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.

Five Years after Deepwater Horizon: The Mississippi River and the Gulf

Five years ago, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and starting an oil leak into the ocean that lasted for nearly three months and spewed millions of barrels of oil into the rich waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Information sources about the disaster abound; the Wikipedia entry offers a starting point, but please note the caveat at the top of the article about its limitations.

As the damage became known, through photos of oil-soaked wildlife and testimony of people most directly affected by the incident, the fragility of the Louisiana Gulf Coast became clearer.  Groups such as the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and America’s Wetland Foundation became increasingly visible with their accounts of how land subsidence and sea level rise posed a dire threat to southern Louisiana.

The Mississippi River was seen in many of these discussions as integrally involved in the future of the Louisiana coast.  Opinions differed however, as to whether diversions of river water would be the best (only?) way to build land and reverse land loss.

No one has questioned the need to restore the Gulf Coast, for a host of very good reasons.  Most of them are contained in the very rich web presence of the Restore the Mississippi River Delta campaign.

Last weekend’s symposium “Nature 3x: Where is Nature Now” did, however, raise the question of whether it is appropriate to speak of “restoring” conditions in places like coastal Louisiana, or nearly anywhere else on earth, for that matter.  For one thing, a changing climate means that ecological conditions literally cannot be “restored” to what they were 100 years ago, or 300 years ago when the French established the city of New Orleans.

What, then, should we be thinking if not about “restoration”?

According to Kate Orff, founder and design director of the design firm SCAPE, the first task of designers is to help people to actually see the landscape around them, rather than just what they think the landscape is doing.  In her book Petrochemical America (with photographs by Richard Misrach) and at a talk given during the “Nature 3x” symposium, Orff argues that we live in an “energy landscape.”  The lower Mississippi and Gulf Coast are honeycombed with pipeline routes, canals, transmission lines, all serving the “energy coast” and the “chemical corridor” that is the Mississippi River all the way upstream from the mouth to Baton Rouge.  Lest we think that changing this landscape, reducing its pollution and damage, is simply a matter of “getting rid of fossil fuels,” Orff reminds us that the polymers, plastics, and synthetic materials developed and shipped throughout this region are all things that make up the fundamental materials of our lives.

In this Mississippi River, the post-mythic, dystopian River Styx, the representative figure isn’t Huck Finn “lighting out for the territory” ahead of the “sivilizin'” influences of Aunt Polly.  Here we are reminded of Pogo’s much darker view “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

So, then, where is Nature now?





Rivers May Need Universities; Universities Probably Need Rivers

The title here may or may not be puzzling, but hear me out.  Last week, we held our “Once and Future River” symposium about the Mississippi River, the stories we tell about it, and how climate change may/will/is affect both the river and the stories.

We had a great symposium, with lots of participation, thought-provoking questions, good food, and gallons of coffee.  In fact, things went so well with our discussion sessions that I did not have to give a wrap up talk to close the show, just said “Thanks and see you next time.”

But I hate to see all the thinking that went into the closing I had prepared go to waste, so here’s a short post on rivers and universities.

Rivers may “need” universities, because universities are full of researchers who can examine the river through scientific means and offer policy, design and planning recommendations to enhance their health.  The Dakota partners at our event, who reminded us that the river is a major part of that group of entities “all our relatives,” also put us in mind of the fact that universities are places where new ways of understanding and expressing those relations can come about.

But rivers don’t need universities.  Our campus has been on the banks of the Mississippi for roughly 160 years.  We’ll probably make it another 160 years, but the river is a good bet to be here ten times that duration, 1600 years, or until roughly the year 3615. The Mississippi River will probably be here in 3615; the University of Minnesota, probably not.

The University of Minnesota, like many academic institutions, is turning its considerable assets and attention to addressing “grand challenges,” problems defined by the community in which we find ourselves. The Mississippi River, one of the great rivers of the world, offers many potential “grand challenges” for our attention. It’s a bonus, of course, that so many people can and are already working on issues associated with the river.

Big questions–broader impacts–durable benefits: all offered by the Mississippi River and people working with it, and all ready for university participation.

Yep, we need the Mississippi River.

