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River Citizens as Vanguard of a New Movement: What’s the Movement?

New shoots of growth.Earlier this week I blogged about the success of the 1Mississippi campaign in reaching its initial goal of signing up 10,000 people to become River Citizens.  These people, I suggested, form the vanguard of a new movement, a groundswell of people and organizations that do not take the Mississippi River for granted.

But what exactly does it mean not to take the river for granted?  Let’s use the term “hydro-literate” to characterize the kind of citizen we mean; hydro-literate people know water, see water clearly, and take action as stewards of water.

Still not very precise.  This is a big subject, and like our work on myths and stories of the Mississippi, is part of our long term effort here at River Life.  We’ll start today with just a beginning, “put our toe in the water” so to speak.  In the passage that follows, I will use “water” and “river” and “Mississippi River” more or less interchangeably, although they of course are not.  Instead, they are increasingly specific elements of larger classifications, but we’ll leave that for another time.

Hydro-literate people know water.  They understand that it’s a system of living and non-living components, that this system is highly variable both over time and through space (the Mississippi River in New Orleans and in Minneapolis are vastly different water bodies), and that what happens on land has a direct and intimate relationship with the water system.  Furthermore, hydro-literacy makes clear that rivers like the Mississippi are only the most visible–and usually best-loved–component of a water system that includes a vast and complex array of groundwater systems, as well as more evident surface water tributaries.

Hydro-literacy means we see water clearly.  We don’t just see the Mississippi as we want it to be, or as we fear it may be either.  The river is not just a “problem” to be solved, or an “asset” to be taken advantage of.  Rather, it is a place itself, with a historical and physical integrity as itself, independent of our relationship to it.  I may be going out on a limb here, and apologize if I’m being offensive or presumptuous, but the understanding that the river has a reality outside of our relationship to it, and that our relationship to it is therefore centrally important both to it and to us, borrows heavily from what limited understanding I have of indigenous ways of knowing.  Indigenous people have lived with the Mississippi for millennia; we should learn from them.

Hydro-literacy means taking action as stewards of water.  This is the part that the 1Mississippi campaign is most concerned with, and there are many good reasons why this is an appropriate focus.  Federal legislation such as the Water Resource Development Act and the Farm Bill both have profound implications for the Mississippi River and for rivers and water more generally.  They are the policy DNA by which the particular actions of thousands of individual people and organizations are governed.  State and local policies and planning frameworks matter a great deal also.  But acting as a steward of the river encompasses a great deal more than taking policy action, important as that is.  Organizations such as the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization and the Freshwater Society here in the Twin Cities, and hundreds more like them, have very strong stewardship education programs that address the myriad individual decisions that we all make daily that affect our water supplies.

So where does this leave us?  How about with this:  Hydro-literacy is one of the most difficult and complex conditions that we can aspire to.  This stuff is hard.  But it’s also among the most important things we can try to do.  All the water we’re ever going to have is here now.  As populations grow, climates change, and our demands on water increase and grow more complex, we have to figure this out.  We’re all in it together, and can’t just hand the responsibility and authority off to a small subgroup of water engineers to make our decisions for us.

As I said earlier, at River Life we’re going to be working on this notion of “hydro-literacy” for a good long while.  Help us out, won’t you?  What do you think are the most important qualities of a hydro-literate citizen?  What are the most important kinds of knowledge and action to have?  What else should we write about?

Send us a note at or, better yet, just make a comment to this blog post.


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  1. Public engagement | A Listly ListOctober 16, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    […] River Citizens as Vanguard of a New Movement: What's the Movement? […]

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