Water in North American environmental history (Melosi, 2022)

Anthony Carlson

HD Melosi, M.V. 2022. Water in North American environmental history.  Routledge. ISBN 9780367485535 (paperback, £28)/ISBN 9781003041627 (ebook, £28)/ ISBN 9780367485542 (hardback, £104)

(URLhttps://www.routledge.com/Water-in-North-American-Environmental-History/Melosi/p/book/9780367485535 )

Anthony Carlson

Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas; anthonyecarlson@gmail.com

To cite this Review: Carlson, A. (2023). Review of “Water in North American Environmental History”, Routledge 2022, by Martin V. Melosi, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/332-melosi


Martin V. Melosi’s Water in North American Environmental History is the latest installment in Routledge’s “Themes in Environmental History Series.” Aimed at an audience of graduate students and upper-level undergraduates in environmental history, environmental studies, or geography, the book narrates selective episodes of North American water history from 500 CE to the present. Leveraging an envirotech and “Blue Humanities” historical approach, it highlights water’s centrality in cultural, economic, environmental, political, social, and technical matters, as well as its intersection with issues related to class, gender, and race.

The book is comprised of twenty-five roughly chronological chapters, which are divided into eight sections. Each lavishly-illustrated chapter—or “water episode,” as Melosi calls them—spans about ten pages and introduces the reader to an assortment of human perceptions and uses of water (p. 2). The chapters contain no footnotes and conclude with brief “notes and further reading” sections. As Melosi explains, the episodes are “short and not comprehensive learning vehicles in themselves” (p. 2). Rather, they serve as the “basis for starting conversations” in the classroom while probing “larger water issues in our history including the human and environmental implications of water use” (p. 2). Drawn from secondary sources, the twenty-five episodes reflect prominent themes in water’s environmental historiography: water and borders; water and adaptation; water and community; water as transportation; water and energy; water as commodity/right; water, race, gender, and class; water as a destructive force (pp. 5-9).

Melosi, the Cullen Professor Emeritus of History and founding director of the Center for Public History at the University of Houston (USA), has authored numerous books about urban water usage, appropriation, and sanitation. He leverages this experience and knowledge to contribute a good number of chapters that explore urban-themed topics, including Philadelphia’s pioneering role in securing clean water for cities, the construction of the Toronto waterfront, the Houston ship canal’s environmental footprint, the fluoride controversy, and the Flint (Michigan) water crisis. Another chapter, “Racism in American/Canadian Swimming Pools,” explores how swimming pools emerged as spaces of racial discrimination and segregation during the twentieth century, a topic sure to stimulate vibrant classroom discussions.

The remainder of Melosi’s chapters navigate a range of Indigenous, economic, agricultural, and pollution topics. They cover Indigenous water history through the Hohokam’s former sprawling irrigation system in the U.S southwest, the Aztecs and the rise of Tenochtitlan, and the Inuit’s adaptation to an environment dominated by frozen water. From an economic perspective, Melosi’s chapters highlight the evolution of acequias and Spanish water law, the role of waterwheels and steam engines in U.S. industrialization, the California Gold Rush, the Erie Canal, flood control development and policy in Louisiana, and the contestation over the Fraser River’s (British Columbia) salmon fisheries and hydropower. Finally, one chapter emphasizes the role of agriculture in the demise of the Ogallala Aquifer while others put on display the environmental consequences of unfettered and unregulated economic growth: Mexico’s Ixtoc 1 oil spill, the controversy over fracking in Mexico, and maquiladoras and water pollution.

For the most part, Water in North American Environmental History covers familiar historiographical terrain and does not propose opportunities for future scholarship or forge new methodological and conceptual approaches. This is partly attributable to the book’s stated emphasis on igniting classroom discussions, as well as the conditions under which it was written—a global pandemic. As Melosi explains in his acknowledgements, “I have conducted the research and have written the whole [book] largely in my home office because of the Covid-19 pandemic … My research comes from my personal library, books purchased through Amazon, the Internet, and through Interlibrary Loan.” Fair enough, but this reviewer was left wanting much more, even despite the pandemic’s constraints on archival research. For instance, having mined the subject’s secondary literature, could the author identify gaps or blind spots that his intended audience—upper-level undergraduates and postgraduates—could discuss in the classroom or perhaps pursue in their future academic endeavors? Moreover, what do these gaps suggest about the biases, limitations, or shortcomings of water and/or environmental history?

Taken as a whole, Melosi does an admirable job covering a broad subject over such a wide period. His water episodes cover race, gender, class, and other established themes in the environmental history of water. Given the breadth of Melosi’s subject, it is no surprise that several prominent topics in water history are left uncovered. In particular, the complete exclusion of swamps, marshes, estuaries, and other forms of wetlands is disappointing, especially since their drainage for settler agriculture and urban development constitutes one of the biggest environmental transformations in the continent’s recent human history. Moreover, this omission prevented the author from tapping into other growing historical subfields, such as maroonage studies, a subject that demonstrates how unfree racial groups have sometimes used water to contest and escape from economic, political, and social dominance. With a few notable exceptions (salmon and commercial fishing, for instance), the author emphasizes the relationship between water and human communities to the exclusion of non-human agents such as migratory waterfowl, wildlife, insects, and so forth.

Ultimately, Water in North American Environmental History may appeal to some instructors teaching introductory courses on water history. Other readers, however, will likely be disappointed with the book’s limiting methodology. The best synthetic works often advance knowledge in a field when they put existing literature in conversation and then discover and recommend new insights and frameworks. Unfortunately, this book falls short of that and instead reads like a summary of existing literature rather than a major contribution to it.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Ward, Ruckstuhl, learmont
  • Year of publication: 2022
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Reviewer: Anthony Carlson
  • Subject: Water management, Environmental History, Irrigation, Water quality, pollution, Environment, Water and community, Water history
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English