In River Time: The Way of the James


Once Americans had mastered so many ways to take advantage of the flow of their rivers, tightening the bond of dependency, the next task seemed obvious: the water level must be controlled. Any concerns about water quality were answered with the pat phrase--"Dilution is the solution to pollution." Ideally, the river would be kept within reasonable boundaries, neither excessively high nor low but consistently high enough to flush out waste and heat and keep clear a deep navigational channel. However, this ideal was suited to people more than to a river whose dimensions must accommodate whatever rain falls in its basin and the soil it carries. Unable to control the weather, Americans after World War I chose to try modifying the weather's effects, primarily by altering the shape and courses of rivers. It did not seem to matter if some of a river's natural processes had to be tampered with, as long as the river could be forced to behave itself. The possibility of controlling pollution at its sources rather than trying to keep the water level high did not appear feasible at the time.

Since rivers often transgress state boundaries as well as their own beds, the only organization with the expertise, the money, and the political power to do the job of controlling rivers, as a rule, was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Ironically, military engineers appeared to be the most appropriate managers of unruly rivers. For more than fifty years of pork-barrel politics, mostly in peacetime, the Corps has patriotically kept up the struggle with what it has declared to be the "greatest enemy" of American progress, the major rivers. It has applied American ingenuity by constructing dams and canals, channelizing, dredging, in short, doing whatever seems to make rivers more amenable. The spirit of the colonists whose vision of the river was intertwined with their dreams of wealth has thrived in this twentieth-century incarnation, for the Corps repeatedly argues that rivers are the literal bloodstream of the American economy. Thus, no one could seriously question the need to pour tax dollars into projects to keep those rivers within human boundaries. No one did either, until fairly recently.

The best handiwork of the Corps can be seen on the nation's largest rivers, especially the Mississippi and its large tributaries. Here is an array of dams, levees, and other creations of concrete and rock, as well as a fleet of dredging vessels constantly rearranging the silt on the river bottom. The temperamental river that tested Mark Twain's skills as a cub pilot has been leashed, though it is still not quite tamed. There are many who fear that some of the Mississippi's extensive "improvements" may soon backfire, that long-term and unforeseen consequences are capable of becoming short- term terrors. The victor in the continuing battle between the Corps and American rivers has not yet been declared, in spite of the Corps' detailed cost-benefit ratio computations.

The first attempt to tame the James had been part of an earlier military strategy, when General Butler's Yankee engineers attempted to blast through the peninsula at Dutch Gap in 1865. Clearing the loosened dirt out of the cut after the war was over was simple enough, and many applauded the convenience of the shorter, straighter navigation route. There have been consequences, though, for the cut-off portion of the river began filling up with silt until the only evidence of the former bend today is a swamp and a "gut" into which heated waters of a coal-fired electric power plant are discharged. Another pattern had been confirmed on the river: first, change the river for human convenience and later, find ways to deal with, even to take advantage of, the unpredicted consequences of those changes.

Although the Corps has had its hand in the reshaping of the James, it has been more a finger than a fist. In the 1930s it continued the straightening process by cutting through two more curls, creating two islands. One subsequently became a wildlife preserve and the other has been mined for its gravel. So far neither curl has silted up, although the swamp area is increasing and it is likely only a matter of time. If a closed curl proves to be a problem (for a sewage treatment plant is scheduled to discharge its effluent into the flow inside one curve), then the Corps will be asked to deal with it also, probably by dredging.

The Corps has become quite skilled at dredging the tidewater James, working constantly to keep at least a 25-foot shipping channel cleared to the ports below the Fall Line. It has not been an easy task; in 1963 the Corps had to build a hydraulic model of the James in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to study the shaping processes peculiar to this river so it can control them better. The James is still not quite tamed, however. Ocean-going ships are allowed to negotiate the river only during daylight hours and under the direction of an experienced pilot, for the channel shifts and builds up faster than the Corps can clear it. A new problem confronts the Corps: the sediments shifted by the dredges are increasingly contaminated by chemicals from industries and land runoff. This one will not be solved so easily as by building a physical model.

