An article in this morning’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune highlights a new proposal by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) that would change how cities of all sizes handle stormwater. The proposal, which is controversial for reasons having to do with cost, and with notions of local control for urban land use, would mandate reduction in both volume of stormwater and the pollutants it carries. In essence, cities would be asked to keep rain water where it falls and ensure that the water that does come off the land into nearby rivers and lakes is as clean as possible.
There are, of course, at least three ways to see this news. First, river advocates would be saying “It’s about time we alleviated the damage cities inflict on surface waters.” Conversely, others would see this as another example of government overreach, and one that will impose higher costs on all taxpayers.
Not surprisingly, we hold a third view. Rivers, streams and lakes within and adjacent to cities are some of those cities’ greatest assets, and has been shown repeatedly can be drivers of higher property values. Some cities will pass the costs of new features such as rain gardens and more intensive onsite water management practices to developers and construction companies, raising the costs of new development slightly while protecting taxpayers at large.
More important perhaps, given what’s generally recognized as an impending crisis for decaying water infrastructure, rules such as the MPCA proposes could extend the life of municipal stormwater systems by reducing the wear and tear associated with heavy flow events. As the local example of Faribault Foods’ innovative water and energy conservation plan shows, new ways of managing water can reduce discharge by hundreds of millions of gallons annually.
Rules such as those proposed by the MPCA exemplify the innovations that we’ll have to make if we really are going to live as if our rivers and streams matter. Many would argue that the Mississippi River is one of the state’s most critical assets. Changing the “urban development DNA” of our metropolitan areas along the river is central to learning how to live with this world-renowned place for decades to come.
You’ve heard it here before, but it bears repeating: our students are some of the greatest “products” of our University. Every year at this time we send a new group out to save the world (and man, sometimes it sure seems to need saving!) and mix our sadness at seeing them go with excitement for their new beginnings.
This year, three individuals and one group merit special attention.
Rachel Hines is an Honors graduate in Anthropology, specializing in archaeology. Her senior thesis focused on the archaeological potential at Bohemian Flats, a small plot of river bottom land near the University campus. Rachel’s project assessed the likelihood of arcaheological sites being found in the park and wrote up a model lesson plan that could be offered to middle school students.
What made her work truly remarkable, though, was the fact that she actually did very substantial research in census records and newspaper archives, as well as historical maps, to identify who lived where in the small riverside community on the flats between 1880-1930. I’ve worked around this subject for better than 15 years, and have never seen a historian, professional or amateur, actually take the time to look the households on the flats. A real contribution to knowledge, Rachel!
Abbie Hanson is another senior Honors student who has made a significant contribution to river resource management along the Mississippi in the Twin Cities. Abbie, a Biology major, undertook a 2 part project. As an internship for the National Park Service, she conducted a survey of strategies to remove invasive vegetation in local park systems throughout the Twin Cities Mississippi River corridor. This work, which Park Service staff can map for further analysis, was received with great enthusiasm, “We can really use this to help local partners be more efficient,” reported a resource management specialist.
The second part of Abbie’s study was her actual thesis, conducted under the direction of Professor Rebecca Montgomery in the University’s Forestry Department. The thesis tested hypotheses about the distribution of invasive woody vegetation along urban-suburban-rural gradients in the metropolitan area, reaching conclusions that may help land managers target efforts to control invasives before they are fully established.
Our third student, Erin Aadalen, is actually a member of the National Park Service staff in addition to being a senior specializing in Environmental Education and Communication. In between her park duties and school work, Erin served as vice president of the University’s River Rangers student group, helping manage a year of unprecedented growth in membership and programming. Her park service boss, Dan Dressler, reports that “ Erin’s enthusiasm for sharing nature with both children and peers is infectious.”
After graduation, Erin heads west to take a position as a park ranger at the Grand Canyon National Park, a really coveted posting within the service.
Finally, a group of graduate students in Landscape Architecture has achieved an unparalleled success in their field. As this blog post from the College of Design describes, the student studio led by Matthew Tucker and Craig Wilson has been awarded the 2013 Professional Award of Excellence in the category “Unbuilt Works” from the Minnesota chapter of the American Society for Landscape Architecture. Yes, this is the top award, in competition with both professional and student entrants.
