IN HIS PASSIONATE, provocative debut nonfiction book, Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways, Tyler J. Kelley does not shy from the politically sticky: “Climate change is uncertain, dynamic and volatile, yet American planners are still determined to outsmart nature as if the planet were a chessboard.”
In the last year, natural disasters have torn through the United States, deepening ideological fault lines along race, policy, and politics. Yet if Kelley’s poignant and powerful book — praised by Ian Frazier as a “wonderful achievement” with “an instinct for the plot lines laid out by flowing water” — demonstrates anything, it’s that the country is more connected than it is divided.
Kelley has made a career finding stories neglected by others along US rivers in the pages of The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal. It’s not hard to see how. A charming 35-year-old author who teaches journalism at The New School, Kelley is naturally disarming — with a knack for gently guiding conversation away from himself.
Over several phone calls, I asked him about the future of the country’s infrastructure, exploring marginal places in Brooklyn with his three-year-old son, and what he teaches his students about living — and writing — in a changed climate.
STEPHANIE SIU: When did you first become fascinated by rivers?
TYLER J. KELLEY: I grew up in Minneapolis, which is on the Mississippi, so I always knew about big inland rivers. Annie, an ex-girlfriend of mine, actually died in that river. She and her friend hopped on pieces of Styrofoam they found at a construction site, floated down around downtown St. Paul, and got sucked under a barge. The other girl clawed her way to the surface, but Annie drowned. I was aware, from then on, that these rivers were powerful. You need to treat them with respect. I’ve since been back to the spot where she was sucked under. Now it means something different because I see: here’s the levee; here’s the barge. I understand it now.
When did you become interested in writing about water? Was Annie’s drowning the reason?
At the time, it didn’t matter to me in terms of a river; it mattered because my friend had died. Years later, I started going around New York in canoes and rowboats and sailboats. The water is a whole other world. It’s so much less controlled and regulated and known about than land. Around 2012, I got interested in what was transported on the waterways. I watched container ships go around Staten Island right before Hurricane Sandy broke. After the storm, I went out again and talked to people trying to salvage sunken boats.
How did that lead to your earlier Wall Street Journal articles, like the one about seagulls and tugboats in Detroit?
Something I tell my students, at least when there isn’t a pandemic, is that you can find good stories just by being curious. I was driving around Detroit one day, trying to get as close to the Rouge River as I could. I saw all these seagulls and thought: How is there a massive seagull colony in the middle of a major American city? I talked to tugboat workers who told me, “These birds peck us, divebomb us; their nests are on our boats.” Just exploring — things I do now with my son — is where a lot of my story ideas come from.
Water seems to play a big part in your family. You even did a documentary film with your wife, Araby Kelley, called Following Seas. Is that how you met?
In 2008, I owned this sailboat but didn’t know how to use it. I had bought it on a whim for $800. Araby knew how to sail but didn’t know anyone who had a boat. A mutual friend connected us. Learning how to sail together — which is all about using the wind, a powerful natural force like water, to your advantage — we fell in love. We started dating in 2010 and got married in 2016. We had our son the following year. There aren’t many three-year-olds who know the difference between beach glass, which has rounded edges, and freshly broken glass, which can cut you.
What motivated you to write this book?
What I learned from John McPhee and Ian Frazier — my idols — is that a journalist doesn’t go into a story with a narrative they’re trying to support or justify. They go to places and listen. People tell you what the “issues” are, not the other way around. I learned that climate change is real, and we have to prepare for it. Right now, we’re not. In 2020, there were 22 weather events that cost over $1 billion each. There’s going to be more every year until we do things differently, which involves a host of structural and nonstructural adaptations. I call it learning to live in a changed climate. We have to make hard decisions and do it proactively before these disasters occur. On the other hand, I also wanted an excuse to do cool things, like ride an ore freighter across Lake Superior, and watch a steam-powered crane from 1937 pull a decrepit dam off the bottom of the Ohio River.
It seems like every attempt to control water has a ripple effect through communities, with winners, losers, and people who have to pick up the pieces of institutional failure. Was it a conscious choice to highlight that destruction isn’t limited to financial cost?
I was very interested in the idea of costs and benefits, which is how the United States Army Corps of Engineers evaluates whether to build a project. In exchange for the benefits we’ve reaped from controlling rivers, such as habitable flood plains and consistent navigation, there are environmental, personal, and financial costs. We’ve decided to try controlling these powerful natural forces. We’ve benefited, and we’ve also lost a lot. I don’t want to pass judgment on whether it’s something we should or shouldn’t have done. It’s already done, and I don’t think it can be undone. The whole endeavor was also a largely white and colonialist project. It comes from that mindset and reflects those values. I’m not sure if that can be undone either.
