Richard Nisley

Book Review: Rivers of Power
History - World Released - Feb 12, 2021
Throughout history rivers have been the lifeline of civilization. In "Rivers of Power" author and geophysicist Laurence Smith shows how rivers helped to create early civilization. He says we need rivers not just for our livelihood but for our mental well-being. He also shows how rivers not only renew themselves, but maintain their river beds, as they descend mountains on their journey to the sea, by filling in low spots with rocks and sediments. He even discusses how outer space technology is helping humankind to better understand and maintain the health of earth's rivers and lakes. Indeed, Smith's narrative is one part physics and one part metaphysics. "Rivers of Power" is (pardon the pun) never dry, but informative and entertaining–a lively journey that follows our understanding, use, and need of rivers.


Early societies depended on rivers for their very survival, not only to supply an endless flow of fresh drinking water, but to irrigate their fields for growing food, as well as to provide a convenient means of transportation, and to act as a barrier against hostile neighbors These early societies expanded water usage by digging canals to irrigate even larger growing fields, thus increase yield that in turn created a surplus for trade. They also channeled the river flow to harness energy, and thereby free themselves to master intellectual pursuits–to develop writing, arithmetic, and laws to govern themselves–and ultimately to create cities and civilization. These early societies developed on the wide, fertile river valleys of East Asia, the Middle East, India, and North Africa, and were so dependent on rivers that some historians now refer to them as "hydraulic societies."


Very much a part of the story is how pollutants have negatively impacted water sources, and of how quickly rivers recover their health once the polluting is stopped. The author cites two recent examples. One is the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio, that once was so badly polluted that incredibly it caught on fire. Once the polluting stopped, the Cuyahoga cleansed itself. Today, it's once again home to beavers, bald eagles, blue herons, and more than sixty varieties of fish. Another example is a toxic waste dump in Buffalo, New York, on a short waterway cut into the east bank of the Niagara River, infamously known as Love Canal. Thanks to an Act of Congress, which created the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), Love Canal was cleaned up and is now certifiably restored to health. Which is a promising start to a larger national problem yet to be tackled. As of the writing of this book, the author tells us there remains another 1,337 toxic dumps still to be cleaned.


Also investigated by Smith are a number of large-scale public water works projects, in China (the creation of the massive Three-Gorges Dam); in the Ethiopian Highlands (the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Damn); and in California (the building of an extensive network of a canals and pipelines to transfer fresh drinking water from streams in Northern California to the desert that is Southern California. Added to this is yet another canal that connects Southern California with the Colorado River. Despite these vast quantities of fresh water, Southern California's thirst for water is not easily slaked. Recently it has sought additional sources of water, including recycling waste water into drinking water.

Smith points out that dams have been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that they prevent surprise flooding, while storing vast quantities of water as a hedge against droughts. A curse in that they upset age-old ecosystems, such as preventing fish from swimming upstream to their native spawning waters.

Today's dams not only store untold quantities of fresh drinking water, but also produce relatively cheap hydro electric power. On the downside dams capture vast quantities of gravel, rocks and silt, that reduce capacity, and from time to time must be dredged out.

In the early part of the 20th century many dams were built, up and down the west coast of United States. For a variety of reasons, a number of these have been torn down in recent years. What's interesting, is how quickly these rivers recover once the dams are removed. Sandy marshes below once existing-dams return to wetlands, providing green foliage that prevents erosion, while giving refuge to a variety of wildlife. Also, fish (notably salmon) return to these streams and migrate back up to their former spawning waters, as if nothing had happened.

The author also cites a number of studies that reveal that water, particularly rivers, promote good mental health. Water, and the sound of it flowing over cataracts and rocks, tends to sooth frayed nerves. It turns out people need water not for all the obvious reasons, but also to regenerate their souls and lead happier lives. Studies show that living near water actually revitalizes people. For this reason, a number of large river cities, particularly those with decaying shipping and industrial centers, are being cleared of aging infrastructure and renewed by developers to create recreational green spaces with access to water, as well as waterfront buildings for offices, for retail, restaurants and housing.

A notable example is Battery Park City, in downtown Manhattan. Once a thriving shipping center on the Hudson River, the area has been cleared of docks and warehouses, the murky waters backfilled, to create new green space for parks and recreation. I visited this site in 2005, and watched a baseball game played by city residents on a public baseball diamond, as the sun gradually set over New Jersey.

The same phenomenon has been taking place in cities all over the world, in Chicago, in London, in Seattle, in Shanghai, China, and in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is not exactly known for its river, which for most of the year is dry. The Los Angeles River had once been a broad wetlands (that would overflow and flood the city, whenever it rained heavily) until it was paved over, and enclosed within high banks, to prevent flooding. Today, the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration project is being carried out to "restore a natural riparian ecosystem along an 11-mile stretch through downtown Los Angeles." Part of the project includes the purchase of an abandoned freight-switching rail yard. This 42-acre riverfront property is considered to be a critical part of the overall river revitalization plan. Says the L.A. mayor; "This vast site can transform how Angelenos connect with the natural world, because it will allow for habitat restoration and open more than a mile of direct access to the river for communities that have been cut off from it for too long."


Smith has long been associated with the preservation of rivers and lakes, including a connection with NASA and their ongoing project of photographing the earth (beginning immediately in the aftermath of Sputnik, back in 1957). Today's forthcoming space effort is the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite mission, scheduled for launch in 2022. A joint collaboration between the USA, France, Canada, and the UK, the SWOT satellite will track water level changes in the millions of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, thus radically improving our ability to monitor freshwater sources globally. Once classified, NASA's photographs of earth can be obtained online for free.

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