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.

Living With the River: It’s All in the Prepositions

Some of you may remember prepositions from, oh, say 7th grade grammar class.  Prepositions are the small words like “with” “to” or “in” that express relations between two things.  Little surprise, then, that last week’s John E. Sawyer discussion on “relational ontologies” ended up being a discussion about prepositions.

To over simplify, “relational ontologies” is a matter of arguing that the relationships between things are more important than the things themselves.  So for example, there is a river, and there is a community of people.  Both are definable in any number of ways.  But the important thing is the nature of the relationship between them.  Taken a bit further, the idea would extend to an argument that our best relationship with the river entails obligations on us and that the river has existence and merit and value on its own, whether we are here or not.

Important concepts, and, like many important ideas, sorta hard to get your mind around.

So let’s think about prepositions a bit.

Some advocacy groups say they “speak for the Mississippi River.”  I guess that’s better than speaking “at” the river or speaking “in” the river.  But does speaking for the river imply that it can’t speak for itself?  Maybe it “speaks” when it floods, reminding us where its proper domain is?

If we are going to develop a way of living “with” the river in an appropriate way, what does that ask of us?  Is living with the river like living with a person?  Aldo Leopold has argued that harmony with land is like harmony with a friend: you can’t cherish one hand while cutting the other one off.  Do we “love” the Mississippi by restricting it within levee floodwalls, bunching it up regularly behind dams, and dumping our trash into it?  Do we express our love for it by alternately stifling it and putting it on a pedestal to worship?

One of the important contributions of humanistic thinking in the academy is to ask us to question things that we commonly take for granted.  We might think more closely about our language for the river, and what that language expresses about what we think the river is, who we think “we” are, and what the right relationship is between us and the Mississippi.

I think we’d find that the relationships are more complicated than we think, and that despite easy derision (“of course the river doesn’t actually talk”) there’s more to our relationship with the Mississippi than meets the eye.

Minnesota’s Water Future–One Perspective

Last week I gave a talk at the convention of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIAMN).  The room was full and the audience was attentive, asking thoughtful, informed questions about the ways design in urban space can have an impact on water.  I was pleased to give the talk and thank the AIAMN folks for offering me the platform.

I won’t go through the whole thing here–it was a 90 minute talk after all.  The abbreviated version is that I used the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities as a proxy for water in urban design, and encouraged the audience to think of water as more than an aesthetic dimension to the space they are shaping.  An abundant supply of clean water will be integral to our urban future.

We also spent some time talking about the Mississippi River Critical Area Program, managed by the state Department of Natural Resources in an effort to protect multiple resource values associated with the urban Mississippi River.  The present iteration of the program pays some attention to water quality, but I argued that we need a more robust way for planners, hydrologists, and designers to pool their collective talents.

I closed with some hopes/guesses about Minnesota’s water future.  After all, that was the title of the talk they signed up to hear, right?  I suggest that in Minnesota’s water future:

  • We will design cities as if rivers and water really matter, and that in order to do this, water management will be an important part of every professional designer’s training;
  • Actions such as throwing trash or pet leavings down storm sewers will be regarded as socially unacceptable, as will blowing/raking leaves or grass clippings into the gutter, where they wash down the storm sewers into the nearby water body;
  • Events such as the rain storms we had here last June, which dropped record amounts of rainfall across most of the Twin Cities region, will be expected, and preparing for them will be part of civic planning and design, rather than aberrant emergencies that disrupt our lives and cost millions of dollars to clean up after;
  • Children will know their watershed address, where their water comes from and where it goes after they have used it, in much the way they now know their street address and how to navigate their town to get to school.

I will add one additional point here, and that is to suggest that these concepts will be applicable to all children, in all parts of the city and region, not just a few who have particular advantages.  It’s going to take all of us to manage our water future.

Busy Day for News about Rivers

Sometimes it’s like that:  there will be a series of stories coming through the Google Alert thread that pertain to our river subjects.  Sometimes, of course, there’s a lot of news but it all pertains to bass tournaments and so forth, We aren’t (yet?) writing about bass tournaments.

In northeastern Wisconsin, a plan to build a transport system that will allow boats to bypass a closed lock is causing concern.  Even though there are several steps proposed that would supposedly clean boats passing through the system, as described in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, many people are wondering who would be benefited and what the risks would be in bypassing the lock.  Currently the lock separates waters from Lake Michigan from waters in the Lake Winnebago system, an important Wisconsin sport fishery.  Invasive species of concern include the sea lamprey, round goby and quagga mussel.

