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: “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.

#TBT: The University on the River

The last post here talked about the river as part of the University of Minnesota’s Strategic Plan, so it seems appropriate to put up some “then and now” images of the University campus on the river.


This image, made in 1955, shows what is now the East Bank campus to the lower right and the river separating the campus from what is at this point still an industrial and residential section of Minneapolis.


Fast forward 58 years, to 2013, and the scene has changed completely.  Obviously, the floodplain has become green open space, and the campus has jumped the river onto the west bank.

What other changes are here, and what, if anything do they say about the changing meaning of the river to the city? to the university?

Sometimes I just can’t help myself–I’m a teacher at heart.  Responses to the images are welcome, of course, and I want to thank the Minneapolis park and Recreation Board for the images.

Great Idea for a Strategic Plan: Take Advantage of Our Location

Everyone loves to hate strategic plans, right?  They are something else for management to drone on about, they rarely are connected to our everyday work, and they often just don’t make sense.

A place as big and complex as the University of Minnesota almost requires a strategic plan just so the hundreds of different units, departments, and centers all can have a sense that we work for the same place.  Of course, those hundreds of units mean a strategic plan is almost impossible to develop.  Nevertheless, the University of Minnesota recently adopted a strategic plan, one of the pillars of which is “Capitalize on our Unique Location.

Of course, this phrase means the location of the campus on the Mississippi River–what else could it be?  Actually, as you read the section, there’s a lot more to our location than just the river, but it’s gratifying to see that the river is in fact mentioned and pictured.  We can, and are, helping University officials think about how the campus can take advantage of the river location, and the community of people working on river issues.  It’s worth reiterating that “taking advantage of location” also means exploring the question of how the University’s teaching and research can be a resource for those communities as well.  One of our current questions is how we can expand the sense of “community” that is invested in the river.

We have some programs under way that are directly aligned with the University’s Strategic Plan, things like our new Open Rivers digital journal.  We are always looking for new ideas, though: What do you think the University should be doing to be a better resource for people working on a sustainable and inclusive future for the Mississippi River?  Let us know!

#TBT: Revisiting the Idea of the Mississippi River as a “Gardened” Landscape

Two years ago we were starting up the year-long project “Making the Mississippi: New Narratives for the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change.” We kicked off our work with a program by Dr. John Anfinson, historian and superintendent of the local Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.  The post I wrote two years ago still rings true in many respects.

In fact, I think developments subsequent to Anfinson’s talk only make his points more powerful.  The recent celebration of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service included many stories with warnings about how a changing climate will reshape iconic places.  Another very significant set of questions about the next century of national parks concerns what populations will be using and championing these places.  Currently, most park users are white, are older than middle-aged, and have higher incomes than national averages.  Important efforts to diversify park users are being undertaken by groups such as Green Latino and Outdoor Afro, as well as by the National Park Service itself.

Still, a question we have to ask as we watch John Anfinson’s presentation is: Who will be the gardeners for the “Fourth Mississippi,” the gardened landscape?

Big Ag and Big Green Team up: What’s Not to Like?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an article last week about an unlikely coalition that has formed to improve the environmental impact of crop agriculture in the Midwest.  Cargill, Wal-Mart, Monsanto and others involved in “Big Ag” will team up with global environmental players such as The Nature Conservancy to form the “Midwest Row Crop Collaborative,” which will work to develop solutions to farm nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River basin.  One hoped-for advantage from teaming global entities like these is that solutions can be scaled up quickly.

Yes, I suppose that’s true.  One of the persistent problems with improving farm nutrient runoff is that solutions aren’t always seen as scalable, as “moving the needle” on such a large problem.  Another challenge that the new collaborative effort might address is that “Big Ag” has rarely been committed to finding solutions.  People say the right things here and there, and individual farmers always seem to be doing their best to balance the desire to be good stewards with the economic realities of running their business.  Broad-based commitment that leads to active change has always seemed elusive, though.  Emphases on consistent measures of progress toward clear strong goals are important first steps toward meaningful change.

Here’s hoping this effort makes a difference.  I hope that with all the “Bigs” at the table there is still room for local voices, for local conditions, and for adoption of solutions that are scalable but not just “one size fits all.”  We all hope that the partners at this table will keep each other accountable to shared goals, and not let the collaboration fall apart due to one sector or the other falling into narrow habits.  If this effort turns out to be just another “greenwash” that sells farmers more pesticides or something in the name of sustainability, we will have lost a huge opportunity.

Two press releases from some of the conservation groups involved, The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund, provide interesting insights into what those groups hope to achieve.

#TBT: Painting the Landscape of the Past

Scan from original on Epson Expression 10000XL.

Scan from original on Epson Expression 10000XL.

