University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

About Patrick Nunnally

As the coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s River Life program, Pat Nunnally works to establish lasting relationships among the University of Minnesota and groups working on river sustainability. In the past two decades, Nunnally has developed a unique practice as a consulting historian, communications manager and interpretive planner, with a focus on rivers, trails and scenic byways. He has organized events and conferences with a Mississippi River connection, and has presented his work at numerous academic and professional meetings. He’s also worked with public agencies and private firms on many planning projects for culturally sensitive sites. Nunnally’s writings have appeared in a variety of forms, including the ongoing blog River Talk. His latest published piece is a short reflection on the importance of diverse stories in shaping an inclusive future for the Mississippi River. The City, the River, the Bridge, an edited collection of essays examining the consequences and aftermath of the I-35W bridge collapse, will appear in January 2011. Since 1999, Nunnally has served on the U of M faculty, teaching classes in landscape planning and urban studies. He holds graduate degrees in English, American studies and landscape architecture from Vanderbilt University, the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota.

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.

#TBT: Fifty-five Years Ago, Minnesota Had Few Tools to Respond to River Pollution

There has been a lot written recently about impending changes at the Environmental Protection Agency under the new Presidential administration.  A quick look into the entries at the Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia shows that pollution of the Mississippi River was a substantial public concern in 1962-63, nearly a decade before the 1970 establishment of the EPA through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The MNopedia article “Mississippi River Oil Spill, 1962-1963,” by Joseph Manulik (who was a U of MN Honors student when he wrote the piece) details how two spills, both on the Minnesota River, wreaked havoc downstream.  Manulik makes the clear point that the State of Minnesota had poor policy tools to deal with environmental crises.  The spilled oil fouled waterbird habitat as far down the Mississippi as Lake Pepin, killing thousands of ducks and wrecking the aquatic ecology of the river for nearly 100 miles.  But the only state remedy could not be put into action until a health hazard to humans was declared.  At this point in history, very few people ventured near the river, so the state was left with makeshift remedies, including a short-lived involvement of the National Guard. There was no recourse in state or federal law to hold the industrial sites responsible for the oil spills responsible for the accidents.

There is, of course, a lot of posturing and exaggeration about policy directions at the EPA.  But it does seem clear that there is little appetite to return to a pre-EPA world, where rivers burned, waterfowl suffocated, and polluters were held unaccountable.


Minnesota’s Clean Water Fund: Working Well, but Restoring Water Takes a Long Time

In 2008, Minnesota voters passed an amendment to the state constitution establishing a 25 year fund to support the state’s clean water, land, heritage, and parks and trails programs.  To date, that fund has allocated some $760 million toward restoration of the state’s surface waters; the state Department of Natural Resources estimates that 40% of the state’s lakes, rivers and streams are “impaired,” that is, unfit for fishing or swimming.

So how is the state doing with the infusion of cleanup funds? The Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report this week suggesting that the funds are being spent appropriately, but that it’s still too early to measure results in terms of cleaner waters.

Two conclusions can be reached:

First, the clean bill of health regarding agency processes and spending efforts is very good news.  There are some relatively minor hiccups regarding precisely what spending is allowable, but the Legislative Auditor’s report recognizes that the program is working well.  For any program with a sizable amount of money, that’s a good sign, and a welcome affirmation of government agencies doing a good job on important work.

Second, as coverage by Minnesota Public Radio says, making a measurable change in water quality takes a long time.  Using Clean Water Legacy funds, the state has sped up collection of water quality data across the state’s 80-some watersheds, but it will take a 10 year cycle of revisiting and remeasuring those watersheds to determine how much actual progress is being made in the field.  As the Auditor’s project manager notes, “It also takes a long time to restore water,”

That’s a point that should not be lost on any of us. It’s easier to keep water clean in the first place than it is to clean it after pollution has occurred.


#TBT: River History Found in all Sorts of Places

It probably shouldn’t be surprising, but it is, how many places the Mississippi River’s history shows up.  The fantastic, and fun, Open Parks Network site contains over 200,000 images of items relating to the nation’s over 400 national park units.  OF COURSE they would have great Mississippi River materials on the site!

Actually, not so much, at least coming from a simple “Mississippi River” keyword search.  Of course, there are many other ways to search for river-related items, but I just thought I would share one thing I did find.  Here’s an image that is part of the collections of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

The power dam and lock at Keokuk Iowa was a nationally-significant power development when it went online right before World War 1.  It’s hardly surprising that Sandburg would have had this image in his files. What stories about the river and its people does this image elicit? What questions can we ask of it that inform how we think about the river now, a century later?

In Atlanta, Integrated Water Management + Community Engagement=Resilience

Atlanta GA is, to say the least, a complex place.  It has been the herald of various “New South” efforts (some of which weren’t really so new) since the 1880s, and even today contains all of the depth and self-contradictions that can be found across the entire country.

