The Wetlands Shall Rise Again!

GaroneThe English language has not been kind to wetlands. We have swamps, bogs, quagmires, mires, and morasses. These are not words that call to mind productive landscapes. Such terms describe wet or inundated natural areas but they also double as metaphors for being stuck—-being bogged down, swamped with work, in a tangled morass of problems, mired by responsibilities, or paralyzed in a political or military quagmire. If the dictionary is to be trusted, wetlands oppose everything that human beings hope to accomplish.

If we wish to find a story that casts human progress as a struggle against actual rather than metaphorical wetlands, California’s history seems to fit. The reclamation of wetlands by draining them, redirecting the water, and converting the land to agricultural use, turned much of California’s Great Central Valley into some of the most productive farmlands in the world by the mid-twentieth century.

Despite the apparent success story of agricultural transformation, today there is more interest than ever in restoring some of these lands to their wetlands status. Since the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of acres in the Central Valley have been either protected from drainage or turned back into wetlands.

What halted, and in some cases reversed, the transformation of wetlands in California?

In The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California’s Great Central Valley, Philip Garone tells us about dramatic changes in views of wetlands, by taking on the “agricultural mystique” that offered agriculture as the optimal use of lands in the American West. In part, his book is a catalog of unforeseen ecological consequences stemming from reclamation, especially those connected to the dramatic reduction of wintering habitat for migratory birds. Yet it is also an analysis of those groups who argued for the return of wetlands. At the center of his discussion are the migratory waterfowl that relied on wetlands and the various groups that began to advocate on their behalf—including duck hunters, scientists, and others who had reasons to save the birds from disappearance.

Our first commentator is Matthew Morse Booker, Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University. Booker has written extensively about land management and use in California, especially in the San Francisco Bay area. In his Down by the Bay, he explores the history of the largest estuary in the American West by showcasing how San Franciscans relied from the beginning “on making land from the sea.” Like Garone, he highlights the story of draining wetlands to make way for fertile farmlands. Booker reveals how later efforts at wetlands restoration were among the most ambitious and costly in American history.[1]

Patrick Carroll, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis, has researched the politics of water as an aspect of state formation. He notes that over half a century, water became a “critical boundary object” between science and governance in California. Focusing on the latter part of the nineteenth century, Carroll shows how water became an object of government through the creation of bodies such as the State Water Commission. For Carroll, seeing how water was perceived as a technoscientific object allows us to identify a historical shift in discourse, from “problems that involved water” to a single “water problem.”[2]

Royal C. Gardner brings to this roundtable a legal and international perspective. He is Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Biodiversity Law and Policy at Stetson University. He has served on the National Research Council’s Committee on Mitigating Wetlands Losses, and also has participated in Ramsar Convention conferences (the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance). In his book Lawyers, Swamps, and Money, he points out that it was only after society began to see wetlands as more than “worthless bogs” and assign economic value to them that laws governing their management evolved.[3]

Our final commentator, Emily O’Gorman, is a scholar with broad knowledge of wetlands beyond California. She is Lecturer in History at Macquarie University in Australia, and she is the author of Flood Country. In that book, she explores the tensions that marked land use in the Murray-Darling basin on eastern Australia. She notes that while floods are often treated as natural disasters, they have been critical sources of water in arid regions. O’Gorman is particularly interested in how changing ways of understanding floods influenced management strategies and the politicization of rivers and floodplains.[4]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

Click here for the full roundtable, including Garone’s response:

[1] Matthew Morse Booker, Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History between the Tides (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013). Quote on p. 3.

[2] Patrick Carroll, “Water and Technoscientific State Formation in California,” Social Studies of Science 42:4 (2012), 489-516.

[3] Royal C. Gardner, Lawyers, Swamps, and Money: U.S. Wetland Law, Policy, and Politics (Island Press, 2011). Quote on p. 2.

[4] Emily O’Gorman, Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin (Collingwood, Vic: CSIRO Publishing, 2012).

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