Richard Manning has made a career out of telling western readers how the corporations on which many of their lives depend have reshaped our diet and the landscape.
He first wrote of clearcuts and now he writes about the river than runs through Idahoans' lives and he says has turned into a sewer.
Manning worked in Twin Falls and Hailey before he went to Montana and angered his bosses at Lee Newspapers with a groundbreaking series that showed how two companies were liquidating Montana’s forests through clearcutting to prevent Wall Street from using the wood to buy them out. His book “Last Stand,” is a classic of environmental journalism. His 2005 book “Against the Grain,” takes on corporate agriculture.
Manning is a muckracker in the fine tradition of the Progressive Era. That was the time of Teddy Roosevelt's Reclamation Act, which laid the groundwork for the transformation of the Snake River from a natural waterway into an engineered series of 23 large reservoirs that have turned the desert into what historian Mark Fiege called “irrigated Eden.”
Manning has a different description in his excellent High Country News cover story this week, “Idaho’s Sewer System.”
“What was once a drought-tolerant sagebrush is now a green-tiled landscape of clean-cut squares and circles drawn by center pivots,” Manning wrote.
He goes on to write how the river itself is heavily polluted, especially with nitrogen, which to be fair, he acknowledges most rivers through America’s ag lands are. He points to the huge growth of the dairy industry along the Snake in the 1990s, attracted from California and Washington primarily because of the state’s weak environmental laws.
Make no mistake, this article is an indictment against agriculture that will anger many Idahoans. The article takes on the rhythm and tone of folk singer Phil Och’s song about institutionalized racism, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” That 1960s protest song begins with verses about the police and politicians of the Jim Crow state and ends with shots at its people and churches who tolerated unspeakable acts of violence.
Manning starts his Snake article with the conversion of 6.5 million acres from sagebrush grassland to cropland, goes on to the pollution, then brings up how poorly people are paid, how 80 percent of the Magic Valley’s kids get free or reduced-cost, how 75 to 80 percent of the dairy industry’s workers are illegal immigrants and, to his final shot, how Brownlee and the other reservoirs at the end of the system are almost perfect replicas of sewage treatment ponds.
Who does Manning blame?
“The usual suspects,” he identifies begin with J.R. Simplot Co. and Amalgamated Sugar, he adds Idaho Milk Products, which sells dried milk protein, Glanbia Foods, Lactalis American Group and of course Chobani. But like the movie classic “Casablanca”, from which Manning steals the “usual suspects” line, these companies are only the suspects he rounds up because he needs to have someone to impeach.
Ultimately he is arraigning us all for developing a society he considers unhealthy, unsustainable and unfair. You may not agree with his point of view nor where his story flows.
But Manning’s article offers southern Idahoans a chance to think about the river that connects us all and the water it carries on which all of our lives depend. Maybe we can make it better.