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RIVER LIFE

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.

#TBT: Chicago, 1908, Water

Some of us have heard a lot about Chicago and 1908 over the past few weeks, that year being, until last night, the most recent time the Cubs won the World Series.

Here, in honor of last night’s win, is a view of the city from that year.  Notice parkland along the lake, and also the contrast between the armature of parks laid out for the 1892 World’s Fair, all in rectilinear patterns, and the fact that rivers are not included in the park system.  The north branch of the Chicago River, to the right, appears more or less to go through the city on it’s “natural” course.  By contrast, the south branch already shows signs of being re-engineered to carry waste away from Lake Michigan and down the Illinois River to the Mississippi.

Of course, there’s a LOT more that could be said about that little bit of folly!

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Photo from http://transitmap.net/post/31809365634/chicago-1908

Announcing Open Rivers Issue 4: “Interventions”

We just published our 4th issue of Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi.  It is accessible at the journal’s web site; pasted below is our Introduction to the issue.

For as long as people have been living with rivers, we have been changing them.  Put up a levee to keep water away from where we don’t want it. Build a canal to move water to where we do want it.  Put up a dam to stop floods, or generate water power.  Over millennia, the possibilities have been endless.

More recently, though, we have started something new: intervening in rivers to undo some of the changes we have previously made.  My review of a couple of programs across the country gives a broad context for what has become a growing pattern of dam removal and alteration.

Close to home, the Upper St. Anthony Lock was closed in June 2015.  That decision led to a study that asked: just what do we know about how the river’s biological and physical systems are behaving at this point, now that the dam has closed? Can we establish some scientific baseline data so that we can begin to monitor how the river behaves now that the lock will not reopen?

Some answers to these questions are detailed in Jane Mazack’s feature article “The Once and Future River.”  Fellow scientists Jessica Kozarek and Carrie Jennings also contribute perspectives on the sorts of insights that come from detailed studies of particular river reaches.

Unfortunately, often rivers make the news through their destructive capacity.  Last month’s Hurricane Matthew unleashed torrents of rain, storm surge and other watery mayhem on the lowlying areas in eastern North Carolina.  In our Issue 2, published last spring, Richard M. Mizelle Jr. wrote about the racial dimensions of flooding in this landscape; we reprint his article here with a head note connecting to coverage of the recent floods.

Every issue of Open Rivers contains shorter pieces covering particular aspects of the study and understanding of rivers, and this one of course is no exception.  Laurie Moberg explores what we can learn from successive historic photographs of the site that now contains Minneapolis’ Upper Harbor Terminal, a landscape sure to change now that barge traffic has ceased.  Maxyne Friesen writes about how it felt to be an undergraduate student researcher on the bigger river study that Mazack led.  Tim Frye reviews recent scholarship on rivers in Latin America. Mona Smith reminds us that St. Anthony Falls contains much more than our scientific studies can ever understand.

All of which is to serve as a reminder for one of our basic principles: scientific study is necessary, but not sufficient, in generating the knowledge and perspectives that we need in order to plan for sustainable, inclusive futures for our relationships with rivers.

 

Happy reading!

#TBT: The Harahan Bridge in Memphis: A Century of Crossings

It’s cheating, I suppose, to post a Throwback Thursday blog where someone else did all the work, but I’m in Memphis today with the annual meeting of the Mississippi River Network.  So when I saw that the local paper, the Commercial Appeal, had put together a slide show of the Harahan Bridge over the years, the opportunity was too good to miss.

The Harahan Bridge was opened in 1916 to increase the rail capacity crossing the Mississippi at Memphis.  Over the years it carried cars and trucks as well, until the roadways closed in 1949.  The northern side roadway is being reconstructed as a bike-pedestrian facility that is expected to open, literally, any day now and to be part of a 10 mile system that will connect the downtowns of Memphis and West Memphis, AR.

When I worked as the Executive Director of Mississippi River Trail, Inc, connecting bike trail projects up and down the Mississippi River, a bike facility on the Harahan Bridge was considered a pipe dream, a fantasy in the “if only someday” category.  Looks like “someday” has arrived!

