- Unruly Waters: A Social and Environmental History of the Brazos River by Kenna Lang Archer
Kenna Lang Archer’s Unruly Waters: A Social and Environmental History of the Brazos River explores the complex history of actual and attempted improvements along the titular Texas river. Archer selected the Brazos as the object of her study because the diversity of its geography and development offers windows into the broader history of water projects throughout the United States. She writes that “the string of projects proposed along the Lower, Middle and Upper Brazos Rivers between 1821 and 1980 speaks not only to the determination of a people committed to the broad idea of development but also to shifting ideas about the shape, form, and purpose of improvement” (p. xix).
Throughout seven chapters organized geographically and chronologically, Archer analyzes how various improvement projects demonstrate what she calls “[a] technocratic conviction” among local boosters and the nation as a whole that rivers could be effectively managed and harnessed for human ends (p. xix). After providing an overview of the natural history of the river and a description of its three primary regions, Archer examines the interplay between regional identity and technological trends in the development of the river. Boosters along different parts of the Brazos promoted schemes that reflected larger regional trends—navigation in the southeastern reaches of the river versus flood control and hydroelectric power in the upper (and western) region. Another major theme is that unlike many other famously developed rivers, most of the projects on the Brazos failed to tame the river. Many became too costly and never delivered the claimed benefits, while others, such as those discussed in chapter 6, were planned but never actually implemented.
One of the real strengths and most fascinating aspects of Unruly Waters is the wide variety of sources used to trace out not only the construction of improvements but also the various ways people conceived of the river, their relationship to it, and their hopes for a future built on controlling it. While Archer has used government records and promotional pamphlets to discuss the various proposals for and attempts to build improvements, drawing the connection between regional identity and riparian development required a much less straightforward path. In chapter 2 in particular, Archer draws on everything from photographs of prisoners, to plantation-era paintings, to songs to demonstrate how various people have attempted to define the river and the regions it crosses. While the inclusion of some of these primary source images is a valuable addition to the book, the reader would benefit from clearer signposting within the text to alert readers to the presence of those images.
Overall Archer’s book makes a fine contribution to the environmental history of an important American river. While the history of developments along the Brazos parallels changes happening throughout the United States, [End Page 720] the importance of those parallels could be better highlighted through the inclusion of a broader context within the narrative. While Archer does make the connections, situating the Brazos fully within larger national discussions would emphasize those connections and make the book a more suitable text for readers without background in the history of river development. Still, this short book manages to do quite a lot and will likely be of interest to a variety of readers studying topics as diverse as technology and society, regional identity, and water development projects.