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Wide Rivers Crossed

Wide Rivers Crossed: The South Platte and the Illinois of the American Prairie

Ellen Wohl
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    Wide Rivers Crossed
    Book Description:

    In Wide Rivers Crossed, Ellen Wohl tells the stories of two rivers-the South Platte on the western plains and the Illinois on the eastern-to represent the environmental history and historical transformation of major rivers across the American prairie. Wohl begins with the rivers' natural histories, including their geologic history, physical characteristics, ecological communities, and earliest human impacts, and follows a downstream and historical progression from the use of the rivers' resources by European immigrants through increasing population density of the twentieth century to the present day. During the past two centuries, these rivers changed dramatically, mostly due to human interaction. Crops replaced native vegetation; excess snowmelt and rainfall carried fertilizers and pesticides into streams; and levees, dams, and drainage altered distribution. These changes cascaded through networks, starting in small headwater tributaries, and reduced the ability of rivers to supply the clean water, fertile soil, and natural habitats they had provided for centuries. Understanding how these rivers, and rivers in general, function and how these functions have been altered over time will allow us to find innovative approaches to restoring river ecosystems. The environmental changes in the South Platte and the Illinois reflect the relentless efforts by humans to control the distribution of water: to enhance surface water in the arid western prairie and to limit the spread of floods and drain the wetlands along the rivers in the water-abundant east. Wide Rivers Crossed looks at these historical changes and discusses opportunities for much-needed protection and restoration for the future.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-231-3
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. 1-12)

    The North American prairie—the portion of the continent bounded on the east by forest and on the west by forested mountains—is a landscape of distances. When one is traveling across the western prairie, the periodic mountain ranges rimming the grasslands seem unnatural, as though Earth’s interior had been extruded and exposed for reasons not apparent. Piñon pines and juniper trees appear at the slightest increase in elevation and the landscape becomes more cryptic, hiding breaks in slope from view. The big mountains have forced the aridity of the prairie, shielding the lowlands to the east from moisture-bearing winds...


    • ONE At the Headwaters
      (pp. 15-32)

      In much of the world, a flowing river represents the excess water that cannot be held by the plants and soil along the river’s course. The adjacent landscape overflows into the river, each tributary swelling the flow of the mainstem. In contrast, the stream flow that sustains the largest rivers of the western prairie begins far from the dry lowlands, and tributaries heading on the prairie contribute little to the mainstem. This is one of the paradoxes of rivers of the western prairie: flowing for hundreds of kilometers across some of the continent’s driest and most open country, the rivers...

    • TWO Onto the Plains
      (pp. 33-60)

      Crossing the South Platte River in 1819, Edwin James of the Long Expedition wrote:

      The Platte at the foot of the mountains is twenty-five yards wide, having an average depth of about three feet; its water clear and cool, and its current rapid. Its descent for twenty miles below cannot be less than eight feet per mile. Its valley is narrow and serpentine, bounded by steep and elevated hills, embosoming innumerable little lawns often of a semicircular form, ornamented by the narrow margin of shrubbery along the Platte.¹

      Forty years later, Horace Greeley described a June crossing of the South...

    • THREE River Metamorphosis
      (pp. 61-124)

      Some characteristics of streams in the South Platte basin circa 1800 persisted a century later. Cities were growing rapidly along the base of the mountains, and irrigated farm fields spread across the plains east of the mountains. All of these people and crops consumed water from the rivers, and stream flow was highly regulated by dams and diversions. The effects of this regulation had not yet caused substantial changes in the appearance of the rivers, however. Rivers of the transition zone still flowed clear and cold, although the snowmelt peaks were declining as water was stored in reservoirs. Water pollution...

    • FOUR What the Future Holds
      (pp. 125-146)

      Two and a half million people lived within the South Platte River basin, mostly along the foothills between Denver and Fort Collins, in 1999. The population of the Denver area was projected to increase by an additional 1 million over the next twenty years as an estimated 36,400 hectares of farmland and ranchland were converted to urban areas in Colorado each year. Developers and residents demonstrated a willingness to pay high prices for water, and the value of water traded from agricultural to urban lands in Colorado doubled from 1989 to 1991. Much of this water came from adjacent drainage...


    • FIVE Natural History of the Illinois River
      (pp. 149-192)

      Illinois is known as the Prairie State, and much of its land was once covered in tallgrass prairie. Grasses spreading to the distant horizons, swaying in the prairie winds like waves on the ocean, was one of the memorable sights for people moving west from the great forests of the eastern United States. Even otherwise prosaic writers left eloquent descriptions of the landscape. Eliza Steele was not a prosaic writer but rather a careful and appreciative observer from whose 1841 account “A Summer Journey in the West” subsequent writers have quoted many passages, but she felt challenged to adequately evoke...

    • SIX Native Americans and the First European Settlers
      (pp. 193-218)

      The seventeenth-century river described in chapter 5 is based on what scientists have been able to glean from recent fossils and from historical records prior to European settlement. This natural river the first Europeans encountered had been influenced for millennia by indigenous peoples who burned the grasslands, hunted and fished, and grew crops in the bottomlands.

      Humans reached this portion of North America at least 10,000 years ago and likely much earlier. The earliest human inhabitants appear to have lived by hunting and gathering. Archaeological sites from the Paleoindian Period (10,000–8,000 BC) feature large projectile points designed to kill...

    • SEVEN Twentieth-Century River Metamorphosis
      (pp. 219-286)

      In describing the Illinois River circa 1900 during high water, Dr. Charles Kofoid of the Illinois Natural History Survey wrote of traveling by boat across the flooded bottomlands:

      A flock of startled waterfowl leave their feeding grounds as we pass into the wide expanse of Flag Lake. We push our way through patches of lily-pads and beds of lotus, past the submerged domes of muskrat houses built of last year’s rushes, and thread our way, through devious channels, among the fresh green flags and rushes just emerging . . . The water is clear and brownish save where our movements...

    • EIGHT What the Future Holds
      (pp. 287-310)

      Several state governmental agencies set out to inventory the condition of streams in Illinois toward the end of the twentieth century. Scientists developed a Biological Stream Characterization to categorize streams based mostly on the diversity, abundance, and condition of aquatic insects and fish. Streams of category “A” exhibit conditions comparable to those at the time of European settlement. “B” streams are in good condition and support game fishes, but species diversity is below expectations. “C” streams are in fair condition, with reduced fish diversity and game fishes limited to bullheads, sunfishes, and carp. “D” streams are in poor condition, with...

  6. Epilogue
    (pp. 311-316)

    Intervals of geologic time are named to record either some particular place where rocks of that age were first described, as in the Jurassic Period, named for rocks first described in the mountainous Jura region between France and Switzerland, or to indicate their relative position in the timescale, as in the Holocene, named from the Greek holos for “whole” and kainos for “new or recent”: the Holocene was, until very recently, the youngest interval of geologic time. At the very end of the twentieth century, geologists began to publish papers estimating that humans have now cumulatively moved more sediment than...

  7. English-Metric Unit Conversions
    (pp. 317-318)
  8. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 319-338)
  9. Index
    (pp. 339-344)