#TBT: What Does a 1930s ‘Redlining’ Map Show about Minneapolis?

The short answer is “lots.”  The newest project from American Panorama, “Mapping Inequality,” digitizes maps created for the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) between 1935-1940.  Of course, color-coded credit-worthiness and risk is not a neutral analysis; HOLC maps and their biases have been evidence for countless studies examining 20th century patterns of housing discrimination, uneven urban investment, and other spatial developments in America’s largest cities.

The Introduction to the American Panorama site contains a more thorough treatment of the HOLC maps and their significance.

For us, committed as we are to understanding the “water landscape” of the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis map is a gold mine of spatial information.  Sure enough, much of the Minneapolis riverfront is cross-hatched showing “business and industrial” land use.  Radiating outward, though, are broad swaths of red “hazardous” and yellow “definitely declining” blocks.  Only a small part of the Mississippi River-adjacent city shows as green “best” or blue “still desirable.”

Creeks feed into rivers, though, and all surface waters are connected, so it’s important to look at the areas around Minnehaha Creek and the Chain of Lakes south and west of downtown.  These areas show most of the city’s “green zones,” which is no surprise to historians of the city’s park system: building infrastructure for attractive neighborhoods by protecting water bodies was a big part of what the Minneapolis Park Board intended during its earliest decades.

There is much more that can, and I hope will, be said about these maps.  As always, comments are welcome, and if a comment/analysis proves extensive enough, we can post it as another blog entry.

Voices and Images from #NoDAPL Standing Rock Action

In case you have been under a rock for the past few weeks, you have heard about the actions taken by a growing number of Native people in North Dakota, standing up against an oil pipeline that threatens vital water sources and sacred sites.  The work of the water protectors (not “protesters”) can be followed on Twitter through #NoDAPL.  Here is a link to a collection of the published articles on the subject.

In the (likely) event that you don’t have time to read everything on that list, I’m going to give you a highly selective sample of some of the richness that the #NoDAPL movement has generated.  I believe that all of the links offered below are from indigenous writers, photographers, and perspectives.

Jaida Grey Eagle created a series of images #StandWithStandingRock in September 2016.

Several members of the Standing Rock Sioux community offer particular reflections of their history with water in this place in a short video “Thank You for Listening.”

Nick Estes puts the Standing Rock action in a historical context that includes the Louisiana Purchase, a series of treaties with Lakota people, and the Pick-Sloan Act that created a series of impoundments on the Missouri and flooded Sioux communities including the people of Standing Rock.

Jen Deerinwater, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, offers “5 Things Every Nonnative Needs to Consider Before Visiting Standing Rock.”

As I said, this is a highly selective list, gathered from following Twitter accounts such as @AmericanIndian8, scholar/activist Kyle Powys White from Michigan State, and indigenous feminist Eve Tuck.  “Traditional” news media have been notably absent or unreliable, with a few well-known exceptions, which you will undoubtedly run across.

Listen, read, heed what is being said and shown.  Use these voices and images to start your own journey of learning and exploration.

#TBT: Student project on Possible River Futures

Okay, I’m just having fun here, playing the concepts of “throwback Thursday” and “river futures” against each other.  The “throwback” part is that, six years ago, we worked with an extraordinary team of design students on a project called “Imagine the Mississippi.”  The “futures” question is that the students proposed 30 ideas that would allow people to get closer to, even touch, the water in the Central Minneapolis Riverfront area.

Lest you think the work of students is all fantasy and pie-in-the-sky, take a good look at what’s contained here.  Remember, this was done in 2010, before “River First” had even been thought of, much less developed and adopted as policy.  Nevertheless, Idea #1, “Hall Island Swimming Hole,” is now on the Minneapolis Park Board’s list of capital projects as a signature piece of the long term River First agenda.