“Find Your Park” a Potential Game-Changer for NPS Second Century

The National Park Service will mark the centennial of its founding next year, in 1916.  Pundits and scholars (and some pundit-scholars!) will extol what has remained constant over the century and what has changed.  There is a Director’s “Call to Action” that urges the component units of the National Park system, essentially, to join the 21st century.  That’s a complicated task for people whose job is largely seen as conserving natural and cultural heritage.

The most public part of the centennial celebration is the national Find Your Park program.  Like all big deals these days, this is glitzy and has prominent corporate sponsors and an extensive social media campaign.  The campaign rolled out last week; one representative story is here.

Here at home, our friends and partners at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area are going to be doing a lot with the national campaign.  You’ll be hearing more from us, of course, as well.  For now though, I just want to offer a couple of points:

  • the campaign offers the folks here a tremendous opportunity to focus on greater inclusion in this urban river park.  “Find YOUR Park” efforts targeted at American Indians, Africans and African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, all have the potential to have park users more clearly resemble the urban community around the river.
  • For everyone, there is the opportunity to find your particular special place within this 72 mile long park.  Maybe the monumental history and roaring waters of St. Anthony Falls don’t really do it for you.  Perhaps “park” for you means some place like the Bdote confluence, where you can get lost in a floodplain forest.  The Mississippi offers both types of experience, plus many more!

Find Your Park. When the celebration ends in 2017, millions more will have, and the new users will, we hope, change the world of the NPS.

Sad Story Reminds Us that the River is a Hazard as well as Asset

At the University of Minnesota, we have been saddened this week by the story that University senior student Jennifer Houle went into the river near campus late Thursday night/Friday morning.  The surveillance camera on the bridge did not give a clear indication whether she jumped or fell; she was reported to be alone at the time.  A recovery effort is under way.  Our usual practice is to offer links in a blog post; those links are everywhere.  Readers wanting to know more of this painful story can do their own search.

We spend a lot of time celebrating the Mississippi, spreading the word about what a multidimensional asset the river is to our city, campus, neighborhoods, and the world.  But the river is also a tragic place, both historically and continuing, literally, to this day.

It is important to recognize the tragedy of the river’s history and the long trajectory we have marked by trauma both for the river itself and by many who come into unfortunate contact with it.  But the river also heals, and heals us.  As the process of reciprocal healing takes place–we heal the river and in turn it heals us–we move forward.

Changing River + Changing Communities: Need for New Narratives

Towboat at SunsetWhen we put a public program together, we have a clear, but complex, goal:  we want the audience to walk away saying “That’s a really interesting idea.  I’ll have to think about that some more.”  Maybe it’s the teacher in us, or the fact that unlike our community partners our mandate is not to manage river resources or programs.  Instead our mandate is to encourage new ideas that help our partners do their jobs.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because we are two weeks away from the symposium “The Once and Future River,” where some two dozen speakers will incite new thinking on a range of topics related to the Mississippi River.  We’ll ask questions such as:  What do we mean when we talk about the “Mississippi River”? How do we express new ideas?  What do we mean by “resilience” as that term might be applied to the river and its communities?

Hard questions, requiring more thought than we are perhaps used to.  But then, as I said, that’s our job.  For example, we held a program last spring “The Irony of Carp” that really exemplifies what we’re about.

Invasive carp are a threat to current conditions on the Upper Mississippi, of that there is no doubt.  We are glad that many organizations and coalitions are working to stop the spread of these pests.  But what, ultimately, do we mean by “invasive,” and exactly how did these fish get here in the first place?  If we are stopping them to protect a “natural” ecological system, well, how “natural” is that system really?

Last spring’s program ranged across a number of fundamental questions about invasive carp and our responses to them.  Among the insights:

  • We are spending millions of dollars to keep these species out of the Great Lakes because we are afraid they will harm species of “game fish,” which themselves are introduced species.
  • In social media such as You Tube, the language that is used to describe the “stop carp” efforts sounds an awful lot like the xenophobic language people use who are worried about “illegal immigrants.”
  • In another century, which is the blink of an eye from the perspective of the indigenous people here (and who have their own ideas about the ironies of whites getting alarmed about “invasive species,”) the currently invasive carp may well be seen as “native” to the ecosystem.