Keeping a channel scooped out is a relatively simple though expensive operation. Far more challenging is the responsibility the Corps has assumed for keeping a steady average flow in the river, somewhere between too much and too little. Few people realize how closely keyed most human uses of a river are to its average daily flow. Engineers now calculate how much water will be required to supply cities and irrigate farms, how much to flush and absorb effluent from sewage treatment plants and heat from factories and power plants, how much to float large ships, and how much to turn turbines. In short, they figure how many million gallons a day are constantly needed to support life, both organic and mechanical, in and around the river. Then regulatory agencies can permit almost any amount of development, as long as the total usage requires much less water than the river usually provides. Ordinarily, this system of water allocation works, especially since turbines and ships are not too particular about the quality of water they use.

These averages, though, may reflect some wide and some- times unpredictable extremes, and therein lies the problem. The average freshwater discharge of the James is 7,500 cubic feet per second, but extremes have been recorded as low as 329 cfs and as high as 325,000 cfs. An unusually heavy rain- fall or snow melt in the basin can turn a dependable flow into an outraging torrent in a matter of hours. On the James, this can and does happen in any season in any year. Each generation can count on dealing with three or four "monster" floods with little warning, interspersed with drought lows at least once every three years. Planning is further complicated by the fact that the highest and lowest levels can occur in successive months in this "flashy" river.

Floods usually get the most attention, but low levels of water, predictable by season though not by year, can prove to be more annoying and ultimately more expensive. Reduced water quantity means reduced quality of drinking water, loss of crops dependent on irrigation, stagnation that chokes fish life, and shutdown of industries dependent on great quantities of cooling water. Ironically, the desired increase in flow after rainfall can cause more problems than it solves as storms flush out the sewers of older cities and leach chemicals from farmland.

Calculations for water use are now geared to the lowest levels recorded for the river in a decade to make certain that the minimal flow is clean enough not to endanger human and fish life or corrode machinery. Thus, low water, depleted by drought and heat in the basin, translates into very expensive water treatment facilities which may function at full capacity for only a few weeks in a dry season. Upriver dams may help augment the summer flow, but they too are costly. Every gallon of water drawn from the river when it is at its lowest levels, then, eventually bears an unimaginable price tag.

The Corps began addressing the problem of periodic low flow levels in the James in the early 1950s, planning at least three darns on the upper tributaries which could store water for summer release. This method of "flow augmentation" was their answer to the increasingly visible water quality problems below cities; dilution rather than sewage treatment seemed the cheapest way to reduce the concentration of pollutants. At the time, Richmond had to divert much of the river's summer flows into canals to provide drinking water or produce electricity. What was left in the bared river bed was often largely untreated sewage, which fed thick mats of algae. Similar water quality problems at Lynchburg prompted its newspaper to publish a pamphlet in 1949 on "Cleaning the James" which pinpointed the James' varying streamflow as the chief culprit in water pollution. Evidently, both the Corps and river residents saw logic in operating the river on the principles of a flush toilet.

Only one of those three dams has been built, and that was the result of an extensive campaign by a Chamber of Commerce executive in the upper basin of the James, Benjamin Moomaw. High in the Allegheny mountains, near the West Virginia line, was a deep and wild gorge carved by the Jackson River which had long been a private wildlife preserve. Both Moomaw and the Corps believed that gorge should be dammed. Meanwhile there were many obstacles to be hurdled. Twelve miles of trout stream would be eliminated by the reservoir, as well as countless Indian archaeological sites, but agreements were eventually worked out with the state agencies concerned. Finally the Corps was authorized to build an earthen dam at an estimated cost of $17 million. This became $82 million after extensive caverns were belatedly discovered on one side of the dam. Tons of concrete had to be poured and a monitoring system installed to make certain that the dam would not be undermined. Typically, the Corps chose to try to solve the problems, and did not consider abandoning the project as unwise. Gathwright Dam was completed in 1979 and the reservoir began filling .

