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.

Teaching Rivers

With the end of the school year upon us, I’ve had a lot of time to read and listen to student work about rivers.

Take my word for it: if the work of these young people is representative, our thinking about rivers will be taking significant steps in the next years. We could talk more about how and why we need to think better about rivers, but that’s a subject for another day.

Today I want to write about student work.  Most particularly, I’m thinking about…

  • the student in my Honors seminar who argued that the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board should emphasize its interest in water by devising a Water Impact Statement program to assess how any given proposal would affect the Mississippi River.  The Heritage Board does not have expertise in this area, so maybe it should expand its membership to include hydrologists, aquatic ecologists, and other water scientists.  The Board also needs Indian people among its membership, to make relationship based thinking front and center in its deliberation.
  • the group in my friend Ilene Alexander’s GRAD 8101 “Preparing Future Faculty” class that proposed a course that spent a semester engaged in a river trip.  The key insight from this group is that the river is our teacher, if only we will go to it, be quiet, and let it teach us.
  • another of my Honors students who offered a detailed proposal for repurposing the Upper St. Anthony Lock facility as a center for education and analysis concerning changes in water quality, use, and relationships once the lock closes.
  • the other four groups in GRAD 8101 and their proposals for first year level classes on Twin Cities water use and futures, on ongoing challenges posed by the presence of locks and dams on the upper Mississippi, and on water contamination issues across the country.

Each of these proposals, whether for a course or for a re-evaluation of public policy, asks us to think harder than we have been, to recognize that our relationship with water, which is represented by our relationship with the Mississippi River, is more complicated than we thought.

That’s (one of) our jobs at the University: to ask our partners and collaborators to think harder, about complexities that we don’t often recognize and explore.

Indeed, “Water Is All We Have”

If you have wanted to go to the growing Water Bar phenomenon but have missed out, you are in luck: the Water Bar will be open at Aster Cafe a week from tonight as part of the “Sip of Science” series.  Water Bar is an interactive, collaborative public art project that serves local drinking waters and discusses them,

Really simple, yet also a project that gets profoundly to the heart of something we absolutely take for granted every day: turning on the tap for fresh water.  Where does the water come from? What is done to it between source and sink? Is it threatened in any way? How much does it cost and how is the payment system worked out?

Learn all this and more by engaging with the scientist/artist bar-tenders next Wednesday at Sip of Science.  More details and registration information is below.

Oh, and the Aster Cafe probably won’t mind if you buy a beer to wash down your waters.

Water Bar: Creating Open Spaces for Conversations and Connections
Works Progress Studio
Wednesday, May 13th, 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.

May 13th Event –

Water Bar is a public art project created by Works Progress Studio and collaborators. It is, most simply, a bar that serves local tap waters. Water Bar was developed by artists Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker of Works Progress in conversation and collaboration with scientific researchers, environmental advocates, arts organizers, public employees, educators, artists, and other community residents who drink water and care about the issues it touches. It is an open space for the generation of conversations and connections around the life-sustaining, precarious, communal activity of drinking tap water, and an evolving, itinerant, living project. We invite Water Bar visitors to engage with one another, as well as with project collaborators, who tend bar and share their knowledge of water and water issues. Water Bar is a place to talk, to quench your thirst, to inquire, and to share personal stories and reflections.

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


Works Progress Studio is an artist-led LLC based in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, and led by husband-wife Collaborative Directors Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson. Works Progress engages an expansive network of artists, designers, organizers, and other creative people to realize imaginative public art and design projects rooted in place and purpose. These projects take many forms, all created through a collaborative, participatory, publicly-oriented creative process that responds to location, ecology, and the capacity and creativity of individual people living and working together.


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:


Science and Policy Intersections To Be Featured at Mississippi River Forum

The Mississippi River and its corridor are the sites of a very broad range of scientific inquiry.  Likewise, it is sometimes surprising how diverse the policy questions are that have an impact on the river.  Learn more about both at this Friday’s Mississippi River Forum.  This year’s program includes the Cute (river otters), the Topical (proposed buffer strip legislation) and the Disruptive (nitrate pollution lawsuit filed by Des Moines water works).  This will be a great program!

Details about registration are contained in the note below.

Annual Mississippi River Forum Workshop
Friday, May 8, 2015
8:30 a.m.  – 12:30 p.m.
Science Museum of Minnesota, Saint Paul
Breakfast provided.
Registration is free, but is requested in advance. Please contact Lark Weller ( or 651-293-8442) to register.
Network with others and enjoy the following presentations:
-The Return of the River Otters
-Minnesota’s Buffer Initiative: An Up-to-Date Look at the Proposed Legislation
-Risk Communication in an Environment of Doubt

This year’s keynote address will be given by Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW). Mr. Stowe will discuss the process leading up to, and the repercussions of, the DMWW’s decision to file a Clean Water Act complaint against four “upstream” counties for nitrate pollution.

Detailed program information is posted at We look forward to seeing you there!

Thank you to the Mississippi River Fund and the McKnight Foundation for their support of this event.

Oft Maligned, Historical Knowledge May be Way to the Future

Nearly everyone has a favorite “I hated history class” story.  It may have been a high school teacher who focused only on facts, or a college professor who was only interested in their esoteric little bit of the world.  Whatever the case, when I tell people I work on Mississippi River history, I often get “Oh, I hated history.”

Steve Elliott, the director of the Minnesota Historical Society, would seem to be playing into this disparagement with the title of his May 7 Thursdays at Four talk “The Future of History: Would You Like Fries with That?”  It would be unwise to sell Elliott’s perspective short, however.  Since assuming the helm of one of the state’s oldest organizations, he has made it a 21st century leader among the state’s cultural organizations and, once again, a strong player in some of the state’s most important conversations.

As one example, the Society’s treatment of the sesquicentennial of the 1862 Dakota War had depth, subtlety, and addressed a very broad range of issues.  The impacts of this war still resonate strongly in the region of the state where it was fought, as well as throughout the Dakota native community, which has seen a widespread diaspora from the state as a result of the war and the genocidal policies that accompanied it.  These are not easy matters to navigate, and the Society has not done a perfect job of its treatment. But it has not skirted the complexity, either.

On a more focused note, Society sites such as Mill City Museum are leaders in neighborhood community development, programming, and community visioning.   Mill City Museum opened an exhibit last night on the history and people of Bohemian Flats, a now-vanished community along the Mississippi River, on the west bank, across from the University of Minnesota campus.  Speakers at the opening celebration rightly pointed out that this attention to immigration and workers and their role in the city over a century ago resonates strongly with public debates taking place currently.

So while it may be true that “Would you like fries with that?” is a pertinent question for current history majors, for those with the skills, imagination, and ambition to have their work reach the public and affect its thinking, a better professional question may be “What stories shall we tell now, in terms of the impact we know we’ll have?”

Learn more: Thursdays at Four program, Steve Elliott, Director, Minnesota Historical Society, Thursday May 7, 4:00, Tom and Ellie Crosby Seminar Room, Northrop Memorial Auditorium.


“One Place, Many Voices” Exhibition on Bohemian Flats to Open April 30

For some time now, Rachel Hines has been writing blog posts about Bohemian Flats and the other “living with water” communities along the Mississippi in the Twin Cities.  An exhibition on some of the many facets of the Flats will open this Thursday evening with a program at Mill City Museum.

Dr. Scott Anfinson, the Minnesota State Archaeologist, will give a talk about archaeological investigations in the Minneapolis Central Riverfront, including Bohemian Flats, the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, and the Federal Reserve Bank.  The program is 6-8, Thursday April 30.  Admission to the program is free, but does not include admission to the full museum.  More information is available here.

The exhibit is funded in part by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on Nov. 4, 2008.



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?

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.