable river management will require changes in farming practices, but that should not mean loss of jobs or collapse of communities–far from it.

Davis calls for a “water ethic,” akin, perhaps, to Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” published in the late 1940s in the germinal text A Sand County Almanac.  Leopold argued that conservation is a “state of harmony” between humans and land.

What would a “state of harmony” between humans and rivers look like?  Who would be involved?  What changes would have to come about, and what models exist for these changes?

As Davis notes, the stakes are high.  Quoting Mark Twain’s dictum that “The basin of the Mississippi is the BODY OF THE NATION,” it would appear that this is a matter of truly national importance.

So readers:  What do you think?

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One Comment

  1. Kevin GravingSeptember 8, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I enjoy Mark Twain’s dictum. I do understand the importance of balancing our control over nature and the reality that nature in fact controls us, but I have yet to truly delve into what the Mississippi means to my community, state, and nation. To picture the river as a body would be to picture the river as a tool, one of the greatest tools we humans ever have the opportunity to have control over. Our bodies, like the Mississippi, must be taken care of in order for them to function properly and to last. -KG

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