- Southern Water, Southern Power: How the Politics of Cheap Energy and Water Scarcity Shaped a Region by Christopher J. Manganiello
In Southern Water, Southern Power: How the Politics of Cheap Energy and Water Scarcity Shaped a Region, Christopher J. Manganiello adds to the growing historiography of the southern environment with an intriguing study of the relationship between regional water resources and the power brokers who sought to control and conserve them. Focusing on the twentieth-century manipulation of the Savannah River, Manganiello argues that conflicts over water have shaped (and continue to shape) the landscapes of the Southeast. His work provides important insights into the nature of political and economic power, the relationship between southerners and the federal government, and the transformation of southern society after World War II.
The Savannah River, which is located along the border between Georgia and South Carolina, has been dammed and diverted since before the Civil War. Yet, as Manganiello observes, the development of New South industries in the surrounding area brought new interest in the river from power companies, who used hydroelectricity to power existing factories and attract new ones. The federal government also played a key role in manipulating water resources, exemplified elsewhere in the region by the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Embracing the “big dam consensus,” a belief that large-scale hydroelectric projects could control flooding, improve navigation, and provide affordable electricity, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned a series of dams along the Savannah, although without the extensive regional planning that marked the TVA’s mission (p. 14).
Support for big dams survived World War II and the growing southern reaction against federal intervention, but it failed in the face of uncertain resource availability. Power companies increasingly switched to coal (continuing to use the river for steam) and balked at governmental encroachment. Residents questioned the continued need for big, expensive dams as smaller, less intrusive solutions became feasible. By the late 1960s and 1970s, efforts to control the Savannah also ran into conservationist opposition, both from environmentalists and the “countryside conservationists,” who resented the pollution and diversion that made it difficult for residents to fish and boat on the waterway (p. 142). Manganiello pays special attention to the efforts to preserve the Chattooga River, a tributary of the Savannah that was protected under the Wild [End Page 721] and Scenic Rivers Act (1974), though he notes that the popular crusade ran into opposition as residents opposed federal control of a valuable local resource.
Manganiello provides insights into heated debates over the diversification of the southern economy, the impact and implications of the New Deal and its approach to conservation, and the shape of economic development in the Sun Belt era. The author is less successful in tying debates over water control to the larger social conflicts over labor and race that shaped the region. He does suggest that such issues were important in the power struggles along the Savannah, and he notes where questions of land usage and recreation highlighted segregation and a lack of equal access. Perhaps a more direct discussion of consumption would better explain how questions of race, class, and labor contributed to the debate over water resources in a contested landscape. Nevertheless, Manganiello’s book will draw much-needed attention to the history of the southern environment, particularly to the way that southerners have sought to control that environment in the face of uncertainty and insecurity. Southern Water, Southern Power should encourage future scholars to pay greater attention to the ways that natural resources, and efforts to control and consume those resources, have shaped the modern South.