Farther south, the Sierra Club’s Three Rivers Project will team up with American Waters and the 1Mississippi campaign for a river cleanup on Saturday November 22 (must be a lot warmer there than here!).  The Three Rivers Project hosts the regional outreach assistant employed by the Mississippi River Network to develop the 1Mississippi campaign.  The purpose of 1Mississippi is to recruit 20,000 River Citizens, people who are committed to taking action to improve the health of the Mississippi River.  Full disclosure: we are in the process of working out the details to become the 1Mississippi host for the Minnesota-Wisconsin region.

Here in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial board argues that plans for the 130 acre Ford truck plant site in St. Paul should be visionary, modeling what a 21st century community can become.  The site’s location on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River is one of its prime assets, and while there is general agreement that the site can be a model for the direction riverfront development should take, concerns remain on what exactly that direction should look like.  How much public green space is appropriate?  How tall should the buildings be?  What ongoing safeguards will be in place against the site’s polluted history?  The devil’s in the details.

Finally, again from the Star Tribune, there is a story reporting that Minnesota farmers are using more barges to transport their crop this year than usual, owing to the heavy use of rail cars by the North Dakota oil fields.  Navigation use of the Mississippi is a contentious issue, with well established talking points by the barge industry and commodity associations on one side and by large environmental groups on the other.  Both are partly right, in a general way, but the debate really needs to become much more specific and detailed before it can be understood properly.  This article does provide some good contextual details, although the usual platitudes in favor of navigation improvements are included as well.  Still, worth a careful, thoughtful read.

On “agency” and rivers

For most folks, pairing the words “agency” and “rivers” will mean that we’re talking about the Corps of Engineers, or maybe a state Department of Natural Resources.  There are many federal and state agencies that govern parts of the considerations we have for rivers, and most of us who have been at this for a while can rattle off the “alphabet soup” pretty quickly.

For academics, though, “agency” has a very specific philosophical meaning, associated with will, or maybe intent.  To say that something has “agency” is to say, over-simply, that it can act.  I would love to know what this meaning has to do with “government agencies” as a general term; maybe someone can enlighten me here?

The point is that our John E. Sawyer seminar discussion last week considered the question of “agency” and rivers in the context of the Anthropocene, that much-debated term for the global era that we may be in now, where human beings are fundamentally altering earth’s geological processes.

I’m not well-read enough, and didn’t take good enough notes, to fully capture the ins and outs of our full discussion.  But here are some points that I think we made, in context of how they help us think about the Mississippi River:

  1. To ascribe “agency” to a geological feature of the earth, such as the Mississippi River, is to say that the said feature is not stable, unchanging, a fundamental unalterable “fact” on the ground.  Rather, taken in a long time horizon, we have to see the Mississippi as a dynamic, almost living, thing.  It moves, and will always move, in obedience to physical laws, such as gravity.
  2. To attempt to alter the river permanently, as so many of the Corps of Engineers structures do, is to attempt to “stop history,” an expensive and time consuming effort to interfere with physical laws and stop a river from doing what physical laws (its “agency”) dictates.  As a friend of mine used to say “Dams are just long term experiments on rivers.”
  3. Acknowledging that the Mississippi River is highly dynamic, and responsive to physical laws, means that we shouldn’t be shocked when it acts according to those laws, whether in an instance of breaking through a levee and rewatering a floodplain, or moving its main channel to the present Atchafalaya corridor in Louisiana.  Engineers will tell you there are only two kinds of levees:  those that have failed, and those that have not yet failed.
  4. If the above three points are true, then perhaps disputes over the physical future of the Mississippi River and its floodplain, the fight about the New Madrid Levee for instance, ought to be regarded as a debate between people who recognize the inevitability of physical laws such as gravity and people who think humans can outsmart nature or build enough concrete to stop water from flowing downhill forever.  This would certainly be a more honest debate than the way it’s framed now, as between “interest groups” such as “jobs vs the environment” or “ecology vs navigation.”  In fact, projects that propose to permanently alter the Mississippi (or any other large river) are simply unconscionable hubris and, ultimately, doomed to fail.

We didn’t get that far in our philosophical, theoretical discussion last week but it would have been fun if we had.

