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.

TONIGHT! River City Revue by Canoe

River City Revue, the always-interesting collaborative between Works Progress Studio, the Mississippi River Fund, and the National Park Service, takes to canoes this evening, leaves from Hastings tonight at 6:00.  Details and tickets through the Mississippi River Fund, nice discussion of the whole series here.

If we’re ever going to care for our rivers long term, we have to reach beyond our usual audience with our usual message.  River City Revue does just that, with innovative and unexpected themes, activities, and encounters to make more of us realize the Mississippi is part of what makes this place our home.

Nation’s Longest River Significantly Affected by Changing Climate

The Missouri River near Williston, N.D. The river's streamflow has changed significantly over the last 50 years. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

The Missouri River near Williston, N.D. The river’s streamflow has changed significantly over the last 50 years. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Sorry, Mississippi River fans, the nation’s longest river is actually the Missouri.  As this news story makes clear, though, the changes on the Missouri are of a sort that will bring big impacts to the Mississippi as well.

It’s not really a surprise that some parts of the Missouri are seeing too little water while others are seeing too much.  Climate change reports for some time have indicated that dry areas will trend drier and wet areas wetter.  A USGS report released recently documents those changes across a broad area (227 stream gages) and through a span of better than 50 years.

In some ways, the varying reception of this news is more significant than the documented changes.  Some farmers are simply adapting, aware that conditions always change in the uncertain world of agriculture.  People in other sectors of the economy are likewise concerned, and adapting.  Fishing is a major economic activity, contributing over $3 billion annually in Montana alone.  No one is quite sure what the changed river conditions are going to mean to this industry.

Still others don’t seem to really accept that the climate is changing, arguing that poor river management by the agencies involved with the Missouri River are to blame.  The Corps of Engineers comes in for criticism, of course.

Whatever the cause, the evidence in front of people shows that the river is changing.  As one source said, ”We no longer have a smooth, easy-going river,” he said. “It’s choppy and eroding the banks and just pretty ugly at this point in time.”

And that’s perhaps the most interesting part of the story, for me at least.  People in a changing landscape respond to the differences they can see, that are most directly affecting their daily lives.  The river is different–”we no longer have…”  The explanations they offer for change vary almost on a person by person basis, and may or may not be grounded in science, in a systematic understanding of policy or any other set of ideas other than their own values and beliefs.

The rivers are changing.  What do we do now?


What’s All This About Canaries and Coal Mines?

I recently ran across a Twitter post that said something like this:

Lake Mead’s record low is “canary in coal mine” for 30M people West who depend on #CORiver water for drinking 

So I started to wonder a bit about this often-used metaphor: “the canary in the coal mine.”

To refresh your memory, the phrase comes from the practice, dating to the 19th century and perhaps earlier, of coal miners taking canaries down into the mine with them.  Before the advent of modern ventilation systems, bad air was a serious threat to coal miners’ safety.  When the canaries stopped singing, that was a signal that something was wrong with the air and that the miners should get to the surface immediately.

They probably took the canary with them, don’t you think?

So “canary in the coal mine” has become a figure of speech to represent a fairly complex, but important, set of facts: when one indicator (the canary) demonstrates adverse reactions (singing stops) that shows that conditions are worsening in the affected environment (the mine) and that something needs to be done to protect health and safety (get out of the mine).

If the planet is our “mine” in this figure of speech, then there is no “getting out of the mine;” there’s not another planet that we can go to (that we know of).  So the phrase enjoins us to take some other corrective action, usually one that is either self-evident to the readers in question or one that is the subject of the rest of the article, blog post or what have you.

The question I want to pose, and enlist discussion about, is this:  what might “the canary in the coal mine” mean when applied to the Mississippi River, in whole or in part? You can pick your spot, your reach, whatever, or the whole river.  What should we be watching/listening to by way of a “canary” and what adverse conditions might the canary be warning us about?  What actions should be taken in response to this warning?

As they say on talk radio (so I hear): All lines are open.  Let us know your thoughts!

Big Day for News on Rivers, Water

Some days, there doesn’t seem to be much going on other than the usual headlines: Terrible Stuff Happening; Famous (?) People Doing Strange Things, Sports: a Team Won, Sports: a Team Lost.

