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“Living with the River: the Once and Future Mississippi” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

Last month we convened a symposium, “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change.”  Video coverage of the sessions is available here  and additional material is on the web site of the Institute for Advanced Study as well.

The chairs of the various sessions during the symposium have written blog posts about their session, posts which we will run for consecutive days this week. This post is from Christopher Grenfell, an audience member at the “Thursdays at Four” session and undergraduate student in the Honors Seminar “Thursdays at Four.”

The session included three speakers plus a moderator, all speaking about “resilience” and the Mississippi River.  They were all interesting talks, although there was a lot of variation in what was said.

There is no question the Mississippi is in trouble.  Organisms dependent on the river slip closer to peril every day, as the gulf hypoxic zone grows to the size of Massachusetts.  At the same time, however, the Mississippi’s incredible biodiversity and resilience make it a champion among rivers.  No amount of damage to its ecosystem or flow will cause it to succumb.  It will always be here, but it will be different.

Rivers are absolutely essential to our survival.  Darlene St. Clair, a Native American studies professor at St. Cloud State University, talked about the Mississippi through a Dakota studies framework.  The Dakota define waterways as the lifeblood of mother Earth.  Through an ethic called “Mitakuye Owas’in,” roughly translated to “everything is my relative,” the Dakota feel a familial connection to the Mississippi and its ecosystem.  Our current society could learn a lot from this ethic, as we are just one of many species dependent on the river.  Unfortunately in today’s world it is impossible to study nature without studying human influence.  We are now the dominant source of change on Earth, and need to take responsibility.

Deborah Swackhamer, a professor of water resources and policy at the University of Minnesota, outlined three possible futures for the Mississippi.  The first was a bleak scenario where invasive carp dominate the river, water withdrawals reduce its flow, and recreation of any kind is impossible.  In this future we do nothing to stop the Mississippi’s decline, and it becomes merely a dumping ground for fertilizer and waste.  The second was a best-case scenario.  In this future the river supports a healthy and diverse fishery, it is possible to drink untreated water, and the gulf hypoxic zone ceases to exist.  Swackhamer was quick to point out that this scenario was a near impossibility, and offered her third scenario as the “future we can have.”  If we act now to reverse the damage we have caused, the Mississippi can support diverse life, its drinking water could be considered the best in the country, and the gulf dead zone could be reduced by 50%.

Pat Hamilton of the Science Museum of Minnesota addressed the Mississippi’s adaptive nature.  He defined resilience as the ability of a system to deliver goods and services while withstanding disruptive changes.  From this definition the Mississippi’s resilience is in trouble.  With an increase in pollution and invasive species, it will no longer be able to deliver, fish, drinking water, recreation, or transportation.  It will be viewed as the central United States dumping ground, transporting our waste to the sea.  He cited climate change as the Mississippi’s ultimate threat, and called upon world leaders to stem the growth of atmospheric pollutants that are contributing to global warming.

The Mississippi will exist long after we are gone.  But it is the state of its existence that determines our future.  Irreparable damage has already been done, however we can decide how much more has to occur.

Video of the session can be viewed here.

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One Comment

  1. Greg GenzMay 28, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    Noble thoughts all, but viewing the Mississippi as a River in decline does not do justice to those who preceded us and have sent us down a path of a “cleaner” waterway. Describing a River that belies the sound bytes and hyperbole of people who only see failure, doesn’t acknowledge the progress that has been made towards better water quality. I started interacting with the River in my youth, building rafts, swimming and fishing in the Pine Bend area. I started earning my living on the River over 40 years ago. I can tell you that the wretched lifeless River that people try and portray it as today, existed, but it was 50 years ago, not today! Whether it is a conscious effort or an effort born out of ignorance, there seems to be a lack of a baseline on the measurement of water quality. When someone says that a waterway is not fit for recreation, I always wonder, just when was it fit? What is missing in the dialogue of water and its status, is a discussion, based on historical evidence, that asks, are the waters getting worse, better, or holding their own? A broad brush implemented in describing the State’s water quality, can’t be used or one risks the chance of people questioning the motivation. I can tell you, for a fact, that when I interact with the Metro Mississippi River today, I don’t worry about burning eyes, itchy skin, sore throat, upset stomach, or staph infections like I used to. That is definitely better and we need to know how we got there and how it can be applied to other impaired waters.

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