Like many Corps projects in the country, this one has proved a mixed blessing, with some empty promises. A number of former Indian sites were hastily surveyed, just enough to see how many would be submerged. There was no time for the detailed studies that could have contributed to archaeological scholarship. The trout population has not fared much better. A new strain of rainbow trout from Nebraska has recently been stocked in the lake in hope that they will spawn upstream. Meanwhile, if they do not survive, the hardier bass, bluegill, and channel catfish which have also been stocked will probably flourish. Thus, the ecological equation of the stream has been changed by the dam. There is still a trout stream below the dam, but landowners there have gone to court to try to keep "outlanders" from wading in their stream. The case may be decided outside of court, however. A proposal to retrofit the dam to produce peak electric power, if accepted, is likely to erode the stream. Whether the sensitive trout, either the native or the stocked species, can endure all this interference with their habitat remains to be seen. The argument for flow augmentation once so loudly touted is now rarely mentioned. No one wants to be reminded that the reservoir must be kept relatively low behind that earthen dam, just in case there are more undiscovered caverns. At best, the reservoir can probably contribute little more than a half inch to the water level at the Fall Line. However, dilution has become less crucial now that most of the urban sewage can be treated, not just flushed, and almost no water has to be diverted out of the river bed.

What is currently advertised is the opportunity that Moomaw Lake offers for a tourism bonanza in this remote and economically depressed region. The federal government, however, needs to find another $8 million to build up the recreation potential. I wonder if this is not another chimera. When I visited one weekend in the fall of I983, at the height of the famed leaf color, the picnic tables and boat docks were deserted. To me, the tall dam looming across the gorge, with water lapping at its foot, looked like an ugly monument to the great American boondoggle and human inability to cope with natural processes. Yet the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still holds its portfolio of dam projects, and a private organization in the basin keeps pressing for more dams and reservoirs in the mountains. Farmers on the Jackson River below the dam are said to be grateful that their "fences down in the flats" are not "knocked down in the rainy season." Projects like this make me wonder how the Corps can be so confident about its ability to calculate all the costs and benefits.

It is not low but high flows--floods, that is--which most arouse public ire and push the Corps into immediate and drastic actions. After almost forty relatively quiet years, the James, fed by hurricane-spawned rains, had the audacity to rise to and above the so-called hundred-year level twice in three years, in 1969 and 1972. Even though the James floods significantly on the average of once a decade and the floodplains are clearly marked on property deeds, and there were 48 to 72 hours of warning, most river dwellers were unprepared to cope with the generous waters. Few lives were lost in either flood, but the rhythm of life was temporarily disrupted and literally disconnected. Arteries of cross-river traffic were blocked as the waters rose on bridge access roads that dipped into the floodplain and almost 100 low-lying bridges were broken, tearing downstream with a few drowned cows to nudge the quaking supports of other bridges. Potable water supplies stopped after reservoirs and tanks were exhausted and the streams of electricity and sewage halted as treatment and power plants on the banks succumbed to the river. Even the chain of water life was disrupted, as raw sewage and low salinity in the tidewater James destroyed clams and oysters. Losses for business and homes built in the floodplain amounted to millions of dollars .

Up and down the river were angry people ready to agree with Ann Bullington's anthropomorphic description of the flooding James:

>Its swirling, boiling waters tear rapidly seaward, motivated by a maliciousness beyond the comprehension of those that know the river best. It is then a vicious thing that throws back its head and laughs wildly at the puny thing that is man, or man made. ... It is a soulless demon hungry for blood and demanding its pound of flesh.
Newspaper editorials thundered against the malevolent river, demanding federal funding to clean up the damage made by this "act of God," as well as prompt construction of flood walls and dams to keep the river in the channels where it properly belonged. Needless to say, the Corps of Engineers stood ready to lead any battle against the river which had so rudely trespassed on humans and their artifacts.

