Dan McCool didn't hesitate when asked why he spent the past 10 years researching and writing a book on America's rivers.
"What's more important than water?" asked the director of the University of Utah's Environment and Sustainability Studies Program and political-science professor. "That is the one thing we can't live without. It shapes our lives and society. … Water raises all kinds of issues including fairness, social justice, how we treat other people and who we deprive of water. … In the largest sense, water to a great extent determines our quality of life."
Unlike many environmental books, McCool's River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America's Rivers examines some success stories.
It profiles what he calls "instigators," such as Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council or Rich Ingebretsen of the Glen Canyon Institute, who fight long odds in idealistic efforts to restore rivers or remove dams.
The well-written and accessible book is national in scope, looking at the history of the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers and their efforts to dam and use nearly every river in America. But it also examines how those two agencies are redefining their missions in an era when dams are being removed in some parts of the nation and when the economics of recreation, wildlife, cleaner water and free-flowing rivers can trump the benefits of cheap hydropower and irrigation.
He said Americans, as never before, must face decisions about valuing rivers for their own sake and not simply as natural resources to be exploited.
"I see positive, hopeful signs that America as a society has turned a corner and is developing this new water ethic," said McCool. "We are competing with the alternative approaches, which are old, traditional, exploitative uses of rivers. Now at least we have a choice."
That choice, as he sees it, involves continuing what he calls nonsustainable exploitative uses of rivers which, if continued, could create serious problems in the future because current water management practices cannot be sustained in the long term.
One of the problems with doing that is that removing dams and restoring rivers and fisheries can be an expensive proposition in a time when the U.S. budget is running massive deficits. McCool calls himself an environmentalist but also a fiscal conservative.
"Historically in the United States, one of the most egregious sources of waste in federal spending has been water projects," he said. "They are infamous for wasting the taxpayers' money and have been doing that for 150 years. We have not only allowed federal agencies to destroy many of our rivers for a questionable and limited set of benefits, but we've had to pay a lot of money to do it."
He would like to see a bipartisan commission formed that is similar to the military base closure commission. It would assess all Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers projects as to their value to society. If they are no longer serving a purpose or even costing more money than they are worth to operate, the dams would be torn down.
McCool gained his love of rivers growing up in central Indiana next to a small Boy Scout camp, a patch of woods and a small river called Fall Creek in the midst of suburbs, hog farms and corn fields.
"That was really the only place where a small boy could run around and enjoy nature, feel free and investigate what the world likes like," he recalled.
He continued that love of rivers when he moved to Utah. He purchased a raft and began running rivers, something he still enjoys.
"There is always something interesting downriver," he said. "You don't know what it is, but it is different from where you are."
That love comes through loud and clear in River Republic, The Fall and Rise of America's Rivers.