Watch the videos at the link above; they are sure to inform and to provoke thought.  And be sure to register for the symposium in two weeks: it also is sure to both inform and to provoke thought.

After all, are any of us comfortable saying that we know enough?

“Where is Nature Now?” a Provocative Question for Upcoming Minnesota Symposium

Our spring season of innovative, thought-provoking programming continues April 17-18 with a symposium “Nature 3.x: Where is Nature Now?”  The program will be on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; further details, symposium participants, and registration are here.

The question “where is nature now” has many potential answers.  Some might say “in parks and protected areas,” while others, more attuned to innovations in conservation biology and urban ecology, might say “everywhere.”  The symposium will explore some possible responses to the latter claim.  If “nature” is “everywhere,” even in our most damaged lands and toxic waters, how does that change our sense of the meaning of “nature”?  What, then, do we do as planners and designers committed to bringing the values of “nature” to city dwellers, for example.

Take a look at the program–the speakers are innovative thinkers and practitioners who are known throughout the world.  Some of them have undertaken potentially transformative projects here in this region.  Attending this program will be time well spent, if you are invested in the future of our systems here.

Minnesota Has a Water Problem

Actually, we have (at least) two, both of which have been receiving a lot of media attention lately.  Not surprisingly, both are to one degree or another being framed as questions about how much regulation is “too much,” or, to put it another way, where the line between “public” and “private” spheres lies.

The first case is one where the MN legislature is trying to exert greater influence over how environmental regulations, particularly water rules, are administered.  As this article from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, a number of specific players are interested in less-burdensome clean water restrictions.  I’m sorry, but I have to wonder when was the last time someone complained about water being “too clean.”

The other case being discussed now is perhaps more interesting.  Agriculture has long been a “third rail” in Minnesota politics, shunned by politicians on the left and right who don’t want to be accused of getting in the way of the “family farmer” who “feeds the world” (but whose corn crop more likely feeds cattle, ethanol plants, or high fructose corn syrup).  It seems that most farmers in the state are not providing the 50 foot buffer between crop land and waterways that state law requires.  Last week, the governor officially called for standardizing Minnesota’s buffer strip rules as a means of protecting water quality across the state.

The pushback was, of course, swift and strong.  The proposal has been described as “aggressive” by agricultural commodity groups, whereas sportsmen have joined with clean water advocates in support of the plan.  It turns out that buffer strips often make up ideal habitat for an array of bird and animal species.

The legislature is just now getting down to serious business, so there’s no telling where this question will end up.  But one overlooked silver lining to the political disputes is that Minnesotans are talking, and talking seriously, about water.  For too long, we have thought we had enough water that was clean enough to do whatever we wanted, when, and wherever we want to.  After all, we’re not California, right?

Water problems come in many shapes and sizes, as we know.  Left untended, they become water crises.  News articles about water disputes are having an impact in terms of raising “water literacy” levels for all; just witness this really informative Q&A about agriculture and buffer strips, and the diagram of how buffer strips work.

Those two should be required reading at high schools and colleges across the state.  As Governor Dayton said several weeks ago “The land may be yours, but the water belongs to all of us.”


Panel to Explore Connections between Mississippi River, African-American History and Culture

Several months ago, I wrote about the growing awareness that much of contemporary environmental advocacy does not address issues important to African-Americans, Latinos, and other groups that fall outside the movement’s historical center in the white middle and upper classes. My earlier post suggested some Twitter and blog accounts to follow, and left room for additional reading and analysis on this issue.

I’m pleased to report that the University of Minnesota is beginning to address this gap, starting with a panel discussion “Backwater Blues: Environmental Disaster and African American Experiences.” The discussion will be held on March 31, at 4:00.  The location is Room 1210 Heller Hall, on the University’s West Bank campus.

The origination point for the discussion is a book by University of Houston professor Richard Mizelle that examines the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 and its impacts on African-American culture.  Tens of thousands, if not more, people were displaced, some never to return to their homes.  The exodus north contributed to the spread of musical genres such as jazz and blues outside their “cultural hearth” in the lower Delta.  The flood and its aftermath shed a distinctive look into broader patterns and institutions of African American life in the early 20th century.

