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.

Student “River Futures” Offer Dynamic Riverfront Vision for 2064

Listening to undergraduate students present their visions of “River Futures” yesterday, I could not help but think that these folks just may achieve their (largely unstated) goal of “saving the world.”  They showed knowledge animated by passion, idealism tempered (somewhat) by a sense of circumstances, and, overall, a much better sense of what the river world is and how it works than a lot of people who have been working on the Mississippi their whole careers.

I should say at the outset that, as with so many other things, the very successful “River Futures” program yesterday was a collaborative effort.  The University Honors Program was with us throughout the planning and design of the project, and completed all of the necessary “day of” detail work, including figuring out how to work the technology in our brand new Northrop small theater space.  The projects that most of the students reported on were research internships that would not have been possible without the continued collaboration of our National Park Service partners.

The program itself was taped by staff from the Institute for Advanced Study; when that file is available I’ll blog again with more specifics of the program.  Until then, the summary view of what the Twin Cities stretch of the Mississippi River might look like in 2064, 50 years hence, might look something like this:

Existing gathering spaces on the river, such as St. Anthony Falls, will be more animated and more of a destination for much longer seasons than the current couple of festivals and regular bike path use.  Housing prices along the river will continue to rise, providing much of the population base for this extended attendance.  Riverfront users will learn and communicate through a wide variety of digitally based, location based media that make cell phone tours look like Model T cars.  Much of the information available on those media will be stories by American Indians about their past and continued presence in this place.  Additional subjects will be water quality and connections of our efforts on water quality downstream, as well as the results of scientific examinations of wildlife, climate change, and the fossil record of this place.  Once a year, people will congregate elsewhere on the river corridor for BioBlitz, which is a 24 hour festival of diversity based on counting and measuring the flora and fauna of that location.  Riverfront users will be much more representative of the regional population at large, which will be considerably more diverse than it is today.  The future is not all rosy: invasive carp are still a threat (but they have not yet “taken over” the river); the nuclear power plants above and below the cities continue to cause concern; people in the Twin Cities region but away from the river corridor still don’t understand their connection to the river through their watershed.  But river managers and the public have a much better understanding of the “ecosystem services” the river provides, and, together with continued vitality in the 200 year old building fabric of the Heritage Zone, people are much more directly engaged with the Mississippi River than they were “back in the day” in 2014.

Many thanks all around for those whose work created this “river future.”  All we have to do now is make it happen.



A “Watershed Event” Indeed!

Occasionally, you find yourself at a meeting or a program where there is a sense that something really momentous has happened, that you’re in at the beginning of something that has long-lasting consequences.  Friday’s “Watershed Event” at Mill City Museum had just that feel.  From serious water geekery to a moving film about water, to important reflections on the future of water in Minnesota, this program had it all.

The meeting’s first session featured an address by Denver landscape architect Bill Wenk and a panel discussion on Minnesota’s water policy.  Important insights to be sure, but heavy on the “inside baseball” discussions of MS4 permits, CSO elimination, and the intricacies of water policy’s intersections with ag policy.  This was NOT “Water 101.”

The second half of the discussion got a little more basic, and was more accessible to folks who don’t spend all their time thinking about water.  The movie, “Watershed” focused the complexity of water management on the Colorado River through the stories of half a dozen residents of the watershed whose values and beliefs about water intersect and overlap, even if their personal experience does not.  That’s the nature of a watershed, right, all the people who share our water are people we are connected with, even though we don’t know them.

The post-screening discussion was revelatory, as such things should be.  The panelists were Matthew Tucker from the U of M Department of Landscape Architecture, Deb Swackhamer, co-director of the U of M’s Water Resource Center, and Dorene Day, a resident of the Bois Fort Ojibwe community and member of the Indigenous People’s Task Force.  When the video of the panel is available, I will post a note letting you know how to find it.  In the meantime, Dave Peters, who moderated the first panel, has posted a very thoughtful response to the event as a whole on the MPR Ground Level blog.

The hall at Mill City Museum was almost full, which means that some of you reading this were in attendance.  What did you think?  Make a comment to this post and share your views:  What was really great?  Where should this discussion go next?

Friday Favorite Blogroll: Northeast-Midwest Institute Mississippi River Basin blog

I’ve been doing varieties of Mississippi River work for almost 20 years now, and I’ve always had a sense that there’s a profound split between two basic camps of river enthusiasts.  On one hand are the folks “out here in the corridor,” those of use who live and work in states, counties, and towns that abut the Mississippi and who have immediate, sometimes tangible knowledge of what’s going on out here on the ground.  On the other hand are folks in Washington DC who know firsthand the policies, programs, and personnel in the heart of the federal government that so profoundly affect the river.

I’ll confess to seeing the local as more important than the federal for most of my career, sometimes for cause, but usually just out of narrow provincialism.  More recently, while I still think a lot of DC-based people can become DC-centric, I have adopted much more of a “both/and” recognition that it takes all of us to try to make the river more sustainable and inclusive.

Which brings me to this week’s featured site in our blogroll review, the Northeast-Midwest Institute’s Mississippi River Basin blog, curated by policy analyst Mark Gorman.

I’ll keep this simple:  if you’re interested at all in the Mississippi River, this is the place to start.  Among a small handful of “must read” sources, this probably ranks first.

Clear enough?

In case you want more details, we might try a checklist:

Calendar of river events from a policy and agency perspective?  Check.

Summary of posts on Twitter (usually with links) on fourteen particular policy and management subjects?  Check.

“Last Word” drawn from music, literature, the arts and other realms, based on something current in the world of river news?  Check.

Do yourself a favor–go read the blog, follow Gorman at @NEMWIUpperMiss, and wonder how you got along this far without knowing all of what he has to offer.


Monday Pondering: It Takes More than Facts to Convince People

I read an article in the online version of Conservation magazine that spoke to things that a lot of people have been puzzling over.  John Carey’s piece on cat predation of birds is an example of the kind of tangled web that many conservation/environmental issues become.  Both sides (and they are “sides” with little if any room for the non-aligned) stake out “moral high ground” and battle it out with people they consider wrongheaded, stupid, or evil.

Cat predation may or may not be something you track closely, but the echo should be familiar from issues pertaining to fracking, invasive carp, drought, or what have you.  There’s almost always a fight about these matters.

Here’s Carey’s close:

Whether the issue is global warming, evolution, or cat predation, researchers tend to believe they’d win the debate if only they could better educate the masses. “There is this mythology about education,” says theologian Vantassel. “We keep thinking that if we can just pile the evidence up higher, we can convince people. But it doesn’t work.” Instead, the hard lesson from these great societal debates is that they are contested on a battleground of conflicting emotions, moral values, and ideologies. Facts alone rarely break up the fight.

Lots to think about there, and rather than belabor the point on a Monday morning, I’ll just leave it at that, encouraging you to mull it over.  Comments are always welcome.


Friday Favorites Blogroll: Bdote Memory Map

It is difficult for me to know where to start in conveying how much I have learned from the Bdote Memory Map.  I could talk about the ways the map conveys Dakota names for places that are very familiar to me, thereby disrupting my complacent sense that I have figured out a lot of what makes the place work.  I could talk about the ways the map sparks my imagination, suggesting 1001 questions that might be good topics for research and inquiry, either by me as a scholar or through my teaching, to pass to students.

For me, though, the dominant impression from the Bdote Memory Map is the voices it offers.  Map creator Mona Smith has interviewed Dakota people about what specific places mean to them, and has arranged the interviews along with other important materials on a map interface that highlights well known places such as St. Anthony Falls, and offers vitally important perspectives on places such as the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, the “bdote” of the map’s title.

These voices have turned out to generate some of the formative principles for us at River Life:

  • Listen to indigenous people.  They are still here, not just part of the historical record of the place.
  • The voices of indigenous people matter.  In programs, provide ways to hear those voices, rather than mute them in favor of what others have said about them.
  • There is much to learn from the voices and perspectives of indigenous people, most of which can’t really be expressed in summarized “lessons” or anything so cut-and-dried or reductive as that.  They just need to be absorbed, and, having been heard in a good way, the new insights will come back at times of their own choosing.

The Bdote Memory Map covers only the Twin Cities area of the Mississippi River at this point, and contains only Dakota voices.  We need to be identifying comparable ways to the voices and perspectives of Ojibwe people, and of Ho Chunk people, both of whom lived in or near these areas before whites came.  And of course, native people lived all over North America, and still do, contributing important voices, insights, and ways of knowing the world we inhabit together.

Once again, one of the beauties of the internet is the way it can put “the world at our fingertips.”  Web sites are poor substitutes for getting to know people and indigenous communities face to face, but until we have unlimited time and money for travel, the web will have to do.  Some of the groups that we attend to in particular include:  Proud to be Indigenous, First Peoples Worldwide, Media Indigena, First Nations Development Institute, and Conversations with the Earth.  An important page that does not focus so much on the cultures and voices of indigenous people, but on the relation of indigenous people to climate change is the National Geographic collection Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples.

I have barely gotten started to the richness of these communities and voices.  I welcome suggestions for more explorations.