The studio’s work on the Duwamish River, in Seattle WA explored potential futures for the heavily industrial, degraded river valley that is nevertheless undergring rapid transformations. More on the studio’s work can be found here.
Work like that of the Duwamish studio exemplifies some of the greatest contributions our students can make to practices of river management and restoration. We ask our students to be visionary, imagining the future as it might be with some specific roadblocks removed, rather than fanciful, dreaming up “anything goes” for our future landscapes. These visions of what’s possible are what drive our practices forward.
Every year, American Rivers puts out its “Most Endangered Rivers” list, an event that serves to rally the river advocacy community around a few top threats around the country. Every year, the list, found here, highlights small formerly-obscure rivers as well as a few of the “headliners,” such as the Colorado or the Mississippi. While the threats are disheartening, the range of efforts being made to address those threats is always instructive.
One thing that stood out on this year’s list is the number of rivers that are listed because of “outdated water management” that pays insufficient to the range of goods and services that our rivers provide. It seems to me that a systematic study of those water management plans, and how they might be improved, combined with examples of really good water management plans, would be a great study, highly valuable to all of us engaged in this work of planning toward sustainable, multi-functional rivers.
Another interesting question: how has the Most Endangered list changed over time and what do those changes tell us? If the earlier threats aren’t showing up as rationales for inclusion, does that mean the “state of the rivers” is improving, at least in terms of response to some types of threat?
Anyone know of such a study, or one approximating it? Maybe we’ll have to start one up here–got a lot of students looking for good projects!
The Great River Gathering, St. Paul’s annual “town dinner” celebrating its connection to the Mississippi River, is coming up quickly,on May 9.
Here are some reasons why this 19th version of the dinner promises to be a “can’t miss” gathering:
- In addition to being sold out, the RiverWork Exhibit gallery features more than 50 organizations working to make Saint Paul great. Each of their displays tells a piece of the story of where our city is headed. If this doesn’t inspire you, nothing will.
- Following dinner, the program opens with our anthem, Flow River Flow, this year performed by the Real Phonic Band and song in three languages. With this musical support, we present a video of the development highlights of 2012. There is so much to celebrate from the past year.
- This year’s keynote speaker is Katherine Loflin, who will have been with us for the entire week for the 2nd Annual Placemaking Residency. Loflin is renowned for her work surrounding resident attachment to their cities, why it matters, and what we can do about it.
- The 25-30 semifinalists of the $1 million Minnesota Idea Open will be introduced. Was yours among the 946 ideas submitted? Perhaps you will be one of the finalists!
- The evening is capped off with the inspiring words of Mayor Chris Coleman, as he paints the picture for Saint Paul’s future.
Like many other river cities and towns, St. Paul “gets it”: a healthy river is vital to the future of a healthy community, and, just as important, a healthy community is vital to a healthy river.
The Great River Gathering is organized and hosted by the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation, which has been in the middle of everything “river-ish” that the city has done for the past 15+ years. Go to the Riverfront Corporation’s web site to learn more and to register for the Great River Gathering.
Hope to see you there!
From our colleagues/partners at the Institute for Advanced Study:
Poetry by the river—east bank of the river, near U of M campus, April 30, 4 p.m.
“Water, is taught by thirst / Land—by the oceans passed,” writes Emily Dickinson. This talk will consider various ways in which poets like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Derek Walcott, and others envision water in some of their well-known poems. While differing in their means, ultimately these poets share a particular vision of water as both a physical site and a site for evoking reflection.
This talk will be located at the River Park Flats on the Mississippi bank (located on the grassy area directly behind the Medical Center on the East Bank campus off Harvard Street. Attendees can meet at the patio door of Coffman at 3:40 to walk over together.
Amir Hussain graduated from the University of Minnesota with an MFA in Creative Writing last May, where he wrote a poetry thesis that explored human relations to nature. He holds a BA in Environmental Studies and Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.
No guarantees that the snow will have stopped for the season, but very early predictions show temps around 70!
Sometimes the most apparently simple acts carry the most profound possibilities for meaning. Last March 1, a group of indigenous women left Lake Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota, on a walk that will take them to the Gulf of Mexico. They are carrying a pail of water from the headwaters to the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf.
