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The Rivers Beneath Our Feet

March 28, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on The Rivers Beneath Our Feet

We generally know that rain runs off the ground into the neighboring river, and that this process takes place somewhere below ground.  Maybe we’ve seen the “Don’t Pollute Drains to River” stencils on storm drains in our neighborhood.

But what exactly are the conduits below ground that carry storm water to the Mississippi (in the case of St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as dozens of other communities)?

My friend and colleague Matt Tucker, from the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota refers to these waterways as “Anthropocene rivers,” which I take to mean that they are part of the earth’s circulatory system that has been made by humans.  The metaphor–or maybe it’s a literal statement?–that rivers are the circulation system of the living earth is powerful.  So it was interesting to see this article about the Capitol Region Watershed District, highlighting one of the main arteries, if you will, conveying St. Paul’s storm water to the Mississippi.  Be sure to watch the video; good images and articulate voices about the relationships between the community and the river.

For a historian like me, the sight of century-old limestone blocks still carrying storm water is completely fascinating in its own right.  But the tunnel also makes me wonder  “Why did they do that?” and “What else happened?”  (And who were “they” anyway?) Was the development of this large storm water system a means to drain wet lands to build out new neighborhoods? Who pressed to make the project happen, and how was it paid for?  If the project was about draining land for development, what happened to the people who had been using the land before?

So many questions about how recent generations of humans have changed land and water systems to make a city.  And, following Tucker’s terms, if these are “anthropocene” rivers, what does that mean?  Certainly we have a responsibility to and for these water ways, even if they aren’t as charismatic as the above-ground Mississippi River.  Hard to imagine picnicking by the storm drain.    That’s an important part of the watershed district’s work: helping us see the connections between the rivers beneath our feet and the rivers in front of us.

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