Rivers by Design: State Power and the Origins of U. S. Flood Control

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“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: The Reclamation Bureau, National Water Policy, and the West, 1902–1935

“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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822337607
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/2006
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Read an Excerpt

Rivers by Design



Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3773-7

Chapter One

Infrastructure Builds the State

The flood control system built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers is rivaled only by the system protecting the Netherlands. But while the Netherlands could scarcely exist without river levees and seawalls, the United States has plenty of land outside of floodplains. It is not obvious why the United States government would take on the responsibility of providing flood control and flood insurance for lands along all major rivers.

As later chapters will explain, demands for federal government flood control aid by landowners, shippers, financiers, and politicians from the Sacramento and Mississippi river valleys made the local and regional problem of flooding into a national responsibility. Far from being imposed by the central government, the flood control program was resisted by Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers. Activists first established laws and public works programs at the local and subnational state government levels to assist private flood control work. Once the federal program was created, federal managers had to work closely with local contractors, levee districts, and subnational state governments to build federal levees andweirs. This activity articulates the central government with local and subnational state government institutions, and it articulates the government with landowners. Organizational articulation is one possible institutional form that arms central government authority in regions that are physically distant from the capital, even though in the case of flood control such institutions were not imposed from the center.

This chapter outlines the broad processes of modern state building and class formation affecting the way the U.S. government manages land and resources, setting a conceptual framework for analyzing why the pattern of articulation emerged in the flood control program. Establishing and sustaining territorial power is a defining feature of modern states. Studying relations between the central government and distant regions is one way of considering how the physical integration of territory contributes to modern state power. Centralizing authorities typically repress internal challengers and set up border garrisons and administrative controls to manage outlying regions. Effective rule depends, however, on a wider range of activities, including economic development projects, changes in the law, and discursive work. These activities produce institutional forms that manage interactions between the central government and outlying regions. In the case of flood control, they produced an institutional form that articulated the federal, state, and local governments.

People in outlying regions influence the nature and timing of activities that build government power, and they even initiate efforts that end up arming central government control. Like many other land and resource programs in the United States, the flood control program was created because provincial elites demanded aid. Landowners, shippers, and merchants from the lower Mississippi and Sacramento river valleys argued that the federal government had a duty to control floods that threatened valley farming and shipping and that hindered participation in the national economy.

Two features relevant to the control of outlying territories are special to this case, namely that it concerns land policy and that it unfolds in a country with a federal system. Land, resource, and infrastructure policies often produce visible symbols of central government power that become essential for sustaining daily life in a locality. These policies also require modifying legal and social systems that regulate access to land. Studying a federal system highlights how the authority and power of a central government can be extended by responding effectively to local demands and by incorporating local institutions.

These features of the flood control case draw our attention to the organizational, legal, and cultural boundaries between the modern state and society, rather than to the central government's bureaucracies, budgets, or armies. The flood control program is what George Steinmetz calls a "structure-changing policy," one which alters the way subsequent policies are produced by altering the perceived boundaries between the modern state and society. The flood control program altered boundaries by redefining the government's political duty to assist landowners, while giving the impression that it was merely ensuring some morally prior landowner right to property that is ready for productive use. In particular, politicians and judges in the early nineteenth century had interpreted the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution as limiting federal river work to navigation projects that facilitated the distribution of goods. By contrast, flood control projects would directly improve the way goods were produced (especially crops), not just the way they were distributed, and would directly benefit landowners.

Flood control activists and sympathetic officials did not set out to change the nature of property and the state. Neither did they anticipate that the path to success would involve temporarily defining levee repair as navigation work, trading votes for regionally specific development aid in Congress, calling for national rather than merely regional flood control aid, emphasizing public safety rather than economic development, and making delicate political tradeoffs with Progressives and New Dealers.

Activists did consciously build on the long-standing assumption in the country's culture that the government should support rather than threaten the institution of property. The Mississippi carried much of the nation's water, they pointed out. The Sacramento was burdened by debris from mining that had built the nation's gold reserves, which were considered at that time to represent the country's wealth. Flooding was therefore a national problem that unfairly burdened landowners. The nature and timing of specific political steps leading to federal aid depended on large-scale political and economic conditions. The cultural and political transformation of local and regional flooding into a national problem, however, depended on the links between federal, state, and local governments and between government agencies and landowners established over the decades while they worked to change rivers. To explain why this sort of transformation helps to define the modern state, the next sections consider how territorial power is sustained domestically, how modern state territorial claims and property laws regulate access to land, how these institutions affect the formation of landed classes, and how federalism structures space.

