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University of Minnesota

New “State of the River” Report is Important; Will It Become Significant?

On September 27, the National Park Service Mississippi National River and the Friends of the Mississippi advocacy group released a State of the River report, assessing water quality on the stretch of the Mississippi running through the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.  This report, which evaluates 13 indicators of river health, is the most comprehensive and accessible treatment of this kind in a very long time.

There are many reasons why this is an important report:

  • It assembles a baseline of key indicators, so that assessing trends in river health going forward will be actually possible, rather than educated guesswork.
  • The trends are themselves important elements of public perception of the river.  Those of us who work on Mississippi River issues hear these questions all the time:  Is the river safe to swim in?  Are the fish edible? (You’ll have to read the report for the nuanced answers to these).
  • The Twin Cities metropolitan area is the first large urban concentration on the Mississippi; what happens to the river here has an indelible impact on the river that flows through downstream cities such as St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.  Some estimates are that 10+ million people get their drinking water from the Mississippi.  Those of us upstream owe them something, right?
  • We will only know what should be done to improve the state of the river if we have a clear sense of that “state” in the first place.  For many, “too many” some would say, the link between what we do on land and what happens to the water is either vaguely general or reduced to a simple action like storm drain stenciling.

And this may be where the difference between “important” and “significant” comes in.  It could be argued that an important report such as this one does not become significant until it changes peoples’ actions, until the test of time shows that its appearance actually “signifies” something.

What if this State of the River report signified the beginning of concerted efforts to make the Twin Cities “water-centric” cities?  What would we have to do to live as if the river at our heart really mattered?

It’s worth mentioning that the State of the River web site contains a stewardship guide that offers important first steps. This is a substantial list, that contains suggestions at the personal level as well as neighborhood and community activities.

But there’s more that can be done.  For instance:

  • Think about how you enjoy the river, whether by walking along it, throwing sticks for your dog to chase out and fetch, by fishing or boating.  What do you have to do so that the same experience would be available to your grandchildren?
  • Become involved in land use issues in your community, learning about how changes in your individual neighborhood affect your river.  This can be a matter of advocating for new paving materials in parking lots that allow water to percolate into the groundwater rather than run off to the river, carrying surface pollutants. Or it can be a more substantial, and complex, matter, calling for changes in planting materials in parks, or for urban design to be more river-friendly.

Perhaps the biggest change is one of the hardest to define and to implement.  Quite honestly, while we might hope that our elected officials, staff of local governments, and state and federal agencies, and a host of important “sense of place” nonprofits might be “hydro-centrists,” most won’t be.  Local community groups advocate for other components of their quality of life.  Municipal officials in struggling cities are concerned about tax base, and jobs.

Healthy rivers depend on healthy cities, because when perceived “essential” services are being cut, then river health is seen as an amenity.  But healthy cities depend on healthy rivers; clean water is a necessity, not an amenity; places to play along rivers are vital to the community health of all of us, not just those of us who already “get it.”

Ultimately, the state of the river, is the state of the community, which is the state of our neighborhood, and the state of our block.

Rivers really do run through all of us.


Share your thoughts:  how do you think healthy cities depend on healthy rivers?

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  2. H2Oscore and the State of the River | River LifeOctober 24, 2012 at 11:20 am

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