Water Works Park is a Step Forward for Mpls Central Riverfront

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorialized this morning in support of Water Works Park, and for the most part got it right.  This iteration of a design for the west end of the Stone Arch Bridge and the section of West River Parkway for a block or so on either side is pretty good.  It gets the most important element of any design for this place–protecting the historic water management system that pulled Mississippi River water out of the channel to power the mills–right through excavating and highlighting those structures.  It moves the proposed new building, which rightly provides amenities such as restrooms and food service, away from the river and immediate falls area.  It solves, at least for a while, the traffic confusion that has bicyclists, walkers, joggers, car drivers, and wedding photographers all sharing the same space, with sometimes fractious results.

We still need to see how a plethora of details are going to get solved, such as what kind of vegetative cover will go where.  I’m not sure the closing of the adjacent Upper St. Anthony Lock has been adequately accounted for (the material is long on marketing sizzle, and not as strong in contextual process as a wonk like me would like).  But this is arguably one of the most historically significant acres in Minnesota, so taking the time to think it through extremely carefully is certainly warranted.

Does the Midwest Have Enough Water? Potential Insights from the Pacific Northwest

Next Wednesday, November 12, our friends at the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics will host their monthly Sip of Science session on the topic “Drying Out: The Future of Water in the West.”  The drought in California and Arizona is pretty widely discussed, but Wednesday’s talk, from hydrologist Gordon Grant of the USDA Forest Service, will look at river basins in the Pacific Northwest.

As the NCED press release says:

A SIP OF SCIENCE – the 2nd Wednesday of every month
Drying out: the future of water in the West
Gordon Grant, USDA Forest Service

November 12, 2014  5:30p.m.  
Aster Cafe125 SE Main Street, St. Anthony Main, Minneapolis
No cover, Please RSVP!

A SIP OF SCIENCE bridges the gap between science and culture in a setting that bridges the gap between brain and belly.  Food, beer, and learning are on the menu in a happy hour forum that puts science in context through storytelling.

November 12th Event –

The noted sage Yogi Berra once said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Despite this warning, it is clear that the availability and distribution of water will look very different in 50 years than it does today. While this is likely to be particularly true for regions where water is already scarce, such as the dry American Southwest, it’s also true for regions where water is currently abundant – such as Minnesota and the Pacific Northwest.  This talk will focus on what we’ve learned over the past 15 years about where water is likely to be in the western U.S., what factors control its availability and likely changes in the future, and what we can do about it.  Drawing on recent studies in hydrology and geology as well as large integrated assessments of river basins in the Pacific Northwest, this talk will explore the uncertain and at times paradoxical future of water in the West.

The talk takes place during happy hour at the Aster Cafe || Food and Drink Available for Purchase


Gordon Grant is a Research Hydrologist with the USDA Forest Service at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, Oregon, and also Courtesy Professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University He began his career with the research branch of the Forest Service in 1985 with the overarching goal of advancing understanding of how stream networks, watersheds, and entire landscapes respond to changes in streamflow, sediment transport, and wood entrainment. Over the course of his career he has studied diverse drivers of fluvial regimes, including responses to natural disturbances such as fire and volcanic eruptions, changes in forest land use, effects of dam construction or removal, river restoration, climate change, and the intrinsic evolution of geomorphic systems.


A SIP OF SCIENCE is a science happy hour sponsored by the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED). It is a chance to hear about new and exciting research over beer, in a cool bar.  Come talk with the experts about their efforts to address some of the Earth’s most pressing problems. NCED’s A SIP OF SCIENCE brings the wonder of science to happy hour.

Get more information at:


Water In Minnesota–St. Anthony Falls

Last week we posted a short summary and links to some of the key University of Minnesota departments, institutes and centers associated with the study of water.  Today, we want to highlight one of our community partners, Mill City Times, which is a “go to” source for knowing what’s what on the Minneapolis Central Riverfront.

Anyone who has a serious, multidimensional interest in the future of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis needs to know what is taking place in the Central Riverfront.  Here is where the Upper St. Anthony Lock will close in the next few months, and where a number of hydroelectric projects are in various stages of review.  Very particular land use and design and planning decisions are being made here that will affect the perception, feel, and attractiveness of the public space at the city’s “front door” for decades to come.  From the plans for “Waterworks Park” to neighborhood association meetings, Mill City Times has announcements of what’s upcoming and comments on what has happened recently.

Bookmark the site, subscribe to the newsletter, follow it on Facebook or Twitter; if you’re serious about knowing the central riverfront, you can’t afford not to know what’s being written about in the Mill City Times.