This time, however, instead of finding an ally like Benjamin Moomaw, the Corps encountered an opponent to its post-flood projects. Newton Ancarrow, a Richmond engineer and boatbuilder, had already spent more than a decade campaigning against the pollution of the James and photographing its wildflowers. After the 1972 flood (which had finished off his business), he was appalled to find that the Corps, funded to clean up after the floods, had brought in front-end loaders to strip the river islands and banks of debris, as well as vegetation, trees, and his treasured wildflowers. The next high water would erode many of these islands into the river, Ancarrow knew, so there was no time to waste. As a riparian owner, he could take on the Corps in court. Playing the role of "river nut," using his slides of the damage and conducting a tour of the river, he won his point despite the fifteen lawyers and twenty-four expert witnesses brought in by the Corps and the Justice Department.

The bulldozers were moved away from the Fall Line---but not away from the river. Since federal funding was still available for "emergency repair operations," the Corps moved upstream to begin channelizing the tributaries and the upper James. Here they were more welcome, for residents were still stunned by the 1969 flood that followed 22 inches of rain in one long night. But Ancarrow soon discovered what the Corps was doing, and he understood the environmental damages that could result. This time, since he was not a riparian owner in the area, he could not go to court, so he resorted to the camera, hiring professional photographers to fly over and document how bulldozers were "turning the rivers and streams into drainage ditches." Using thousands of dollars of his own money, he put together a film called "The Raging James: An Essay On Channelization."

In the film, eventually shown twice on the public television station, various experts, standing in front of the scarred riverscape and grinding bulldozers, testify that sections of these rivers have become biologic deserts which harbor little or no life. The machines have loosened millions of tons of soil, sending it downstream to be dredged by the Corps, and stripped off vegetation, thus increasing the probability of drought damage and downstream flooding. Every action taken in the basin is shown to have far-reaching and long-term consequences in the delicate estuary. The point is made that channelization can be a legitimate way to deal with a river, but what was happening on the upper James and its tributaries is judged to be a violent disruption of the river's living processes at an uncalculated cost.

The Corps completed its work and moved on to other projects, and those who saw the film were left to wonder about the wisdom of reshaping a river to control it. There are few ways to measure who won that dispute, and how much, if anything, the river has actually lost. The Corps still has not acknowledged defeat in its battle against the flooding river. Its proposal to build a flood-wall rising thirty feet along the lower banks of the Fall Line and costing more than $90 million is currently making its way through Congressional committees. There is no sense of urgency, for flooding since 1972 has managed to fall within the tolerated limits. But the Corps keeps watch, waiting for the napping dragon to awaken and developing new weapons. Meanwhile the Don Quixote who watched the Corps, Newton Ancarrow, has retired to his home above the Falls.

I too keep an eye on the changing levels of the river, as an apprentice to an art and not as an expert seeking control. The art of riverwatching is rooted in a different concept of what makes an ideal river. It disdains the precise measurements of the mechanical gauges that line the river, preferring a more inclusive and personal tally which measures both watcher and watched. Each day I make my survey as I cross the river's bridges, gauging its height against my private landscape. A small island which bears a tower to direct power lines, a broad expanse of potholed granite, a sandy spit which my toes have explored, a tree which dips over an elephantine rock--these are my favorite markers, but they record more than the level of the water.

Who can explain the strange exultation I feel with each change I note? The low water of summer tempts me to leave my watching post beside the clean water of the upper Falls, and test the depth with my body. I cling to the edges of dry rock, feeling my way into the surprisingly deep and clear currents which wind through the river's center. Here stream the waters which have bubbled from the rocky earth, left by rains of long ago, emerging to sustain the life now visible in the creatures clumped on the undersides of rock or the fish hovering as it spawns. Like the dusty trees, I reach out and a thirst is quenched by the cool, mudless low water.