Sharon Day is a leader of the effort. “We want the walk to be a prayer,” Day says. “Every step we take we will be praying for and thinking of the water. The water has given us life and now, we will support the water.”
To learn more, and to support the group, go to their Facebook page. That page also links to a site which tracks the walk’s progress. Today, they are in northern Mississippi, 50 miles or so south of Memphis.
Planning for the long term health and vitality of the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities should get a strong boost tonight when the St. Paul City Council votes on whether to adopt the “Great River Passage plan, which sets a framework for development and preservation for the next several decades. Articles here and here provide more detail on the plan and supporters’ goals.
When combined with the “River First” plan for Minneapolis’ riverfront above St. Anthony Falls, the St. Paul action ensures that some 30 miles of urban riverfront has a framework for planning and design well into the 21st century.
The importance of these plans cannot be overstated. The challenges facing urban riverfronts, particularly on the Mississippi, are complex and dynamic; a solid yet flexible approach to public investment on these corridors is absolutely necessary if waterfronts are to be the engines of urban placemaking going forward.
Stay tuned to this site for further updates on systemic Mississippi River challenges and solutions; in the meantime read the plans and participate in the local riverfront efforts.
And, with a forecast for 6-10 inches of snow in the Twin Cities (yes, it is April, but spring hasn’t come to us yet), dream of bike rides to come along restored urban riverfronts!
Suppose for a minute that you knew there was a mortal threat to your livelihood, if not your life, encroaching street by street, block by block, coming inexorably toward you. You don’t know where the threat is right now, but you know it’s out there somewhere.
- Work with neighbors to create a deterrent fence or some other protective structure on your block.
- Put up your deterrent structure on your property, because, after all, the neighbors aren’t that easy to work with and some of them don’t think this is much of a threat anyway.
- Reinforce your front door, but leave your front yard unguarded, because, really, your yard is a pretty cool place, but the real safety and value is in your house.
- Don’t worry about your yard or house, but reinforce your bedroom door, figuring that any money spent defending yourself prior to your “last stand” is money wasted.
If the mortal threat in this little scenario is the Asian carps that are coming up the Mississippi River, voraciously outcompeting local native fish (like walleyes) for food and wrecking the ecosystem, to say nothing of their You Tube-documented habit of jumping into the air when alarmed, then it appears the State of Minnesota may have chosen Option 4 above. Sure, the DNR is putting money into studies of the state’s “front yard” waters, and thinking about drawing the line against carp in the Twin Cities. But as this article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune makes clear, the money actually being spent on deterrance is north of the city, at the Coon Rapids Dam. The Coon Rapids Dam may be the “last defense” against the invasive fish before they get upstream into northern Minnesota, potentially threatening a state fishery and tourism industry that has been estimated at between $7 and $11 billion in annual value.
So why are we only reinforcing the last line of defense? Long time observers of the Coon Rapids Dam controversy might argue that this whole thing started years ago, when local agencies debated who would pay to upgrade and maintain the deteriorating century-old structure. Local park districts didn’t want to invest in it. Why not take the dam down and let the river run free? Well, a couple of hundred homeowners who have property stretching a few miles upriver would then have mud flats for their front yard, instead of an impounded, lake-like Mississippi River, provided for them by taxpayers across the state of Minnesota.
So we have $16 million being invested in the 100 year old dam, with Asian carps used as the rationale for preserving the dam and the amenity of the lake.
We ought to be able to do better than this.
Two weeks ago, I was pleased and honored to present an address at the Henry Farnam Dinner, an annual event sponsored by a variety of Quad Cities Mississippi River advocates. Farnam was the president of the Rock Island Railroad in the mid-1850s, when the line reached the Mississippi at Rock Island IL, thereby becoming the first complete rail connection between the Atlantic and the Mississippi.
Dinner organizers asked me to talk about the Mississippi in 2054, 200 years after the rail connection and accompanying “Grand Excursion” focused attention on what was then known as the Great Northwest. Read more →
The “design” of urban rivers, managing the nexus of water and land along rivers in cities, has transformed many urban riverfronts from forgotten spaces to showplaces. But has everyone been served equally? Do all sectors in the city prosper from the development of these amenity areas? Read more →