Rivers by Design

State Power and the Origins of U.S. Flood Control

Rivers by Design

Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 4 illustrations Published: May 2006

Cultural Studies, Environmental Studies, Geography

The United States has one of the largest and costliest flood control systems in the world, even though only a small proportion of its land lies in floodplains. Rivers by Design traces the emergence of the mammoth U.S. flood management system, which is overseen by the federal government but implemented in conjunction with state governments and local contractors and levee districts. Karen M. O’Neill analyzes the social origins of the flood control program, showing how the system initially developed as a response to the demands of farmers and the business elite in outlying territories. The configuration of the current system continues to reflect decisions made in the nineteenth century and early twentieth. It favors economic development at the expense of environmental concerns.

O’Neill focuses on the creation of flood control programs along the lower Mississippi River and the Sacramento River, the first two rivers to receive federal flood control aid. She describes how, in the early to mid-nineteenth century, planters, shippers, and merchants from both regions campaigned for federal assistance with flood control efforts. She explains how the federal government was slowly and reluctantly drawn into water management to the extent that, over time, nearly every river in the United States was reengineered. Her narrative culminates in the passage of the national Flood Control Act of 1936, which empowered the Army Corps of Engineers to build projects for all navigable rivers in conjunction with local authorities, effectively ending nationwide, comprehensive planning for the protection of water resources.


“[Rivers by Design is] a book that makes an important contribution to the body of historical writing on the control of American rivers.” — Jamie Linton>, Journal of Historical Geography

“[Rivers by Design] aids in an understanding of the interactions between various levels of government, as well as relations between the government and the public. It also provides an increased awareness of the processes by which national policy is instituted. Thus, its academic and practical contributions make this book a worthwhile read.” — Brooklynn J. Anderson, Rural Sociology

“[C]ritical reading for specialists in water policy, environmental studies, environmental social science, political ecology, and history. . . . [A]n exciting book.” — Peter C. Little, Electronic Green Journal

“[T]he first comprehensive study of federal flood control policy . . . . O’Neill’s work is welcome and long overdue in the historiography of flood control. The comparative analysis of the Mississippi River and Sacramento River flood control systems will intrigue any reader. O’Neill’s analysis of the political efforts of lobby organizations is excellent, and so too are her descriptions of the debates in Congress . . . . O’Neill’s impressive book is a must have for historians who study federal involvement in internal improvements.” — George S. Pabis, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“In this book, O’Neill illustrates the parallels between river valley development in the West (Sacramento Valley) and the South (Mississippi Valley), and the political machinations that evolved into a wide range of river-management programs, in particular flood control.” — Brooks A. Kaiser, EH.NET

“The strength of O’Neil’s book is its emphasis on the flow of money that shaped the course of rivers more profoundly than did science or law.” — Todd Shallat, Journal of American History

“This book is of special interest to historians, lawyers, political representatives, and political scientists that work with water and river development. . . . While the Mississippi and Sacramento valleys are most represented, readers generally interested in river development can profit from reading this book.” — Donald E. Agthe, Journal of the American Water Resources Association

“This is a well-organized and timely book.” — Brian Q. Cannon, Agricultural History

“Well written and insightful. . . . Highly recommended.” — M.C. Brown, Choice

“Bold in its interpretation, sweeping in its scope, and judicious in its style, Rivers by Design argues convincingly that federal flood control policy, which culminated in the Flood Control Act of 1936, ended comprehensive resource planning at the federal level. This is an exciting and original study.” — Donald J. Pisani, author of Water and American Government

“Karen M. O’Neill has produced a tour de force—a carefully researched and clearly written analysis of the tangled emergence of the U.S. flood-control system. Her powerful wake-up call to us all is how the federal government, through the Army Corps of Engineers, reengineered the nation’s rivers to promote local economic development at the expense of—rather than with a sensitivity to—environmental values.” — Norris Hundley Jr., author of The Great Thirst: Californians and Water–A History

“Masterfully weaving historical details, Karen M. O’Neill traces the unanticipated expansion of the federal government’s role in ‘controlling’ the Mississippi and Sacramento rivers. In this era of rising hurricane-induced floodwaters, she offers deep insight into the tensions between local and national agencies, and between the state and private interests.” — Allan Schnaiberg, coauthor of Urban Recycling and the Search for Sustainable Community Development


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Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Karen M. O’Neill is Assistant Professor of Human Ecology and an associate member of the Graduate Program in Sociology at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Tables and Maps ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xxi

I. Rivers and State Authority 1

1. Infrastructure Builds the State 3

2. The Founding Principles of River Development 13

II. Regional Competition and the Rise of the Flood Control Campaign 27

3. The Mississippi River: Becoming the Nation’s River 31

4. The Mississippi River: Resentment Leading to Civil War 43

5. The Mississippi River: Postwar Reunification, Postwar Aid 56

6. The Sacramento River: Miners versus Farmers 68

7. The Sacramento River: Capitalists Unify for Development 80

III. Redesigning Rivers in the National Interest 97

8. Federal Aid for the Mississippi and Sacramento Rivers 99

9. The Fully Designed River 128

10. A Nationwide Program for Flood Control 150

11. Rivers by Design 179

Appendix 1. Mississippi Valley River Improvement Conventions 187

Appendix 2. Mississippi River Levee Association, Executive Committee 197

Notes 199

Bibliography 243

Index 265
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3773-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3760-7
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