With all the natural disasters this past year, are Americans more receptive to the need to protect ourselves against further catastrophe?
The Biden administration wants to do more than anyone has done before. Whether they can get their plan into a bill is a different question. The hopeful thing is that, previous to the pandemic, spending a trillion dollars was unthinkably ambitious. About $6 trillion has been shelled out in pandemic direct aid and now this $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. People are comfortable with numbers like these now, and they didn’t used to be.
People are talking about how that plan broadens the definition of infrastructure. Senator Gillibrand was mocked for tweeting that, “Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure.” Throughout your book, you address how past civil works projects have been too narrow in focus, solving one problem while creating more — if they solve the original problem at all. Should we broaden our interpretation?
You can broaden it however you want. What’s being missed is that the Biden proposal is spending less on hard infrastructure than Hillary Clinton proposed to spend in 2016. It’s half what Donald Trump proposed when he was elected. It’s a quarter what Trump, Pelosi, and Schumer proposed in the spring of 2019.
Biden’s American Jobs Plan is mostly about jobs. Traditional infrastructure accounts for less than 25 percent of the total spending. And the Biden plan is across 10 years. It’s not a bill that you pass tomorrow. In contrast, the COVID-19 relief bill from January was $1.9 trillion distributed now. Whenever infrastructure is discussed, waterways are usually the last thing that anyone thinks about. When the conversation is broadened to include other things that people want, I worry waterways will get completely left behind.
What happens if they are left behind?
The US Department of Agriculture looked at the decline of efficiency on the rivers and concluded that, if America doesn’t invest more, Brazilian soybeans will be cheaper than American soybeans by 2045. If US farm products are no longer competitive in the global market, farmers will stop growing them. Small towns and the rural Midwest would fall apart. And, if products can’t go down rivers anymore, there’s a lot of research on how many more fatalities and emissions are associated with truck and rail transportation, so there’s negative impact there too. That’s just the navigation piece. It would be unthinkable to give up on the flood control structures. There’s 25,000 miles of levees across the United States. You’re talking about a lot worse than Hurricane Katrina if you let all the levees fail.
Your book ends by warning that the United States has no choice but to “imagine a prosperous country that has both retreated and fortified.” Can this be accomplished without a fundamental shift in how Americans think and act?
The point gets made that the United States is not Holland, and there are a lot of differences. The story of South Lafourche Parish is, to me, the American way to retreat and fortify. It’s more local and grassroots, not driven by a central government. You have a local population on the Gulf Coast dealing with sinking land, rising seas. They understand the risks, are willing to retreat from some areas, and pay more to fortify those they deem vital. South Lafourche voted for Trump over Biden by 60 percentage points in 2020. So, it’s not about politics. It doesn’t even matter if you believe in climate change. There’s a risk, and it’s existential. You either pay more to mitigate that risk, or you have to abandon your home. That’s a choice that most people can understand and make no matter what they believe in ideologically.
There is at least one Dutch-style structure in the United States across from Sacramento called the Yolo Bypass. It’s a sacrificial parcel that gets flooded whenever the river rises past a certain point, which helps protect the California State Capitol. The Yolo Bypass is socially and politically superior to structures along the Mississippi because no one has to “operate” it. And because it floods more often, no one lives there, and farmers don’t have time to forget that their land is going to flood. It’s actually a huge revelation, the idea that flooding and farming can coexist.
Do you think that people will have to suffer before their minds are changed?
The best time to introduce ideas and overcome special interests is after everything has been destroyed. Yet it’s six times cheaper to build protection before a disaster than after. The new hurricane risk reduction system around New Orleans cost $14 billion, while Hurricane Katrina cost over $100 billion. If you had built the $14 billion structure before Katrina, some of the New Orleans area would still have flooded, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere as bad. It’s a cautionary tale because it wasn’t a matter of expertise. Everyone who cared to ask the question knew the levees around New Orleans weren’t good enough. But no one wanted to spend money to fix a problem that was hypothetical. It’s a matter of political imagination and popular will. Science and engineering are the easy part.
Your book is full of the failures of humans, historically, not just to anticipate nature but also the consequences of their own actions. Are you hopeful that we can ever win this fight?
I hope that we’re not trying to win anymore.