"This intriguing book will quickly capture reader interest with its coverage of the natural history and ecology of shortgrass, and formerly, tallgrass prairie rivers; the effects of subtle to flagrant manipulation of riverscapes and watersheds; and future scenarios for recovery of continued degradation. . . . Valuable for the educated lay public, environmental scientists, and students, especially those interested in rivers and human impacts. Highly recommended."
—J. H. Thorp III, Choice
“An engaging natural science story that includes insightful human dimensions . . . anyone who loves the Great Plains and who revels in the prairie under the big sky will appreciated this unique contribution from a gifted author who gives us a view from the rivers.”
—William L. Graf, Great Plains Research
—Sarah Porterfield, Wyoming: The Wyoming Historical Journal
In Wide Rivers Crossed, Ellen Wohl tells the stories of two rivers—the South Platte on the western plains and the Illinois on the eastern—to represent the environmental history and historical transformation of major rivers across the American prairie. Wohl begins with the rivers' natural histories, including their geologic history, physical characteristics, ecological communities, and earliest human impacts, and follows a downstream and historical progression from the use of the rivers' resources by European immigrants through increasing population density of the twentieth century to the present day.
The environmental changes in the South Platte and the Illinois reflect the relentless efforts by humans to control the distribution of water: to enhance surface water in the arid western prairie and to limit the spread of floods and drain the wetlands along the rivers in the water-abundant east. In addition, during the past two centuries crops replaced native vegetation; excess snowmelt and rainfall carried fertilizers and pesticides into streams; and levees, dams, and drainage altered distribution. These changes cascaded through networks, starting in small headwater tributaries, and reduced the ability of rivers to supply the clean water, fertile soil, and natural habitats they had provided for centuries. Understanding how these rivers, and rivers in general, function and how these functions have been altered over time will allow us to find innovative approaches to restoring river ecosystems. Wide Rivers Crossed looks at these historical changes and discusses opportunities for much needed protection and restoration for the future.