Redrawing the Boundaries of Flood Control: Climatology, the New Deal, and the Debate over the Government’s Role in Land Use Planning

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
James Henry Bergman, Harvard University
This paper will examine the debate among climatologists and hydrologists over flood control policy in the 1930s. With the economic catastrophe of the stock market crash of 1929, followed in 1933 by the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl, came new political will toward policies that favored planning and stabilization and an attendant boost in the prominence of science in government management of economy and environment. But the call for improved planning fueled a debate about the appropriate sites and methods of intervention. The controversy was especially acute in the case of flood control, where policymakers debated whether flood control should be restricted to public lands and navigable waters, as the Department of Interior and Army Corps of Engineers argued, or if policies should be broadened to the promotion of wiser land use across the watershed, as the Department of Agriculture argued.

Underlying the promotion of land use planning were narratives developed by scientists to describe the behavior of water in those land areas. Many hydrologists believed that the sources of precipitation were primarily local, and therefore local intervention might therefore change the amount of local rainfall. However, a group of climatologists in the Soil Conservation Service sought to revise this narrative through the introduction of new techniques in meteorology. Rainfall, in their interpretation, was the result of large-scale circulation of the atmosphere and therefore could not be controlled locally. The new narrative questioned the potential of policies to control the volume of rainfall, while also securing an active role for climatology in the debate over flood control. The space of flood control, once conceived as a space of water flow, was thereby reimagined as a space of atmospheric circulation that would limit the possibilities of local intervention.

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