The image above, a watercolor by Seth Eastman in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, is titled “Indians Spearing Fish Three Miles Below Fort Snelling.” It was probably painted during Eastman’s second tour of duty at Fort Snelling, between 1846 and 1848.  The location, as listed, would put the scene between present Historic Fort Snelling and downtown St. Paul, roughly where I-35E crosses the river at the old community of Lilydale.

What can be learned about past landscapes from a painting such as this?  I’m not an art historian, so can offer only cursory guesses.  The vegetation appears to be a prairie-woodland mix, which corresponds to what other sources such as the records of the Government Land Office survey tell us about this region.  Dead-looking snag trees on the left perhaps indicate prairie burning.  Cattails at the water’s edge on the left may show that the river bed does not fall away steeply from the shore, reinforcing notions that the river was a much more varied stream then than it is now, after the imposition of locks and dams.  Other Eastman paintings convey this understanding more clearly, showing animals and fallen trees in mid stream.

What can we not understand from the painting?  A lot.  The water and sky convey a kind of stillness, but undoubtedly the scene had more action, as the paddler positions the boat advantageously for the spearer to do their work.  The people shown are most likely Dakota, this being the area known to Dakota people as Bdote, their ancestral home land.  Above all, we can’t understand tides of historical change and the range of reactions these figures would have for that change.  Fort Snelling was built in 1820; the first treaty between the United States and Dakota people that aggressively acquired land had been signed in 1837; settlers were filling up St. Paul and fanning out all around the new town.  Change was certainly afoot, and the Dakota people would largely be harmed by ensuing developments.

As an artifact, the painting is interesting, perhaps beautiful to some tastes.  It can be subjected to formal compositional analysis or, as I have offered above, a rudimentary content assessment.  But it was made through the lens of what is now called “settler colonialism,” (see also the extensive background at Decolonization) as Eastman undoubtedly held opinions about indigenous people and land that did not deviate much from other Army officers in the mid-19th century.  So observers now have to be extremely cautious about what broader patterns and meanings can be drawn from this image.  We have to contextualize it with the voices of Dakota people, such as those contained in the Bdote Memory Map.

We may then learn that the distance between the 1840s and today is not, for some people, quite as far as we first thought.

Historic Gathering in North Dakota to Protect Indigenous Land, Water Rights

On the North Dakota prairie a storm has been gathering for months.  Since last April, people from the Standing Rock Sioux Nation have assembled at a point just off their reservation to pray, discuss, and bear witness to an unwanted oil pipeline construction project that threatens their lands and waters.  Required federal consultation processes continued on, but when ground was broken to take the pipeline under the Missouri River just a mile upstream from the reservation, the vigil became a full-fledged protest.  Now, a month after that start of construction, indigenous people from across North America have gathered at a camp that has thousands of occupants, work has stopped, and the matter is in the hands of judges in North Dakota and Washington DC.

Some reports indicate that this is the largest, most inclusive multi-national gathering of Indian people since the 19th century.

I have skipped over many details, of course, in this summary, but there are a number of very good accounts online (along with some that emphasize division and conflict, which don’t appear to square with the reported facts on the ground).  There is a good background explainer that carries the historical context ; Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault II has an eloquent explanation of his tribe’s position here.  A Washington Post story highlights some of the powerful accounts of individuals who have gathered at this place.

There is little that I can add to the detail and immediacy of the accounts linked above.  Two things, though, do occur to me:

First, the Army Corps of Engineers, as the federal agency responsible for granting permits to the pipeline company to cross the river, has said that tribal members did not consult specifically on exact locations of burials, sacred sites and other areas protected by federal historic preservation law.  Federal law does not require such disclosure, though, only that tribal representatives argue that there is a likelihood of damage to culturally sensitive resources.  The pipeline was originally aligned to cross the river half a mile from the water intake for the city of Bismarck, but was moved because of worries that a spill might contaminate water supplies.  We’re supposed to think that indigenous culturally-sensitive lands are somehow less important?  Water has manifold meansings to indigenous people everywhere, central to their spiritual and cultural lives as well as physically essential.

Which leads to my second point: the threat to water and other resources that comes at the hands of a shortsighted, highly intrusive project that is being rammed through without appropriate consultation as required by law.  This is not just about water, although water is one of the central resources on the earth and must be protected.  As the #NoDAPL gatherings have repeatedly said, “Water is life.” Nor is this just an indigenous issue; all of us are subject to the rule of law and environmental protection processes.  When those processes are truncated, and when damaging projects are inflicted on unknowing communities, that is a threat to all of us.  Fights about pipelines are fights about our shared future, how, and by whom that future will be decided.

