The following is a chapter from my book Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis & Clark. It is about the concept of watersheds, and how they relate to ways of thinking about geography. It also mentions how ‘climate change’ may have factored into how the Missouri River altered course – two centuries ago. (Obviously, ‘climate change’ has been taking place for millions of years. Just as a thermostat regulates heat in a home between boundaries, the temperatures on our planet constantly oscillate to maintain stability.)

Near Dillon, Colorado

Chapter 35


Each year the Missouri River Natural Resources Conference opens at different riverside cities. I decided to attend this three-day gathering at Great Falls, Montana. Once there I sat in the hotel’s sizable meeting room with several dozen people. On the first morning a cluster of Assiniboine and Blackfeet Indians gathered before us to sing and knock on drums and tell how the river influenced their tribal heritage. This emphasized the conference theme: how people, culture and history related to the Missouri River.

Keynote speaker Daniel Kemmis then stood before a pine podium. This ex-mayor of Missoula, Harvard graduate lawyer and author of the book This Sovereign Land pointed to a map of the Missouri River watershed.

“This place,” he told the audience, “is now becoming a very important community, one that has to learn how to take care of herself.”

He then posed a pivotal question about managing riverside land. “Is there any way of inhabiting these watersheds of the West sustainably unless we come up with something totally new?”

The concept of a watershed is pivotal to Western land management. Basically, moisture running over a watershed drains to a common destination—usually a river aimed toward an ocean. Watersheds can be immense or puny. Like a state is composed of separate counties, big watersheds are comprised of smaller watersheds. While water in the Missouri River watershed meanders to the Atlantic in time, water within the Columbia watershed flows toward the Pacific Ocean. Both of these watersheds are comprised of thousands of smaller similar units.

To emphasize the importance of watersheds, Kemmis told the conference how he considered the explorer John Wesley Powell to have been a prophet for the West. A one-armed civil war veteran, Powell first rafted through the Grand Canyon along the Colorado River in 1869. Based on his exploration of arid western states, Powell considered how to divide and manage land in the western U.S. He criticized dividing land with square grids and warned of tragedy if homestead laws and survey methodologies from the east coast were transferred to the rugged, western landscape. He suggested that watersheds, rather than arbitrary rectangles, be considered as practical units for dividing Western terrain. Powell believed that political jurisdictions should be based not on how compass arrows swing through a magnetic field, but on how water flows across earth. In this way, the landscape itself forms a guide as to how it should be divided.

“It’s as if landscape is dictating to stupid humans how to govern the land,” Kemmis explained. One of his hands gripped an edge of the podium before him and he described how Powell believed “that homesteads should not be drawn according to the grid, but according to topography. Powell said draw political jurisdictions according to the way water flows, and people will govern themselves more efficiently and more cooperatively.”

Instead, politicians applied the Federal Township and Range system to the West, a sort of third grade level attempt to impose order on landscape by dividing it into topographical squares. Subdivided land in this system is laid out in blocks called townships and sections. Each square mile ‘section’ can be divided into half and quarter sections (or even quarter of quarter sections) and farms are often laid out according to these squares.

Near Durango, Colorado

Powell’s desire to divide land using watersheds never took root. Instead the government divided territory based on straight line surveys adopted from cozy little glens and humble mountain ranges of the eastern U.S., ignoring the larger western watersheds. This last truth rankled Daniel Kemmis.

“The idea that people in New Jersey have as much to say as to what goes on in the Bitterroot mountains as people in the Bitterroots is just wrong,” he stated. He then lightened his tone and mentioned how he had noticed a change of late, a paradigm shift toward the way natural resources were being managed out west. He described how communications had improved between professionals and lay people along the Missouri River and throughout its watershed; he spoke of how a ‘confluence of ideas of watershed and collaboration’ was beginning to turn powerful, swung into place by some invisible impetus independent of government.