The Modern State and Territory

Modern states organize territory by reorienting social networks toward state activities. In the United States this involved changes in property rights and changes in the central government's legal and physical organization of territory.

Scholars readily agree that modern states differ from other forms of political power because they organize territory more intensively. In a statement cited by theorists of many persuasions, Max Weber defines the modern state as "a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." Before the full emergence of modern states in Europe, religious, military, and political authorities typically had jurisdiction over specific groups of people, rather than authority over well-defined territories. Historically, the emergence of a territorial power in a region forced other powers to organize to protect territory, or face possible annexation. By gaining authority to draw resources from a specific territory, a state may become able to finance territorial expansion or to create more intensive political controls within its existing territory. Political expectations, nationalist ideologies, international agreements and norms, international aid packages, and targeted military actions have fostered the organization of the world into territorial states.

Some observers argue that international governmental organizations, transnational nongovernmental organizations and corporations, and border-spanning economic activities and technologies have eroded states' roles as authoritative political and economic actors, or at least changed the conditions under which modern states operate. Writings on globalization invite us to consider whether modern states have until now been as unified and territorially well defined as is often assumed.

Scholars who view state power as being imposed from the center have contributed to the idea that the modern state is unitary. Tocqueville argued that the French state not only centralized power and resources but also compelled the provinces to adopt a national culture. Many studies inspired by Tocqueville describe regional resistance and acknowledge that modern state power is often indistinguishable from the power of local landed elites, but the focus of these studies remains on central bureaucracies.

Others question the assumptions that modern states are monolithic organizations distinct from civil society that impose order and political culture from the center. Critics of Weber's definition of the state note that states often fail to monopolize coercion but remain recognizable as states in their attempts to control territory. Empirical studies find that the actual practice of state sovereignty varies, to the point where challengers within the borders of some countries have established themselves as alternative regional authorities. And nationalities seldom fully coincide with national borders, even when state leaders encourage nationalist movements.

Peter Sahlins reconsiders assumptions about state control over outlying territories by studying a border area of a country strongly associated with centralized control, France. Ethnic Catalans on both sides of the emerging border with Spain resisted the two centralizing states, while using their new national identities and nationalist claims to territory to compete against each other locally for scarce resources. Sahlins concludes that political links between French Catalans and the French government were built therefore from the provinces as well as from the center, despite the Catalans' long-standing ambivalence toward Paris. Sahlins's approach provides a model for investigating initiatives from outlying regions in the United States that determined how the central government related to people in these regions as it managed rivers.

Stein Rokkan identifies two fundamental domestic conflicts relevant to such struggles for territorial control that mark the rise of the modern state: (1) a conflict between centralizing state regimes and resistant peripheral regions and (2) an industrial revolution that stimulates a class cleavage between owners and workers and a sectoral cleavage between landowners and industrialists. Rokkan's two conflicts unfold in part as struggles over the way land is organized and used. Using these concepts, a historical case study of state building would analyze events to consider how specific institutions were established to manage each of these two forms of conflict.

As Timothy Mitchell sees it, state building is not accomplished by leaders imposing their will on the people to suppress these two conflicts. Instead, it occurs through social processes that change not only how people organize control over material conditions but also how they perceive the institutions that control those conditions. The state appears to be a separate entity that regulates society. Despite this appearance, case studies of policy making show that the border between the state and society is ambiguous and ever changing. For instance, governments may privatize or nationalize industries, take on old age care, and create incentives for industries to regulate their own activities. Rather than conceiving of the state as an entity that imposes order over territory, Mitchell therefore proposes that we investigate how mundane practices of spatial organization, such as border guards and watchtowers, lead us to perceive of an authoritative modern state set apart from society. Sahlins and others who study borderlands have used this approach to investigate the social and cultural processes that (provisionally) transform frontiers into international borders. To understand how land is regulated within the borders of an advanced capitalist country, I consider how Mitchell's dividing line is drawn between state territory and private property, the two key institutions regulating land in such countries.

The Modern State and Property

In addition to excluding other sovereigns from their territory, modern states also regulate access to land by their own citizens. With the rise of capitalism, states have managed a mix of capitalist, usufruct, and other forms of land claims. In the United States, people have relied on the language of law when debating decisions about "internal improvements," that is, government-sponsored land development projects and public works. Within the Anglo-American tradition of law, according to Edward Levi, decisions about internal improvements and other types of land development are treated as answers to "the perennial problems of government: the relationship between problems of the person, the state, and property rights."

Putting this in theoretical terms, state territory is a form of authority that overlaps with private property on most land in the United States. Anglo-American law represents this overlap by conceptualizing property as a bundle of rights that is divided between landowners and the state. The fee simple estate in the United States includes the exclusive right of the landowner to hold land and its permanent features, the rights to use it or dispose of it, and the rights of freedom from interference or damage by others. Society, represented by the state, always withholds the right to tax private property, the right to condemn land for public use (eminent domain), police power, and the right to reclaim land if the owner fails to maintain ownership rights (escheat). Government may also regulate land use indirectly with its spending power. The modern state's coercive role is built into these rights, and the actual benefits that owners enjoy vary greatly as circumstances change and as political and judicial decisions are made. Property rights are often evoked politically in the United States as a prior right that checks state power.

At the same time, the state presents itself as the legal originator of property rights. Property in the United States actually incorporates a jumble of historical claims, including squatters' claims, parcels designated for indigenous peoples, and land grants from colonial authorities, the federal government, and subnational state governments. By acting to guarantee property rights, no matter what their origin, the state not only mediates between conflicting private parties but also actively defines the terms of these social relationships.

Property rights establish landowners as a group that depends heavily on government decisions. The state's reach into claimed regions in turn depends on state relations with landed interest groups, in their roles as key players in the land tenure system (i.e., landowners, under capitalism), and as elites who depend on the development of their home regions.

The Modern State and Formation of the Capitalist Landed Class

Because modern states coexist with a variety of class and market systems, it is clear that there is more than one path of class formation and market development that enables states to establish some measure of territorial control. Countries with capitalist economies, however, do experience broadly similar changes in the social uses of land that affect both state building and class formation. Geographers conceptualize the transformation of land into state territory and private property as the transformation of highly differentiated "places," defined by use values, into planned "space," where exchange value and state plans predominate. When the government enforces contract and property law or builds roads, it transforms the distinctive qualities of places into plots usable for market or state uses.

Emerging groups of agricultural capitalists might target several factors of production and distribution as they organize to influence law and land policies, including policies that convert places into space. Capitalist agricultural production depends on having the institutional means for owning and exchanging property, a ready supply of workers, the legal and social means for extracting labor, physical and legal access to markets, and control over growing conditions. Max Pfeer identifies three systems of farming in the United States that satisfy these factors differently. After the Civil War, farming in the Sacramento and lower Mississippi river valleys-where flood control activism originated-evolved into two of Pfeer's three systems, corporate farming based on wage labor (in California) and sharecropping and tenancy (along the lower Mississippi). Despite the great differences between these two farm systems, landowners in these two valleys-which feature large, flood-prone rivers-organized in similar ways to demand flood control aid.


Excerpted from Rivers by Design by KAREN M. O'NEILL Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Infrastructure builds the state 3
Ch. 2 The founding principles of river development 13
Ch. 3 The Mississippi River : becoming the nation's river 31
Ch. 4 The Mississippi River : resentment leading to Civil War 43
Ch. 5 The Mississippi River : postwar reunification, postwar aid 56
Ch. 6 The Sacramento River : miners versus farmers 68
Ch. 7 The Sacramento River : capitalists unify for development 80
Ch. 8 Federal aid for the Mississippi and Sacramento Rivers 99
Ch. 9 The fully designed river 128
Ch. 10 A nationwide program for flood control 150
Ch. 11 Rivers by design 179
App. 1 Mississippi Valley River improvement conventions 187
App. 2 Mississippi River Levee Association, executive committee 197
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