Finally, I cannot urge you strongly enough to watch this commentary by Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC.  He minces no words in placing the Standing Rock dispute in the 500 year context of genocide against indigenous people across North America, and seeing this fight as only the latest example of indigenous courage, resilience, and spiritual power in their continued enduring.

#TBT: The National Park Service Turns 100 Years Old

Today marks the centennial of the establishment of the National Park Service.  We congratulate all who are affiliated with NPS, particularly our partners at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.  People who want to read more about the Park Service, its history and its future will find information very readily available; there are hundreds of partners across the country and Google can lead you to most of the web traffic.

I would argue that our park, known as MISS in the vernacular of the NPS, really does represent the future of parks everywhere.  It’s in an urban location; most of the country’s population is urban and many are seeking outdoor experiences without having the money or time for a long trip to the big parks in the West.  Oriented around a river the way it is, our park can inherently speak to issues of systems and dynamics, and the interactions between human and biophysical landscapes.  In an era of rapidly-changing climate, these perspectives will be increasingly important.  A good “deep dive” into issues facing the system as a whole has been undertaken by the national journalism platform Environment and Energy, and can be accessed here.

But the point of Throwback Thursday is to take a historical look at things, so I want to turn now to a very significant feature of the Mississippi in the Twin Cities.  The Upper St. Anthony Lock was opened in 1965 to provide commercial navigation access above the falls.  In 2015, just a year ago, the lock closed permanently.  It is now being managed by the Park Service as the St. Anthony Falls Visitor Center, a development that clearly would not have happened without the strong presence and partnership role played by Park Service staff in this region.

So what did this lock and the associated support building look like in the past?

lower lock coffer dam 1953

This image, made in 1953, shows the coffer dam holding the river at bay while the lower St. Anthony Lock is under construction.  Site of the future Upper Lock is the left end of the Stone Arch Bridge, visible in the background.

coal storage at SAF 1954

This 1954 image shows coal storage along the river in the vicinity of St. Anthony Falls.  My point here is to illustrate the heavily industrial nature of this stretch of river, even well after the decline of flour milling.  I’m not precisely sure where this picture was taken, but it looks like Bohemian Flats on the west bank near the University.  Other thoughts are welcome!

coal barges upper lock 1976

This photo, made in 1976, shows the Upper St. Anthony lock in use, with barges moving coal.

SAF lock building 1976

This is the building that now serves as the St. Anthony Falls Visitor Center.  It looks a bit different now, but access is still from this parking lot, at the end of Portland Ave. below the piers of the Stone Arch Bridge.

Again, happy birthday to the National Park Service!  We’re very glad to be working with you on the sustainable, inclusive future of our river.

All photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.


Innovations in Practice, Teaching, and Learning

Given what we do–that is, explore innovative ways to manage, understand, and teach about the Mississippi River, we find ourselves learning about innovations of all sorts.  If you, also, are in the “innovation business” (or, with a nod to our NPS partners, in the “forever business” but looking for new ways of working), then the newest online seminar offering from the University’s Center for Educational Innovation may be for you.  The focus on intercultural inclusive teaching and learning makes this work strongly align with our emerging focus in this area.  Here’s the blurb for the course and links for more information:

The UMinnesota Center for Educational Innovation is offering an open, online seminar focusing on Intercultural Inclusive Learning and Teaching in higher education. The seminar involves participants in active discussion of the basics of universal design for learning as a foundation for discussing key contemporary issues in promoting social justice in the classroom.  From these discussions, participants build their own teaching and learning materials for current and/or future courses.  Past participants found seminar discussions deeply thought-provoking, shared materials diverse and useful, and badge-earning activities to practically assist them in developing better courses:

One thing that is bubbling up for me is the idea that discussion (in varying formats) coupled with some form of reflection (also in varying formats), offers tremendous potential to harness the power of difference….Sharing thoughts and ideas with a community so genuinely and deeply committed to this work has left me with much more than a set of ideas I can put into practice.  I am committed to helping build “a curriculum that deeply includes everybody.” – 2015 seminar participant

The seminar is designed for graduate- and professional-level learning, and we welcome multiple modes of participation in the seminar:

  • Participating in the forum discussions during some or all of the five modules to reflect on specific, personal or professional interests.
  • Using the module discussion forums as a springboard for participation in the badge-earning activities, which include peer and facilitator responding to teaching/learning artifacts or documents participants create.
  • Inviting a small group of peers to form a learning community, making use of the seminar materials for their own local conversations.
  • Drawing on the seminar modules as the base for a credit-bearing or professional development endeavor at their own institution.

To learn more visit To register as a participant complete the Google Registration form at To discuss earning graduate course credit at the University of Minnesota contact Ilene Dawn Alexander, the U’s instructor of record for this seminar.

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.