Hold these Dates: There’s a Lot Going On!

TS Eliot famously wrote that “April is the cruelest month” (and he wasn’t even from Minnesota, Land-of-Winter-that-will-not-end).  Certainly this April promises to be “the busiest month,” at least for people in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area who are interested in water and water issues.

To coincide with the month-long celebration of the re-opening of Northrop Auditorium on campus, we are hosting Water Walks every Tuesday at noon.  We’ll depart from the front steps of Northrop, on the East Bank campus, with the following subjects:

  • April 8  ”The River, the Campus, the Park”  What does it mean that our campus is largely in a National Park?  Led by Pat Nunnally of River Life and Dan Dressler from NPS.
  • April 15:  ”Steps Toward Clean, Abundant Water in Minnesota” Led by Miss Emily Lowery of the University group Students for Design Activism.
  • April 22:  ”Bohemian Flats” The Community under the Bluff” led by Rachel Hines, independent scholar.
  • April 29:  TBA
  • May 6:     TBA
  • May 13:   TBA

But wait, there’s more!  River Life is hosting two evening events in Northrop:

“River Futures” where 14 students present the results of studies that imagine the future of the Twin Cities Mississippi River stretch in 50 years.  Will it be more urban?  A festival place?  Overrun with invasive species?  What about climate change?  Join us April 16 at 4:00 in Northrop’s Best Buy Theater to hear more about these exciting visions.

“The Irony of Carp,” a talk by Brian Ickes of the US Geological Survey, joined by a panel of innovative thinkers in diverse fields.  What might be some of the consequences if the various species known as Asian carp do come to infest our waterways?  How can we marshal community engagement and build resilience in nature to ward off these pests?  The program will be held April 21, beginning at 7:00 pm, in Northrop’s Best Buy Theater.

Learn more about events at Northrop by going to their home page.  River Life events are described more fully at our Events page.

River Life is also associated with an event taking place April 11 at Mill City Museum.  Watershed Event: Steps Toward Clean, Abundant Water in Minnesota will gather experts from across a spectrum of interests and perspectives on water.  Talks and interactive sessions, and screening of a film, will focus on necessary changes in perspective and action steps for solutions to our emerging water problems.

Finally, Conservation Minnesota and a number of other organizations are putting together the State of Water Conference, “]Minnesotans Protecting our Lakes and Rivers.”  The dates are May 1-2, and the location is Cragun’s resort near Brainerd, a couple hours north of the Twin Cities.

Don’t tell my students, but the next month looks like one of those times where there’s as much learning going on outside the classroom as there is in class, for a grade!



Friday Favorites Blogroll: What I Learned from Twitter

Yes, I know, this sounds like a bad 21st century parody of those old “what I did on my summer vacation” reports we used to have to write.  In all seriousness, though, social media such as Twitter, if used judiciously, can offer a window into a much wider set of conversations than any of us could have imagined being a part of five or ten years ago.

I recently highlighted specific accounts that we learn a lot from at River Life.  Today I want to narrow the focus to particular articles that caught our attention.

This article on Mark Twain and the Mississippi River has been tweeted many times (I saw it via @AnnEssippi).  There’s some interesting insight here, particularly about the very complex roles slavery and abolitionism played in Twain’s early life.  Other vignettes add more detail to some of the more common “broad brush” historical knowledge of the River, “Mississippi River 201″ if you will: more advanced than the intro level, but not really expert.  This is as it should be; Smithsonian is a literate, general interest magazine and a good source for many substantial topics.

Orion magazine’s project on “reimagining infrastructure” offers many reasons to click on the site, the materials, and to keep up as the project develops.  Infrastructure is one of those seemingly-wonky words to actually describes stuff we really depend on like water and sewer systems, the electrical power grid, and roads.  The fact is, we built most of these systems at various points in the 20th century and haven’t thought about them since, except when they fail.  Nothing lasts forever, of course, and when we rebuild or improve these systems it is imperative that we do so with new insights and perspectives. The project and magazine can be accessed through @Orion_magazine.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level project (@MPRGroundLevel)  continues to explore complex and vitally important issues relating to water in Minnesota.  The most recent post directly takes on the question of why not divert the Mississippi River (or the St. Croix River) to refill White Bear Lake.  Once you’ve read through that, study the remaining five or six questions posed in the blog; they’re critical to understanding water and its future in this state.

Finally, some good news this week:  water flow is restored to the Colorado River Delta.  Learn all about it, and see some beautiful and very telling photographs, in this article from National Geographic Daily News.  Link was from @americanrivers.