On most days, though, the river simply fills its channel to its customary edge, holding to the level which balances the many claims humans keep making on it, absorbing and flushing, floating and nourishing. There is comfort and reassurance in its predicted equilibrium, maybe even dullness. Yet this mean level may be the greatest miracle of all, for it keeps reconciling and modulating hundreds of streams fed by sporadic and scattered rains; somehow the equation remains fairly constant.

My pulse quickens most when the river rises, drawing me to its banks where I am sure to meet other riverwatchers. Perhaps the fluid life within us welcomes signs of the river's generous cleansing. As Thoreau said, it may be that "The life in us is like the water in the river; it may rise this year higher than ever it was known to before and flood the uplands--even this may be the eventful year--and drown out all our muskrats." Personally, I am inclined to root for the poor muskrats, frantically swimming as the waters do some forcible housecleaning.

James flood at Belle IsleIn the spring of 1983 the river stayed in flood, high enough to swirl over the paths along the river bank at Richmond and bar all but the bravest kayackers, but lower than the official panic point. The granite monoliths of the Falls became shadows playing under the smoothed, murky surface. It was hard to find any dry vantage points, so I usually ended up perched on the cover of a high sewage collector. But the show was worth it. The river was busy rearranging itself, right before my eyes, dislodging logs, rocks, and even little trees, and sending them to new homes. There was no way I could predict what would sweep into sight next. I would not have been surprised to see anything, though I was grateful not to see any of the drowned cows or rooftops that bumped down the river in 1972.

Spring was just barely beginning, with the tiny leaves just partly unclenched. Several spots where wildflowers usually flourish in early spring were under water and there might not be any blooms this year. The birds still had nowhere to hide, so they brazenly swooped over the water, pausing on the shortened trees to whistle shrilly, scolding someone--probably me. As the water tugged at the roots of the water-loving trees, scarring their bark with its floating projectiles, I could almost see it rising under the bark, swelling the leaves into life. Just above the water line, on those islands still undrowned, old and new debris was catching the dirt and seed, holding them for sunnier days. Like the four mallards floating backward down the stream, the apparent calm was misleading; all nature was furiously paddling under the surface.

Coming back a month later, when the water was again clear and the rocks were giant stepping stones around the islands, I had to get reoriented. It was still a world of green-gray and brown, punctuated by the yellow and purple of common flowers and the red flash of cardinals, but it was also different. My favorite pile of logs no longer looked like a dragon guarding the rapids. It would take a while for me to find shape here or in the other rearranged stacks, but there should be time before the next flood. The muskrat that lives under the piles seemed unperturbed by the new architecture.

On the river, death by water often translates into new life, and I found almost more life than I could handle. I watched little gray birds with long beaks that I named rock-pipers searching the crevices of new dirt for tasty seeds. On the re-emerged islands were bright green moss sprouting new grass, new varieties of transported wildflowers, and even baby trees. The trunks of trees overhanging the edges were a bit more battered and some had acquired new skirts of rocks and logs, but none looked ready to release its tenuous hold just yet. The flood's legacy of small pools was teeming with life, mostly mosquito larvae, and I scratched in anticipation. Until now, I had not been sure that it was spring.

I have seen some of the destruction wrought by floods and felt sympathy for those who lost so much, wishing they had built higher and tighter. But still, I cannot help but feel somehow purged when I watch the high waters carrying mud and trash down to the sea. I clutch the bridge railing and murmur, "Go to it, old river. Stand up and be counted in this world." At these times even the blindest must admit that the planet and all that abide on it are connected by water, are all channels of the greater River that circulates through sky, sea, and now man. Rivers may not always behave as we would prefer, but their capacity for excesses is part of what allows them to serve other forms of life, and thus be ideal living rivers. By fighting the river's changes rather than adjusting to them, people have eventually found themselves with more serious and unexpected problems, especially when the river defies its so-called controls.

chapter 15
chapter 17