Then there are days like today when the Twitter feed pops with important news, trends, and updates.  My non-random sample of Things You Should Know About:

From National Public Radio, a story about how Iowa corn farmers are adapting to a changing climate.  This of course is good news, and reminds us that farmers can adapt to changing water values as well.  When we realize as a society that the water coming off farm fields is more valuable than the crops coming off those fields, we will be on our way to clean water. (Never said I wouldn’t editorialize along with the news, did I?)

In a similar vein, the Minneapolis Star Tribune editorializes in support of the state’s Pollution Control Agency and the adoption of new phosphorus standards for Minnesota’s rivers and streams.  Having a pollution standard for surface waters is the first step toward identifying corrective actions to take to reduce phosphorus in our rivers.  The editorial is a response to the recent Toledo water crisis and the question that is everywhere: Could that happen here?

Writing for American Rivers, Olivia Dorothy cites new evidence that large rivers like the Mississippi need connections to extensive floodplain wetlands in order to increase species diversity that is important to the overall health of the river and its corridor.  It’s pretty widely known that an ecologically healthy Mississippi is necessary for the economic health of the cities and towns along the river; here’s some evidence on how to improve that ecological health.

In case you might think that solving problems of river-floodplain connectivity, phosphorus pollution in rivers, and farm runoff was a pretty complex set of tasks, imagine addressing those in a context of unstable climate patterns.  Mark Seeley, the former Minnesota state climatologist reports on the “new normal” that a changing climate is bringing to the state.

Out west, where the drought is making national news, the connections between surface water and ground water are becoming increasingly clear.  American Rivers reports that the biggest threat to the Colorado River isn’t urban or agricultural water use; it’s the dropping water table that feeds groundwater that supports the Colorado, a source of drinking water for 30 million people.  We need to see this connection much more clearly in the Mississippi River corridor and basin.

Finally, Circle of Blue reports from the California drought front that CA lawmakers passed a $7.5 billion water bond that was promptly signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.  Up next in California: a groundwater bill.

All of this water news is pertinent for everyone who knows, uses, or loves the Mississippi.  Keep up with these stories and others like them either by subscribing to our blog (instructions on the right hand side of ) and/or by going directly to the sources in this post.




Complex Legacy for a Land Grant College

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which provided that each state would receive land, the proceeds from the use or sale of which would fund collegiate training in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.”  In Minnesota, the Morrill Act was perhaps overshadowed by the tragedy of the US-Dakota War, fought in August and September of that year.  The legacies of the war continue to reverberate throughout the state, including on the campus of the University of Minnesota, the state’s land grant university, which is located on land that was fraudulently obtained from people who were later driven away or killed.

One of my colleagues sometimes asks “What does it mean to be a land grant school in a place where the land was obtained by theft, fraud, and violence?  If ‘land grant’ is connected to community engagement, then surely this is a legacy that we must face.”

Indeed it is, and one aspect of that legacy has emerged in the past week. The University of Minnesota has asked the local professional football team, the Minnesota Vikings, to work with the University to ensure that the team name of the Washington NFL team, which is widely considered a racist slur against Indian people, not use that name during the November 2 game between Minnesota and Washington.  The University has asked that “throwback” (historic) jerseys be used, which do not include the name, and that the name not be said over the PA system or on the stadium message boards.

The Vikings are playing home games in the university’s stadium for two years while a new stadium for the professional team is being built.

Local and national newspapers have carried the story of the University’s request.

Coverage of the nickname dispute can be followed on Twitter through the hashtag #Racistslur and in commentaries such as that posted here and here.

The University’s stake in this matter should be obvious: as a school that seeks a climate of respect and opportunity for all of its members, there is simply no place for this slur on its campus.  According to some accounts, over 1,000 of its students are American Indian; there is a highly respected Department of American Indian Studies; the Circle of Indigenous Nations is a campus group focused on raising awareness of the ongoing relations that Dakota people have to this place; there is an emergent dialogue on shared interests between University staff and community members concerning wild rice.  These are just a few of the most readily-accessible ways in which the University and local indigenous communities come together.

Our program has a stake here as well.  All of the above listed groups and programs are part of our effort to connect the campus to people off campus who share our interest in sustainable, inclusive practices toward the Mississippi River.  Some of our deepest community partnerships are with indigenous people.  The use of the racist slur on our campus would be deeply embarrassing and would be a challenge to our continued collaboration.