Listening to Kemmis re-emphasized for me the value of gathering local knowledge before making decisions as to how to manage landscape and rivers. Dividing land in the West, including the creation of allotments on Indian reservations, was decided on by those who spent too little time assessing local conditions. This truth formed the most strategic lesson I learned during my journey—that to effectively manage our great rivers in the future, we must listen to those who live along their banks. Hearing Kemmis speak made me recall my past months of moving upstream. I had plotted no course, but chose to stop based on suggestions given along the route or from newspaper clippings gathered in libraries. When I realized that observations Kemmis made aligned with identical insights I gleaned from conversations along the river, this mode of travel was suddenly vindicated.

Kemmis spoke in clean, wise paragraphs, exhorting the role of visionaries rather than technical specialists to map out a future for the Missouri River—one that intertwined communities with geography. He emphasized that what really mattered was the way personal lives wove themselves into the communities they belonged to. Kemmis advised those in the audience involved with managing the Missouri River to “Consider yourselves not to be managers of a resource, but managers of a community.”

He then asked “Where is history headed? Where is the river of history flowing?” His own answer was that “At a number of different scales—from global to local—we are coming to inhabit ‘real’ places again. Within the context of globalism, we are becoming aware that we are a part of continents.”

These words were inspirational—an insinuation that despite our past neglect of watershed awareness, people were starting to appreciate real environments of prairie, mountain, sagebrush and natural rivers once more over artificial domains that include mega malls and drive through taco outlets.

Author Wallace Stegner wrote about this when he described the psyche of the Western landscape: “This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins.”

To thrive economically, Montana’s vision of its future will have to integrate into a larger vision of how the state interacts with both the rest of the country and with the world. Its ranch exports feed international markets while the Missouri River and its tributaries draw tourists from other countries who canoe, fly fish and raft.

The keynote address was inspiring. To manage land and rivers, Kemmis advised that we first take care of securing a vision for both.

Near the Flatiron rock formations of Boulder, Colorado

After the tribes stepped away I listened to another speaker—John LaRandeau from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. With a few well selected facts, John erased a romantic misconception about the historic Missouri River—the myth that Lewis and Clark ascended a river that was generally a ‘braided stream’ with multiple meandering channels.

“How do you want the Missouri River to look in the future?” he asked the audience, like a waiter wanting to know how they wanted a T-bone steak cooked.

He pointed to a map of the river.

“Side channels here? Shallows? Think about it,” he said, referring to the Corp’s ability to adjust the river’s course. “But the 1890 maps are probably not a vision of the future river.”

John appeared compact and orderly, a professional attuned to the pitfalls of distorted history. In 1979, just before the Corps of Engineers completed their stabilization work along the Missouri River, the Iowa Geological Society published a special report for the Iowa Conservation Commission titled “Changes in the Channel Area of the Missouri River in Iowa, 1879 – 1976.”

The report’s executive summary states that: “Between 1804 and the late 1800s the regime of the Missouri River, particularly north of the Platte River, changed radically from a meandering stream, with a single sinuous channel, to a semi-braided stream with numerous multi-channel reaches.”

In other words when Lewis and Clark poled, rowed, sailed and cordelled up the Missouri River in 1804 and 1805, the expedition, in general, moved up a river with an appreciable main channel, a ‘sinuous ditch.’ But the later river of steamboat days changed to a braided stream—a series of shallow meanders that flicked all over the floodplain. The earlier river was hardly stiff and often sloppy. But it allowed the expedition to move upstream through a vaguely coherent stream of water, not a beef jerky pattern of woven currents that existed by the end of the nineteenth century. Why did the river change? Floods, most likely. A series of frequent deluges (perhaps related to the changing climate of the time, LaRandeau remarked) pummeled the Missouri Basin during the nineteenth century. Changes to weather patterns, climate and riverbank stability caused the Missouri to adjust its flow.

Like other conference speakers (including author Stephen Ambrose and paleontologist Jack Horner) LaRandeau’s words highlighted the truth that a sound vision for managing the river must respect its historical context.