So it wasn’t really surprising to find that Atlanta is the location for a recent case study report on the American Rivers blog, where it had been picked up from an earlier River Network posting.  These two national organizations, which until fairly recently had reflected stereotypes of environmental orgs as interested in “wild” places where elites could afford to travel for recreation, have become increasingly attuned to urban issues of environmental equity and water management.

This case, like many in Atlanta and other urban locales, begins with a large scale infrastructure decision affecting a neighborhood comprising largely poor people and communities of color.  The vicinity of Turner Field, formerly the home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, has been carved up by highways, leveled for sports complexes and parking lots, and otherwise converted to a sea of impervious surfaces over the past 50+ years.  Now the Braves are leaving; what shall the site become?

In this instance, American Rivers collaborated with ECO-Action, a community environmental justice group, to devise specific approaches to stormwater management that would support the mixed-use development that was the neighborhood’s #1 redevelopment priority.  Working together, planners proposed measures that would capture the first 1.8″ of rainfall, an amount that covers over 90% of the rainstorms the city sees.  Capturing that water on site, rather than having it rush off into an already flood-prone neighborhood, provides benefits for the neighborhood as well as the nearby Chattahoochee River.

How did they do it? The author, Jeremy Diner, offers suggestions that are familiar to community organizers although not, perhaps, part of river advocacy “tool kits” yet:

This experience suggests that we start by breaking out of our own silos. We free up more evenings to attend community meetings. We trade our keyboard for a telephone or a handshake. We listen more and talk less.

Can’t really say it any better.

Innovative Knowledge Sharing and New Relations to Place

It sometimes surprises our community partners when they learn how “non-placed” much of University scholarship is.  Many of our faculty have their most important professional relationships enacted through a network of scholars working on similar projects; the community represented by their department or college is important, but not really where their primary allegiances are.  In a similar manner, many scholars, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, study broad theoretical frameworks that are not explicitly “placed,” even though the impacts or applications of the ideas are all around us.  For many reasons, places like the U of M tend to reward scholars for the original ideas rather than the application of ideas.

I’m not writing this to complain or start an argument–I know there are many generalizations in the previous paragraph.  But I want to highlight two projects that I ran across recently, both of which provide potentially valuable complementary perspectives to traditional scholarly work. In Vancouver, the  Wikiupedia project offers an augmented reality access to indigenous stories of that place. The app has potential to “unsettle” or “decolonize’ stories of a place that are more commonly seen through the lenses of settler stories and occupation.  Project developers hope that it can preserve indigenous cultures, capturing stories and language, vetted by indigenous cultural-knowledge keepers before the relations to land and place that are expressed through that language are lost.

The other innovative project that offers new connections between knowledge and place originates closer to home. The Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities and other partners are collaborating on a series of art installations and research projects known as “Date/um: Ecological Temporalities of the Lower Schuylkill River.” The project’s lead curator, Patricia E. Kim, explains in an online essay that the sharp juxtaposition of diverse kinds of information serves both to illuminate how science and art can speak together, and also to advocate for continued collection of rich scientific data.  Toward that end, the PPEH project has been a leader in the national DataRefuge project, which seeks to “build refuge for federal climate and environmental data.”

Art, science, and place: key components for the next generation of water programs. The work that needs doing requires an aesthetic and ethic of “both/and”: engagement and science, both grounded in place; scholarship and community perspectives, mutually reinforcing each other.

Bethany Wiggin, the Founding Director at the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, will present a talk on the PPEH work on the Schuylkill River this Thursday, March 9, at Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus.  Further information is on the Institute for Advanced Study web site.


#TBT: Minnesota Digital Library

Maybe it goes against the “rules” of Throwback Thursday as a trope (meme?) to write about places that have historical materials rather than places or things that are historic.  Nevertheless, I just have to highlight the materials in the Minnesota Digital Library.

If you’re inclined to go to this site, be forewarned: it’s a time warp.  A couple of weeks ago, I was looking around on the site, having typed “Mississippi River” into the search window.  I honestly didn’t think two hours had passed that fast; at least that’s what I tried to explain when I showed up late for a meeting.

Maps, historic photographs, images of historical documents; you name it, it can be found on this site.  One of the great advantages of the site as a platform is that it encompasses the collections of many libraries and archives across the state.  The range of sources and the rich metadata combine to make this an invaluable stop for “river students” of all sorts.

If any of you end up searching these collections and are interested in writing about what you find, let me know.  The Open Rivers journal is always looking for good articles!


Climate Change, Heritage, and the “Future(s) of the Past”

Climate change poses a whole host of problems for all of us (whether we acknowledge them or not), but some of those problems have not gotten as much attention as others.  In “The Art of Losing,” a blog hosted by the University of Minnesota Press, author Caitlin DeSilvey writes about the recent National Park Service policy document concerning heritage resources that are at risk from a changing climate.  In the United States, the administrative structure around historic preservation is oriented around a conception that wants to “stop time,” to preserve the significant fabric of historic structures as they were in the significant part of the past.  In some cases, “restoration” is called for, but for the most part programs such as the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Landmarks Program, indeed even many individual units of the National Park System, make an implicit promise that the visitor will see the past landscape or building “as it was” during the historically significant time.

