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More Ways of Looking at a River

blogslice13OK, so in the last blog post, I outlined several “scientific,” if you will, ways of looking at a river.  This post addresses several others, all of which have a significant economic dimension.  In other words, the perspectives contained here perhaps lend themselves well to analysis through frames of reference common in ecosystems services analysis, and are likewise subject to policies, planning contexts, and other cultural dimensions of “sense of place.”

Again, offered in no particular order and with the caveat that there’s a lot more to say about each of these than there is room for here:

  • Rivers are commonly thought of as development amenities.  Analysis has shown that the $300 million invested by public agencies in the Minneapolis Central Riverfront District has generated $1.3 billion in private investment.  Stories like this are taking place across the northern hemisphere on urban riverfronts in the developed world.
  • Rivers have been seen as recreational assets almost since time immemorial.  Swimming, fishing, boating, all have been popular pastimes as well as ways to transport oneself and get food.  Today, these industries contribute tens of billions of dollars to the US economy.
  • Rivers are critically important sources for drinking water.  On the Mississippi River alone, an estimated 15-20 million people depend on the river for drinking water; the figure on the Colorado is even higher, owing to its central place in the arid American West and the seven state regional compact that governs the river.
  • Rivers are navigation routes.  Cities have been located along rivers since the first proto-cities were formed millennia ago.  Last winter’s drought, which threated to stop shipping on the Mississippi for days if not weeks, threatened billions of dollars of shipping and the thousands of jobs along with it.
  • Rivers provide hydropower, which is a source of much controversy across the United States and around the world.  Yet as energy experts look increasingly for “green” energy that is anot associated with fossil fuels, the hydropower potential of rivers is coming back into the conversation as it hasn’t in decades.
  • Rivers are important destinations for tourism.  Many cities across the world are remaking their riverfronts as destination attractions, hoping to bring people from all over to their community.  The Mississippi River, for example, is one of the best-known geographic features in the United States.
  • Rivers are important subjects of laws, regulations, and policies.  All of the uses described above require policies, planning contexts and other institutional arrangements to work.  Even so, many of these ways of looking at rivers conflict with each other, if not exist as mutually exclusive contradictions.

Ultimately science, the processes of defining biological and physical processes for rivers, cannot always help sort out problems that come from competing human uses.  So while these frames, numbers 4-10 for those of you still thinking of our original “thirteen ways” trope, all are important to human culture and society, they all require frameworks beyond science to understand and manage.  Furthermore, an outdated philosophy that regards humans as always and inevitably destructive of natural systems, will not serve us well as we seek to reconcile critical conflicts.

To solve new problems, or problems that are newly urgent, we need new ways of thinking about rivers.  Some possible candidates for these new ways are numbers 11-13, to be described in a future post

View the Whole Thirteen Ways Series

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