Lovers of irony will appreciate Idea #6 “Upper Lock Pool,” which states “Because the Upper St. Anthony Lock is facing a possible closure in the next few decades…”  Wrong: the Upper Lock closed in 2015, but no one thought it would be that quick.  Who says students are living in “their own little world?”

Take a look at the ideas in “Imagine the Mississippi”: what will a Throwback Thursday in 2026 be looking at and saying “how did they know that would happen?”  I’m hoping for Idea #5 “St. Anthony Falls Restoration.”

What Stories Should be Told at the River?

Because I’ve been involved in Mississippi River work for a long time, people (sometimes) think I have something to add to their projects.  I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours last week with two people who are working on developing interpretation and planning ideas for parts of the riverfront in Minneapolis.  It’s always fun talking with folks who care about the same things I do, and this was certainly no exception, but they caught me up short with this question: What would I want the interpretation on the Minneapolis riverfront to convey?

Never at a loss for words, I warmed to the task quickly, after some initial hesitation.  I’m actually not sure I gave them what they were looking for, since I’m not necessarily inclined to name specific people, events or facts that everyone visiting the riverfront should learn.  We’ve mis-taught history as a “march of facts” for far too long.

So here, in no particular order and with much explanation left out, are the things that I think riverfront interpretation and education should convey to the public:

  • This is a place of converging biological, physical and human dynamics and stories;
  • This is a place that has been valued for millennia by people who are still here;
  • The making of this place by industrial and urban processes follows patterns common to other places but also unique to here;
  • The place that is made here does not serve everyone equally;
  • Understanding this place now means knowing its past and its possible futures;
  • Understanding this place now means understanding upstream and downstream;
  • Understanding this place means understand that it is dynamic, that it carries various things from one place to another, it is a place of flowing as well as a place of stasis;
  • Nothing here is accidental.

I hope to hear from some of you about what I have left out or what I have perhaps over-emphasized.  I’m certain I’ll be writing more about this in the days/weeks ahead.

#TBT: What can Old Photos Tell Us About Water Quality?

Per Tuesday’s post about the State of the River Report, the Minneapolis Star Tribune river series and other “water in the news” these days, it seemed opportune to try to see if certain kinds of historical data/records convey information similar to what we are now hearing about in these accounts.  Can photographs from the past show us river conditions?

The answer is, yes, but only in limited ways.  Obviously, all we have is what people decided to photograph and what (other) people decided to put in archives.  So we have images from particular events like floods more than pictures of more everyday scenes.  The whole question is worth a closer, more systematic look (Honors thesis, anyone?) but here are two brief examples:

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This image from the Mississippi River flood of 1943 in Minneapolis shows water encroaching on a residential area.  It’s reasonable to surmise the sorts of loose materials, garbage, and other detritus that the floodwaters will carry from place to place.  Whatever is in the drum in the foreground may be leaking.  Further research would be necessary to determine if this particular location had stormwater and sanitary sewer connections or if human and animal waste just went straight to the river.  Regional sewage treatment had begun by this point, and further research would be able to determine what the particular treatment entailed.


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Another flood image, this time of a Minneapolis lumberyard.  Loose material is evident in the picture’s center and the ground plane is undoubtedly a mix of sawdust, mud, and other materials.  Accounts from the 19th century indicate that at times the river was so full of sawdust that steamboats grounded where the sawdust and scraps had piled up on the river bed; this 1938 photograph was made after the federal 9 foot channel project had been implemented so it’s unlikely that there was THAT much lumberyard trash in the river!


Seventy years from now, in 2085 or so, what will images from today show about the modern Mississippi River, and how will those images support arguments about water quality that are contained in news accounts and “State of the River’ reports?

An Embarrassment of Riches: Minnesota Water News

Looking for something to read, as the nights get longer here in the upper Mississippi River basin?  There is no lack of thought-provoking river material, beginning, of course with the continued coverage of the water protectors work at Standing Rock, North Dakota.  Find all you want through Google or on Twitter by looking for #NoDAPL.  It’s important to remember that part of the dispute centers on the threat to the Missouri River from the pipeline, a concern that is echoed by water protectors in Iowa and Illinois where the line is supposed to cross the Mississippi.  There will be more on this issue in subsequent posts.