In this conception of time, the effort is always uppermost to preserve, to stop time somehow, to slow down or interrupt the processes of decay and loss.  So the new Park Service Climate Change Strategy breaks new ground with its acceptance that a changing climate will necessarily result in the loss of historically significant places.  In the face of inevitable loss, what are the appropriate ways to recognize the importance of what was in this place?  Perhaps a more difficult, yet more important, question is how to talk about the multilayered systems that are changing a place that is loved and that has wide significance.  When rising seas bring the Tidal Pool up to the base of the Jefferson Memorial, how will we have to change our thinking about the passage of time and the impermanence of landscape?

A community visioning project in Boston “Boston Coastline: Future Past” offers one approach.  As illustrated on a web site and video, participants walked the streets of the city, more or less tracing the future shoreline, given some climate change projects.  Maybe it’s not surprising that the future shoreline closely approximates the shoreline of the area when Europeans landed in the 17th century.  What does surprise many people is how much of the present city, including some of the region’s most famous areas, is built on created land, fill that has been scooped up and solidified, and on which buildings, streets, and parks have now been placed.

Neither the National Park Service nor the Boston walkers directly engage the ways in which water shapes our sense of where we are, our sense of what physical components of our best-known spots make it distinctly “here.”  We have a lot to learn about our “water past” in order to understand better our potential “water futures” and how our most desired future might be achieved.

#TBT: Mississippi River is Central in Early Statehood Racial Controversy

In 1860, two years after Minnesota became a state and a year before the Civil War would close the Mississippi as an avenue of regional transportation, the Eliza Winston case rocked the village of St. Anthony (now part of Minneapolis). Eliza Winston, an African-American slave, was brought north by her “owners,” a Mississippi family who had come north to escape the heat and humidity of the Southern summer.  As detailed in this article in the invaluable online encyclopedia MNopedia, Eliza Winston connected with influential white and African American community members and sued for her freedom, since slavery was illegal in Minnesota.  Although her suit was successful, she faced mob violence from members of the community who felt that interference with another person’s “property” was a violation of social order.  Under the threat of pro-slavery violence, Eliza Winston was spirited away from where she had been staying with abolitionist sympathizers.

Although this is not a story of water management or the direct impact of the Mississippi River on the city’s material landscape, it nevertheless reiterates the many ways in which the river runs through our history, our stories, and our politics.

Why Should People in the Mississippi River Basin Care about the Oroville Dam?

February 21, 2017Patrick NunnallyRivers0

I’m writing this on the afternoon of Monday, February 20, a week after heavy rain across northern California caused Lake Oroville to overflow and an emergency spillway to become activated for the first time in the 49 years the Oroville Dam has been in existence.  Nearly 200,000 people were evacuated when engineers and public safety professionals feared that the spillway would collapse, releasing a devastating flood.  This week, tonight and tomorrow, another rain event known as an “atmospheric river” is taking place; by the time you read this Oroville Dam and the Feather River may once again be at the top of national headlines.

The Oroville Dam crisis has been the subject of a great deal of smart journalism.  Brad Plumer at offers a good basic explainer of the various structures on the ground and how the system is supposed to work; the Sacramento Bee complements this account with historical background explaining some of the decisions made when the dam was built in the 1960s. Writing in Circle of Blue, Brett Walton puts the Oroville situation in the context of recurring issues of dam safety across the nation, while Ethan Elkind broadens his consideration to more general policy implications of the crisis. City Lab raised the issue of how Oroville speaks to the country’s ongoing infrastructure issues, although the writer (and editor? page designer?) got some flack for politicizing the question of how infrastructure might be funded.  Three other articles take up more focused, though still important, subjects: American Rivers argues for more natural management of rivers and two articles connect Oroville Dam and Lake to California’s statewide water management system and the provision of water in faraway Los Angeles.

Whew! That’s a lot of information and knowledge to process, largely concentrated on California and on national water issues. All speak of Oroville as a “wake up call” with far reaching “implications.” The real connection to the Mississippi River basin, though, comes from articles that raise the specter of how a changing climate is contributing to the Oroville crisis.  At the very least, the repeated atmospheric rivers that have pounded California this winter seem to be symptoms of a warmer, more humid atmosphere.  More subtle arguments point out that precipitation that falls as rain rather than snow has a direct impact on intensity of flood events.  Finally, not only are California’s dams and water infrastructure showing the signs of years of neglect and deferred maintenance, but, as one observer puts it, the water system was “designed and built in an old climate, one in which extremely warm years were less common and snowpack was more reliable.”

The problem of how to design water management for a new climate is a challenge the entire country is, or should be, facing. Oroville is indeed a wake up call, that we should be hearing in the Mississippi River basin as well.


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River Life in Video
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Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.