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.

#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:


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.


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.

ICYMI: What We’ve been Reading

Careful readers of these posts will remember that we are using the platform to create a new conversation about rivers and water, one that attends closely to rivers as part of our social and cultural landscape, elements of a “sense of place” that feels very different for the diverse groups that comprise our society.  We’ll always need scientific and technical knowledge of course; we must expand our vision, though, to develop truly sustainable and inclusive futures for our rivers and the communities that depend on them.

Toward this end, we read material from many different public and scholarly conversations.  Often it seems like it would be great simply to hone in on one subject and know absolutely everythng about that issue, but we really just don’t have that luxury.  The rest of this post is comprised of short annotations of some materials that have come our way recently.  Frankly, we assume that the title, ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) holds true; no one is reading these various things together.  That’s our job.

This animated map of the Mississippi River basin, which shows all the rivers that flow into the main stem, is just fun to look at and think about.  But it’s also a reminder that the Mississippi is a mighty big river with a direct impact on millions of people.

This article from our friends at Ensia, published by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, is not directly about the Mississippi, focusing instead on the challenges of maintaining a hopeful outlook in the face of climate change.  The larger point it makes, though, which is that we must imagine the future that we desire in order to conduct the research and enact the policies to bring that future into existence, is highly pertinent.  The future(s) of the Mississippi River and its basin are highly contested and making those futures sustainable and inclusive requires all of our voices.  It will also require participation from all the disciplines at a university; here’s where historians, English majors, and artists take the lead.

An example of those broader voices we need to hear is the work of Lauret Savoy, a geologist, writer, and professor of environmental studies.  Her book Trace brings together her personal story as a mixed race person growing up in the late 20th century United States with a strong sense of place and her professional training as a “earth historian.” Read a short interview with Savoy here.

The concept of “missing voices” in the interpretation of parks and public space as well as the policy debates about their futures has been highly publicized in the past few months.  Public land managers at the state and federal level have bemoaned the fact that park visitors and political supporters are overwhelmingly white and middle-aged or older.  Not only does this demographic fact not bode well for the parks’ future in terms of political support, but the lack of perceived access to public space and the scarcity of richly diverse stories of the meaning and experience of public space is an inequity that simply must be addressed.  This article by a member of the board of the national organization Latino Outdoors raises many of the important issues.

Closer to home, an article in the new place-oriented journal Agate reminds us that environmental policies are created by specific people working in a particular place and time.  The article describes the inception of a new oral history project in Minnesota that will develop the recent historical context for a series of pivotal environmental laws passed in the 1970s and 80s.  We need more work like this (the laws and the oral histories!), so if anyone is looking for a project…

Finally, we are well aware that our approach to examining the broad-field past, present, and future of rivers is not the only way that universities approach the subject.  Tulane University’s new Bywater Institute offers a strong and complementary approach from the other end of the Mississippi River.

Hope you enjoy the articles linked in this post, and that they stimulate further exploration, research, and engagement.  We will write other posts like this from time to time, so tell us what you’d particularly enjoy seeing!

#TBT: “This Day in Water History” Site

I guess some folks feel like every day should be “Throwback ____.”  Michael J. McGuire maintains “This Day in Water History” as a complement to his blog safedrinkingwaterdotcom.  While the latter is full of good information on the important subject of drinking water safety, the “This Day” blog has lots of great stuff both whimsical and of continued policy importance and perspective.

For example, September 22, 1990 was the day a broken water main in New Jersey left some 300,000 people without water for more than three hours.  An isolated story, perhaps, but given that the broken main was nearly 100 years old, and that many municipal water systems have infrastructure of similar vintage, it is likely that the story will be repeated elsewhere.

A quick glance through the archives of “TDIWH” as it is sometimes tagged, shows the surprising range of subjects that water history touches.  There’s material here from across the world, and from nearly any historical era.  Urban history, policy history, environmental history and public health all play recurring roles in the ongoing stories of how people have engineered water to serve their needs.  The subjects are drinking water and wastewater, so someone will have to start another blog to address subjects such as wild rivers, or the oceans, or recreational use of surface waters.

Minnesota Water Resources Conference: Some Welcome Additions this Year

The Minnesota Water Resources Conference brings scholars, agency staff, and practitioners together every year for a couple of days of panels, keynote talks, exhibits and poster sessions.  These are usually pretty standard, but useful, sessions, reinforcing our tendency to see water issues as matters of science and engineering.

Of course, water issues are not just matters of science and engineering, and this year’s conference has important sessions on social justice and national scale policy innovations which reflect an expanded vision of water’s importance.

These sessions are a great start; we hope they are just a start to a broader, more inclusive set of discussions.

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
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.