In Recognition of World Water Day, A Year of News

World Water Day was Saturday, March 22.  In recognition of the day, Circle of Blue, the online water news source, posted a series of tweets highlighting significant water news from the year just passed.  A sampling of this sample:

Water infrastructure rates a “D” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.  Those of us who are old enough may remember the old commercial tagline, “You can pay me now, …or you can pay me later.”  Investment in infrastructure seems a given, right?  But we aren’t, and we can hope the bill won’t be too high when it comes due.

Floods in Central Europe reached levels not seen in 500 years.  Questions are raised about disaster management and response, whether the floods and their scale could have been anticipated, and what should be done to try to avoid repeats of these disasters.

Oil pipelines connected to Canada’s tar sands boom raise concerns about groundwater in the Great Lakes region.  Twin pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac between Michigan and Ontario raise questions about a rupture that could contaminate the Great Lakes themselves.

Under the terms of a 2007 agreement, the US Bureau of Reclamation makes biennial estimates of flow in the Colorado River.  The 2013 study points to continued decline, which is likely to affect 40 million people.

California’s drought may have been the most visible water story in the United States, although the full impact, including food price hikes, may not be known for some time.

The Great Lakes made the news again, this time with reference to a toxic algae problem that caused at least one public water utility to have to close and flush its system.

Closing on a good note, Circle of Blue reports that its data dashboard has been featured as part of the White House climate change initiative.

None of these stories is about the Mississippi River or the Mississippi River basin, which, as these things go, is probably ok.  But all of these stories speak to issues that are quite readily possible somewhere in the basin or along the main stem in the easily foreseeable future.



Friday Favorite Blogroll: U of MN Institute for Advanced Study

There are many reasons for us to send a Friday shout out to the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at the University of Minnesota.  The IAS has been our organizational home for close to two years now and has been a consistent backer of our work from the very beginning, in 2005.  In addition to being wholeheartedly in support of everything that we have done, their diverse and distinctive perspectives have added richness to our ideas, which can tend to get pretty narrow and linear at times.

But that doesn’t yet explain why we need to tell our reading/viewing public about the IAS.  Why should you–community partner, student participant, wherever you place yourself in our work–care about the IAS?

Easy, actually: the programs of the IAS, which are curated thoroughly on the web site linked above, are the best way possible to consider aspects of your interests that had not occurred to you before.  If your interest in the Mississippi River arises from a concern for water, search the IAS site for “water” and you’ll find pages and pages of links to everything from lectures about the role water may have played in the rise and fall of urban concentrations in Angkor Wat to our River Life stuff, to interviews with people who worked on issues associated with the BP Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010.

The same is true if your connection to us is through heritage/historical questions, through teaching, through questions about indigenous people, or any of the hundred and one other things we touch on.

A “one stop shop for the intellectually curious”: everyone needs that, right?  The IAS has it.  Go to the site, but put a timer on yourself; you may get lost in the richness.

Oh, yes–as they say on the game shows “But wait…there’s more!”  IAS (and River Life) are housed in Northrop Auditorium (now just “Northrop”) on the University’s East Bank campus.  After a multi-year renovation project, Northrop is re-opening in April with a lineup that matches the IAS’ work in its eclecticism. There’s everything from “A Prairie Home Companion” to modern dance (interesting combination there), readings, lectures, exhibitions, and several upcoming River Life events.  Learn more, buy tickets, and browse at the Northrop home page.


Worth Knowing: One Version of the Mississippi River Sustainability Story

There are many Mississippi Rivers, of course, and many stories of what the river means, stories of how it is being managed (responsibly, according to everyone’s account of their own programs), and stories of the river’s future.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the dominant federal agency involved with the Mississippi River, so of course it is no surprise that the Corps publishes a regular newsletter highlighting the stories that it wants to tell.  The most recent version of the Our Mississippi newsletter spotlights the Upper Mississippi River restoration program.

It’s easy to be cynical about the Corp’s work in this regard.  A newsletter full of feel-good stories is a pretty inexpensive way to gain positive attention and distract people from the myriad projects being undertaken with questionable value for the river’s future.  Make no mistake, the Corps’ projects on the Mississippi deserve all the scrutiny we can give them, for lots and lots of reasons.

Still, on the face of it, this issue of Our Mississippi is worth a close read.  Many significant projects, partners, and agencies are highlighted, and if we are looking for places to start to put the Big River on a new course that actually is sustainable, that puts ecosystem values first, and that serves a broader range of the public, then this is a necessary place to start.

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
Investigate our web site and visit us at Facebook and on Twitter.

Visit River Futures for more information on the student competition to display works at Northrop Hall in April, 2014.