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Ecology, Planning, and River Management in the United States: Some Historical Reflections

Martin Reuss, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


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River ecologists are also river-basin planners. However, their role in planning has developed slowly over the decades since the beginning of the 20th century. Three major factors explain this phenomenon. First, ecologists focused on plant and animal communities rather than on broader policy issues related to land settlement and water development. Second, the federal government, and most state and local governments as well, used mainly economic criteria to justify projects. Intangible benefits, including the value of species or an aesthetically pleasing landscape, drew relatively little attention. Third, the public generally favored development, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Only after World War II did the public's position shift in favor of more preservation, as ecologists developed the concept of the ecosystem, large dam projects forced basin inhabitants from their homes, and chemical and nuclear pollutants threatened the environment. Also, urbanization increased support for the preservation of recreation sites and of streams undisturbed by human intervention. Meanwhile, partly through important advances in geomorphology and hydrology, ecologists acquired new tools to understand the land-water relationship within river basins. Neverthless, benefit-cost analysis continued to dominate federal water-resources planning, and organizational culture and competing or overlapping bureaucracies hampered rational water resources administration. Environmental groups and physical, natural, and even social scientists began to promote alternative ways to develop rivers. Today, the ideas of integrated water resources management, sustainable development, and comprehensive river-basin management dominate much of the thinking about the future course of river planning in the United States. Any future planning must include ecologists who can help their planning colleagues choose from among rational choices that balance ecological and human demands, provide advice when planning guidance is drafted, assist engineers in designing projects that lead to ecologically responsible solutions, and help monitor results.

Key words

history; ecology; river basins; water management; planning; benefit-cost analysis; multiobjective planning; river restoration; geomorphology

Copyright © 2005 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087