Arthur Morgan And A Century Of Sustainability

Originally posted on wyso.org

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Bob Brecha

During this week’s sustainability commentary, University of Dayton professor Bob Brecha ties the work of Arthur Morgan and the Miami Conservancy District to our modern concept of sustainability.

It’s really hard to be in the Miami Valley area for very long without hearing about the Great Flood of 1913.   Cold spring days in March and torrential rains – about 10 inches over three days - resulted in devastating damage to communities all along the Great Miami River.  In today’s dollars, the destruction was around two billion dollars.   And that was not the first flood Dayton had experienced.  In fact, disaster struck every twenty years or so over the previous century of the city’s existence. But as Dayton continued to grow, the situation was clearly intolerable.

After the flood, a group of civic leaders knew that something had to be done. They turned to an engineer named Arthur Morgan to lead the effort to find a solution.  Often, and especially a century ago, engineers tended to address a complex and large-scale problem by quickly building big things and moving lots of earth, as well as people.  

But Morgan had a somewhat different approach to the task at hand. Often we think of rivers in isolation from their surroundings.  But in reality, the waters flow to other rivers and eventually to lakes and oceans. Morgan knew he would have to deal with not just the Great Miami River as it flowed through the City of Dayton, but the entire watershed, including the Mad River, the Stillwater, Wolf Creek and Twin Creek.

First, he worked to understand the whole river and its watershed as a system – realizing along the way the watershed did not care about political jurisdictions.  Second, he wanted to resolve the flooding danger once and for all. He spent a lot of time with his engineers studying long historical records of flood recurrences in Europe.  Based on that research, he concluded that to be safe from any foreseeable flood, Dayton would need a system to handle an event about 40% greater than the 1913 event.  One option might have been simply to build very high levees along the river, channeling any conceivable amount of water through the city – and downriver to the next town in the water’s path.  Instead, he came up with the idea of dry dams, which act passively to allow water to flow in normal, or less-threatening conditions, but which retain water behind the dams under infrequent high-water events. Although some people had to be displaced as land was taken over for these retention areas, we gained recreation areas – and avoided repeated disasters. Out of this thinking came the Miami Conservancy District, celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year.  Not many realize that MCD is funded to protect the Dayton region from flooding by its own authority that is separate from political boundaries.

I think that one of the most interesting parts of Morgan’s project is how he dealt with the workers on the construction sites. He knew what kind of trouble male workers could get up to if they are dumped on a site for months or years at a time. He himself was a teetotaler who didn’t smoke or gamble. He couldn’t bear the thought of creating the conditions for men to lose their moral bearings.  So, instead of just prohibiting undesirable behavior, Morgan decided there should be a town at each of the five construction sites with comfortable housing, modern conveniences, schools and stores – everything that would make life attractive for families.

I consider Arthur Morgan’s efforts as being in many ways a model of how we can think about constructing resilient, sustainable systems.  Learning from history and experience, thinking about future generations, respecting nature, and taking the needs of people seriously – that’s not a bad starting point.