Honestly, the University should do more than request that the name not appear; it should demand that the Vikings put the strongest possible pressure on the NFL to intervene on this matter.  It should not be enough to say that “we have to abide by the league’s promotion policies;” the NFL should be put in a position where it has to either defend the indefensible or explain why it puts up with this disgrace.   Enough is enough: if a similar derogatory term were used against another racial, ethnic, or cultural group, we would not have a controversy.  The name would simply not be used.

As a student was quoted in the Star Tribune, the University’s stance is welcome, but could be more:  “I’m very grateful that the University of Minnesota has stepped up to say something as well,” he said. “Finally. It’s about time [it] took a stance.”



Keeping Up with Water Issues in Minnesota

I think it’s fair to say that thousands more people in Minnesota are thinking about water than were, say, a year ago.  The second-rainiest June ever certainly got people’s attention, and if not, the floods that all that rain generated certainly did.  White  Bear Lake, in the northeast suburbs of the Twin Cities, has rebounded a couple of feet since its lowest point, but it’s still a long way from “full.”  Putting the matter more directly: there’s still a lot of land between the end of people’s docks and the water.

Not surprisingly, the amount of information available to people who want to become more knowledgeable has also grown.  The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency web site contains basic descriptive data on watersheds, aquifers and other “building blocks” for water education, in addition to regulatory and planning information, guidance on the varying types of monitoring the state and other entities are engaged in, plus much, much more.  This may be a good place to start looking, but there is a LOT here!

A related resource, but one that has its attention focusing forward into the future, is the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework.  The study was undertaken at the request of the legislature to provide guidance for management of funds from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the MN constitution.

These are all highly informative sources, but they are really rather daunting just to dive into (sorry–been resisting water puns this whole post!) without much background.  Instead of these sources, I would start exploring water issues by reading what’s been posted on Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level blog.  Ground Level, which focuses on issues important to Minnesota communities, has been running a series on groundwater “Beneath the Surface” for several months now.  These stories make policy issues specific and visible, describing challenges, best practices, ways communities in other parts of the country are addressing issues comparable to ours, and a host of other topics.

To stay up to date with this most excellent resource, follow @MPRGroundLevel on Twitter.

We’re going to be talking about water in Minnesota for years, even generations.  We really need to get to where our “taken for granted” water bodies like the Mississippi River, Lake Superior, or “our” lake where Grandma’s cabin is, are seen (that is, recognized not just with the eyes of our emotional attachment), known (how do they work), and loved (why do we care?).

The Mississippi River in 2100: More Visible, Better Understood, More Contested

Earlier this summer, we met Wes Modes, a California artist who is piloting a shantyboat down the Mississippi River in search of the “secret history of river people, river communities, and the river itself.”  The Secret History blog has all kinds of entertaining reflections and insights, and Wes’ Twitter feed @WModes always is interesting.  The project is worth some time to read and follow.

I interviewed with Wes in the day or so before he started off, and one of his questions in particular really struck home:  What do I see in the river’s future?

My answer drew in part from some grant writing we’re starting up to support “River Life 3.0″ (I’ll spare you all the details) which has involved reading and thinking about the future of the river in the face of climate change.  Many of those discussions use the end of the century, the year 2100, as a benchmark for prediction and modeling, so my comments to Wes did the same.

To me, one of the safe predictions is that in 2100, we will be thinking more about the Mississippi, be more aware of its presence and the role it plays in our local/regional hydrologic cycles.  Hell, it will be an improvement if we even know that there is a local-regional hydrologic cycle, and how it works.  So that’s prediction/goal #1: that the river will be more visible to the people who depend on it, and they have a working knowledge of how the river works as part of a water system.

The second goal, for me, is that the river will be understood better than it is now.  For many of us river folks, our sense of the river’s meaning comes from Mark Twain.  But by 2100, the population around here will have changed considerably.  Minnesota won’t be “Ole and Lena,” Lake Wobegon so much any more, and the influx of new people, diverse ethnicities and belief systems, will have to come to understanding the value of the Mississippi using new narratives and new images.

Finally, it may sound odd to predict/hope that the river is “more contested,” but if that new meaning of the river is contested, then it means that the subject matters to people.  What we mean by having a “sense of place” will most likely change as new people come into the Midwest/Mississippi Valley, and as those new populations make the place theirs, then the meaning of all kinds of places will come into play.  For example, our partners at the Minnesota Historical Society own and manage the Oliver H. Kelley Farm, on the Mississippi a short distance upstream from Minneapolis.  The stories told at the Kelley Farm, the meaning that is made there, if you will, will change in coming generations.