Meanwhile…the Minneapolis Star and Tribune has a very strong, detailed set of articles on rivers in Minnesota that opened Sunday with a discussion on the Mississippi, continued yesterday with an article about the Red River of the North, and finishes today with a piece about agriculture and the Chippewa River, in western Minnesota.  These articles make it abundantly clear that water conflicts aren’t simply about “science’ vs “nonscience,” or “selfish interests” vs “the public.”  There are clearly articulated strongly held values in conflict in these dilemmas about managing land and water, and unpacking how those values form, how they can be understood more clearly and brought together is vital to any sort of long term stewardship that will work beyond the force of regulation.  Check out the graphics and special features also–great stuff!

Speaking of the Red River, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources has denied a permit for the Fargo-Moorhead diversion project that would flood thousands of acres of farmland.  According to the Corps of Engineers person quoted, this project has been in the planning stages for eight years.  Might be in the courts for another eight.

Maybe what the folks on the Red River need is their version of the report produced by the National Park Service and Friends of the Mississippi for the Mississippi River stretch in the Twin Cities.  The second version of the acclaimed State of the River report was released September 22.  The report is grounded in solid scientific data and includes specialized guides to recommend courses of action for policy, education, and personal stewardship actions.

Like us, the folks who publish Mill City Times are recognizing that there is a lot of activity and important policy and program development taking place with regard to rivers.  In their case, the response is to produce a very nice, focused “Great River Digest.” Check it out to keep up with what’s happening to impact the Mississippi River and nearby neighborhoods in the Central Riverfront area of Minneapolis.

Finally (for now at least) this past weekend saw the opening of the justly-famous “Water/Ways” exhibit and programming collaborative, this time in Red Wing Minnesota, where the Cannon River comes into the Mississippi.  The lineup of programs looks very rich and diverse; congratulations to the Goodhue County Historical Society and all the local partners who teamed up with the Minnesota Humanities Center, the MPCA and other statewide partners.  This series just keeps getting better!

 

#TBT: Uncovering the Past, Small Bit by Small Bit

We often want to understand the past in big chunks, whether through stories that help us figure things out, or in broad spatial scales that let us comprehend how parts of the world fit together.  But there’s another way of going about this question of exploring the past, a way that takes a small, finite space and uncovers it in minute detail in order to draw out much bigger threads of meaning.

Speaking (overly) generally that’s the way archaeological investigations work.  Archaeologists painstakingly uncover the buried remnants of the past in place, and then put together the clues from the material worlds they find in order to get at understandings of the past that are inaccessible through the documented record.  This past summer, University of Minnesota professor of anthropology Kat Hayes led a team of students on an archaeological exploration of the old jail site at Historic Fort Snelling, a historic site operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.  An article with the evocative title “Thinking through the Dirt” describes the field school and another series of captioned photographs evokes both the experience of the field work and some of the thinking that went into the project.

In the case of the Fort Snelling prison site, questions emerge concerning how imprisonment, or “carcerality” in the contemporary academic jargon, serves as a metaphor for understanding broader relationships between the fort and the landscape: Once the fort was established, to what extent was its role really about establishing and enforcing new restrictions on movement of indigenous people? How was the fort a precursor to new ways of establishing order (and restrictions) on the landscape through formal land office survey and “opening” of the land to purchase?  These are big, provocative questions; understanding the nature and role of the site formally devoted to imprisonment can help ground answers from becoming completely flights of fancy.

Questions like these are at the heart of numerous projects now underway to develop a more nuanced and richer understanding of Historic Fort Snelling and the landscape surrounding it.  Staff from the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota have been collaborating for some time to develop and implement a new course of study, a degree in Heritage Studies and Public History, that will make such focused and broad-ranging inquiries a regular part of both the University’s curriculum and the Historical Society’s practice.

Contact Us!
Send us a note at rvrlife@umn.edu 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
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.