An interdisciplinary panel of scholars from the University of Minnesota will explore the book and its findings, as well as broader questions about the importance of environmental issues broadly construed in understanding the histories of African Americans.  It should be a lively, important discussion–save the date, get off work early, and join in!

The Boondoggle You Don’t Know About

That’s my personal editorial opinion about the Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion Project, a multi-billion dollar engineering monstrosity that will consume large amounts of farmland, disrupt sections of counties in two states, all to reduce (eliminate?) flooding of the Red River at Fargo ND.  This thing has been batted back and forth between the states forever, with Minnesota reluctant for a long time to come up with its share of the required cost-share.

I’m sorry, but my understanding is that the Red is going to flood, repeatedly.  The land is practically flat, and, temperatures being what they usually are, the headwaters thaw in winter before the mouth of the river at Hudson Bay does.  This means that liquid water is always flowing toward not-yet-liquid water, e.g. a “natural” ice dam every year.  Add a changing climate, and it seems reasonable to ask why we are doing this, and how are the costs and benefits really being measured.

But enough about my opinion.  The monthly Sip of Science talk next Wednesday will feature two engineers involved in designing the project.  Join them and learn the facts about how the project will actually work.


The Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion Project
Miguel Wong, Barr Engineering and Chris Ellis, St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, University of Minnesota

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015  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.

March 11th Event –

For decades the cities of Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota, have been plagued by flooding from the Red River of the North and its tributaries.  As part of a team of consultants hired by the two cities, Barr worked with the USACE St. Paul District to develop and compare solutions to the problem—and provide relief to an area that, in the past 16 years, has experienced six of the 10 largest flood events since 1897. Expedited after the flood of record in 2009, the fast-track feasibility study for this large and complex undertaking was completed in just three years, and the project is now in final design. The ultimate goal of the project is construction of a 36-mile-long diversion channel to direct floodwater around the Fargo-Moorhead metropolitan area. This presentation will highlight work on two unique project features: the Maple aqueduct and spillway structures, and the artificially constructed meandering low flow channel.

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


Born and raised in Peru, Miguel Wong obtained his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering there. He earned his master’s in hydraulic engineering from the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands, and his PhD from the University of Minnesota. His doctoral work at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory yielded a proposed modification to a well-established bedload-transport equation that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers subsequently incorporated into its HEC-RAS modeling software. Miguel, who now has more than 20 years of experience, has acquired the last nine as a senior water resources engineer at Barr Engineering Co., consulting on hydrologic modeling, hydraulic design, river-mechanics analysis, and water management.

Chris Ellis is a Senior Research Associate at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. With over 30 years of experience, Chris is engaged in fundamental and applied water and wind related research. He is one of the Lab’s primary resources for experimental and measurement design and implementation including scientific/engineering systems design, facility design and fabrication, and high speed automated data acquisition and analysis.


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:

Why Treaties Matter: It’s All About Relationships

Treaties, such as the series of documents between representatives of the United States government and people native to this continent, are fundamentally about establishing relationships between people.  This is probably why there are such particular laws spelling out how treaties are made, and is why it is so important that we all understand the histories of the treaties that the United States has signed with Indian people.

A traveling exhibition, Why Treaties Matter, has been touring Minnesota since last summer, with dates scheduled into summer 2016.  The exhibition and accompanying virtual exhibit and web site, are the result of a collaboration between the Minnesota Humanities Center, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.  Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment supported the project through a grant.

The exhibition opens at Century College West Campus on March 2 and runs through March 14.

The exhibition and web site are essential to understanding the nature of Minnesota’s land and water.  Voices of Indian people are heard describing the multifaceted considerations involved in understanding treaties as historical and legal documents.  The educators guide and classroom materials are rich and extensive.  Among the wealth of perspectives one message in particular is clear: tribal nations manage lands and waters; lands and waters managed by other public entities have in their history a relation that was established through a treaty.

Why do treaties matter?  Treaties matter to our understanding of our proper relationships to the Mississippi River, to this place more generally, and with each other.

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
The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change
For more information about our John E. Sawyer Seminar Spring Symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change” which took place at Northrop on April 8-10, 2015, please visit the symposium web page.