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The River We Don’t See and the River that We Do See

June 18, 2012Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on The River We Don’t See and the River that We Do See

Most of us have a very static understanding of rivers.  Oh sure, we generally know that rivers have current, that they move around within a channel or floodplain, and that there’s a lot of stuff in a river (fish, pollutants, and so forth).  But I’d wager that most of us really have no clear idea of how dynamic a river is, how its current constantly reshapes banks and river bottom, how sediment moves around in the channel, how the water’s turbulence varies both across the stream and at various depths.

Well, ok, and why should we know this?  Don’t we have various sorts of scientists to tell us this?  In fact, yes, and many of them work at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL) and its related research center, the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics.  (NCED) As our relationships with rivers grow more nuanced, and more multi-functional (and hopefully more sustainable and resilient) we will very likely find ourselves wondering how we can restore the river we’re working with.

And this is where our friends at SAFL and NCED come in.  For example, suppose river folks in Minneapolis are interested in what kinds of vegetation management in public open space might best protect water quality, or what indicators of ecological vitality could be used to measure the health of the Mississippi River in the city. (Both of these are current investigations, by the way.)  A recent talk by Jessica Kozarek, manager of SAFL’s Outdoor Stream Lab, listed no fewer than 13 potential management actions and goals which could be considered “river restoration.”  Scientists like Kozarek can help planners and community leaders try to understand just exactly what functions of a stream are critical for the desired outcomes, and try to devise indicators, measures, and research inquiries that would lead to desired public outcomes.

So if most of us really don’t understand rivers (and I include myself prominently among that “most of us”) but just see them as pretty backgrounds for the parks, new development, or whatever it is we are really interested in, then that takes care of the “river we don’t see” mentioned in the title of this piece.  But what about the river that we do see?

The Outdoor Stream Lab (OSL) provides a hands-on channel that allows researchers to conduct experiments on stream processes across scientific disciplines.  Scientists can mimic sediment flows or vegetation buffer effects, build studies to examine the impacts of uneven or unstable streambeds, and otherwise capture on a small scale the three dimensional dynamics of streams under experimental settings.

Outdoor Stream Lab from U of M College of Science and Engineering

And all of this is visible to the thousands of people passing across the Stone Arch Bridge every day.  The OSL is built in an old flood bypass channel constructed with St. Anthony Falls was the greatest center for flour-milling in the world. Today, the Falls area is once again a thriving economic district, with destination attractions such as the Guthrie Theater, hundreds of housing units, and a host of regional parks.  Within this hive of activity, the Outdoor Stream Lab provides visible evidence of the complex river dynamics constantly at work in the heart of the city.

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