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Who Knows the Mississippi River Best? What Difference Does it Make?

A recent blog post on rulemaking for the Mississippi River corridor through the Twin Cities generated some comments, both to the blog itself, and to the Facebook notice of the blog post.  This is great; one of the important functions of the River Talk blog is to inspire discussions.

PN present 4These comments raised for me the question:  Who knows the River best?  Arguments that one or another group has “undue influence” or “knows the river best because…” are vital because the Mississippi needs all of the concerned citizens we can rally to it.  But I have to add, when I see that a group “speaks for the River,” I just have to ask: “How did the River ask you to speak for it?”

To take another perspective, a scientist friend of mine recently told a group we were meeting with “The Mississippi River doesn’t have a crisis.  It simply is; it’s us who is having a crisis about the Mississippi.”

Well now.  That’s not a perspective I hear every day, though it may well be true.  (How would you ask the Mississippi how it feels?  Some people do believe the river is a sentient being.)

St Paul MarinaThe basis for claims to know the river are pretty interesting.  Do we know the river best when we:

  • spend a lot of time on the water, and know it through long experience boating?
  • study its hydrology and understand the variations in its flows?
  • know the life cycles and connectivities among the animals and plants that live on, in, and beside it?
  • spend our careers studying it, protecting it through regulatory and political/legal actions and advocacy work?

Seems to me that “all of the above, plus more” might be the best answer.

If that’s too wishy-washy, as it legitimately could be to many, then I will offer this: it depends on the context where knowledge is needed.  In the context spoken of in the earlier blog post, processes whereby communities and other organizations establish development rules for the cities along the river in this part of the world, I would suggest that scientific and urban design knowledge would be vital, and that we need both local points of view that see the river as an economic force in a local community and a bigger perspective that understands the river as a national and internationally significant landscape.

At that point, we need to fall back to a process that ensures sides are heard and feel that they have been taken seriously.  Should a local community act completely in its own self interest, and thereby perhaps harming the great commons that is the river?  Multiple perspectives need to be heard.

Once again, then, it seems that we need to have strong community expression that is clear, yet subtle and significant, which informs governance structures that are fair.  Both should be informed by solid science where appropriate.

That won’t solve controversy, which is as much about local circumstance as anything else, often enough.  But it’s not my hope to solve controversy, but to stimulate more, and better discussion.

As before, comments welcomed!  Guest posts are also available–get in touch with me at to talk about how to set one up.


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One Comment

  1. John SullivanNovember 26, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    The fish, insects and other aquatic life that live within it and on it. It is our responsibility to know them to protect and secure the river for future generations.

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