All of these trends come together, I think, at the Mississippi: a changing river offering new kinds of meaning to broader segments of the population.

What Would We Say to the River If We Thought It Would Listen?

Advocates working on Mississippi River issues sometimes say “We speak for the river.”  I always wonder “Did the river ask you to speak for it?  Can the river speak for itself?  How do you know it was asking you to say this?”

These questions can be taken as snarky or philosophical, or both.  So I’ll leave them alone and ask a different question: If you thought the river could hear you, what would you say?

This is one of the starting points for the project “Dear River,” from Works Progress.  There is presently a video series on Vimeo, and the link to a public television festival held in June; other developments are in the works.

“Dear River” promises to open the door to an innovative kind of community/citizen engagement with the Mississippi River.  It complements, and supplements, the River Citizen program from the Mississippi River Network in several important ways.  Make no mistake, we will always need the River Citizen model, where ordinary folks sign up for email alerts about important river policy issues and are invited to participate in policy matters by contacting elected officials.

“Dear River” though is about establishing a different kind of relationship between people and the river, one that works through emotions and empathy rather than the very rational act of engaging in policy debates (ideally rational, right?).  Not everyone cares about the Farm Bill, or new rules protecting the waters of the United States,though maybe we should.

Nearly everyone cares about their neighborhood, their block, the school their children attend, or their faith community.  These are the places we live our lives, spend the time that makes us most distinctly ourselves.  These places define home.

The point, I think, of projects like “Dear River” is to bring these two kinds of concerns together.  This is not a unique effort, by any means.  Lots of events like river cleanups work on the same basic principle: build care for a place/thing (a river is both, maybe?) by knowing it better and acting as a steward of it.

Another way of putting this, perhaps, is that we’re trying to get people who are close to the river to feel connected to the river.

Speaking of which…if you find yourself in/near Minneapolis this Saturday with some spare time, the Owamni: Falling Water Festival promises to be a great event.  Indigenous music in a variety of genres, food from several different local indigenous chefs, capped by a movie around sunset.  All free, Father Hennepin Bluffs Park (oh, the irony!) Saturday August 2.

Water Challenges in “The Land of 10,000 Lakes”

The fact that there are water challenges in Minnesota should surprise no one, really.  Last week, the Metropolitan Council released preliminary ideas for what might be done to alleviate water shortages in suburban communities on the northeast side of the region, communities that surround the shrinking White Bear Lake.

Coverage of the report is offered through the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  Both are worth reading, as they address different aspects of this continuing story.

This much seems clear:  The solution to “fixing” White Bear Lake (or the surrounding communities) will be expensive, ranging at this point between $155 million and $600+ million.  And the “problem” is complex; we don’t know, without a couple more years of study, exactly where water in the region comes from, where it goes, or what it’s being used for.

Two blog writers, Brendon Slotterback at and John Harrington at My Minnesota, both offer critically important questions and broader policy perspectives.

This story can’t be simplified, which on the whole is probably good.  The Star Tribune story has gotten 214 comments so far; worthy of a close content analysis to see what “the average citizen” is thinking about with regard to water in this “well-watered” state.

With any luck, we won’t be able to take water for granted here much longer.


Invasive Carp Found in St. Paul pool of Mississippi

Perhaps it was inevitable that invasive carp would reach the Twin Cities stretch of the Mississippi River, but this weekend’s announcement that two adult females had been caught in Pool 2 (the stretch of the river from Hastings to the Ford dam) seemed oddly muted.

The press release from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says the discovery is “concerning” but that conditions this spring and summer, with many weeks of high water, have been conducive to carp migration.  When the navigation locks and dams are opened for the passage of flood waters, as they have been for much of June and July, strong swimming fish like the invasive carp can migrate.

Of course, there is still a great deal of effort being made to keep the invaders at bay.  Hopefully, these two individuals were outliers that don’t signal a widespread infestation.  Still, the proof is there that the fish can get this far upstream, in case anyone doubted that.

Ironically, this weekend also saw the publication of a story on Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam,  reflecting on the history of efforts to construct this facility, which  will close on or before next June, per stipulation in the most recent Federal waterways law.  Seems the St. Anthony lock never really did make Minneapolis a river shipping hub after all.

Many conclusions are being offered to interpret that fact, in the comments section of the article, and on Twitter.  I’ll leave it up to readers to go chase those perspectives.

For more on the discovery of invasive carp in Pool Two, look here


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