Water at Minnesota

We’ve made the case here before that Minnesota is a water rich state, so it was nice to hear the concept confirmed by Prof. Deborah Swackhamer at last week’s Frontiers on the Environment program.  She said that Minnesota is the most water rich state in the country, but that we face a legion of problems that, if not addressed, will cause a great deal of anxiety in the not too distant future.

Click the link above to see more of the program and Swackhamer’s sobering assessment of what it will take for Minnesota to have a sustainable water future.

Fortunately the University of Minnesota is well stocked with water specialists across the disciplinary and professional spectrum.  At the Duluth campus, the Large Lake Observatory is undertaking groundbreaking research on Lake Superior, the largest body of freshwater in the world.

The University boasts of a very well-regarded Water Resources Science graduate program, including faculty from across the university’s graduate and professional schools.  The Water Resource Center has been an important participant in numerous statewide water policy discussions.

Contributions outside the scientific disciplines are of more recent vintage.  Assistant Professor Matt Tucker, of the Landscape Architecture department, develops student thinking and design expertise to face coming paradigm shifts in how urban water is managed.  River Life, our program, is central to the Mellon Foundation-supported John E. Sawyer Seminar, which is exploring new narratives and images to express our relationship to the Mississippi River in an age of climate change.

But the whole isn’t yet greater than the sum of the parts, and collaborating across colleges and disciplines is difficult.  The University’s recently-completed strategic planning effort has identified challenges associated with water as an example of the kinds of “grand challenges’ that the University should turn its teaching, research, and engagement programs to address.  Not surprisingly, we have some ideas for how this might be achieved.  It’s important to continue to reward and encourage ongoing substantial efforts that solve big problems, such as the research on Lake Superior described above.  But it’s more important to supplement existing work by:

  • devising ways for scientists to collaborate with faculty in other arenas as well as community partners in turning scientific data into solutions for current and future challenges;
  • developing inventories of who is doing what sorts of work at the University, and promoting those inventories (rosters, libraries, whatever they are called) to campus and community partners who can benefit and support that work.  We can’t collaborate if we don’t know who’s doing what.
  • hosting knowledge exchange forums featuring specialists from a variety of disciplines and practices.  Once we know of each others’ work, and have been able to “put a face to a name,” then collaboration can start.

There are many other possible ways to bring together the University’s strengths in water-oriented research, programs, and teaching.  Sustained, deliberate effort to break down the siloes of academic specialization is essential, though, for the University to serve the state, region, and broader reaches that will be facing water challenges in the coming decades.


“Water Is All We Have”

And in Minnesota, we have plenty–or so we think.  More on that another time, perhaps.

In fact, though, most of us don’t know very much about the water we drink.  We know it comes from some place beyond our house or office, and that it goes some place away from our house or office.  When pressed, we can probably come up with the name of a nearby stream or river as the source of our drinking water.  Sometimes we’d be right.

The artists at Works Progress studio have recently been investigating tap water as an “ecological, emotional, civic, and socio-economic moment–a common experience that opens space for conversation about our relationships with water and water systems.”

The resulting project is “Water Bar,” a physical installation akin to a bar, where water is what is served, usually in “flights” of small glasses, like the “tasting menu” at a place that serves fancy beer or wine.  Here, as the pun over the bar says, “water is all we have,” but the conversations about that water–where it comes from, how it’s treated, who has access, who manages it–serve up a very rich experience indeed.

Learn more about Water Bar at this guest blog written by the artists, Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker, hosted at the blog of the Mississippi River Fund.


The Past in Place: Landscape and Memory

The manifold connections between place and memory, place and history, history and memory are enough to keep departments full of scholars busy for years.  Is the past really past?  How much of our experience of place is tied up in our memories of other places?

We could go on and on, but we’ll spare you that.

Instead, we’ll be at next Thursday’s program The Presence of the Past, being held in the Crosby Seminar Room, Northrop Auditorium on the U of Minnesota campus, October 30, 4:00 pm.

There will be three panelists:

  • Mary Relindes Ellis, author of the new novel The Bohemian Flats,
  • Catherine Watson, travel writer and memoirist,
  • Scott Vreeland, longtime Mississippi River advocate and Minneapolis Park Board commissioner

It’s sure to be a lively discussion of how the past informs work about the Mississippi and work on the Mississippi.


Contact Us!
Send us a note at to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation