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.

New Stories, New Images for the Mississippi River

I just finished putting together the reading list for something we’re doing this year called “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Narratives for the Mississippi River in the 21st Century and Beyond.” The seminar is funded by a John E. Sawyer Seminar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and we very much appreciate the support.  Working in collaboration with scholars from other institutions, as well as Mississippi River experts from outside academe, we are excited to begin conversations about how we have “made” the river through words and images.  For more on the Mississippi River seminar, check this page at the Institute for Advanced Study.

So I’m kind of a geek; putting together reading lists is something I’m really interested in.  For the seminar, we’ll be reading some journalism, some technical reports, and a fair amount of scholarship on the history, archaeology, and literary perspectives on the Mississippi River.  So that’s all fun, of course.

What makes the seminar really exciting, though, is the prospect of exploring the sources for new narratives for the Mississippi River.  Don’t get me wrong, the stories we tell about the river remain powerful and important.  But climate change is showing us that we should think more specifically about what we may mean when we call for “restoration” of natural systems in the watershed.  And the old “fight the river floods” stories, while heroic, maybe should recede into history if we would quit building in the floodplain, where we shouldn’t be putting houses and buildings.  Furthermore, as the demographics of our cities and regions change, leaders two generations hence may not be moved at all by the Mark Twain/Huckleberry Finn story that, implicitly or explicitly, is embedded in so much of what we write about the river.

So what should new narratives and images do, or look/sound like?  Several points come readily to mind:

  • We need to acknowledge that the Mississippi River is the most visible component of a water system that includes surface waters from some 40% of the continental United States and that is highly connected to groundwater in aquifers spanning the middle of the continent.  We ought to know better how the system works.
  • We should recognize that we have a complex relationship with the river, that we abuse and mistreat it by dumping wastes into it and tightly constraining its movement, but that we have also loved and respected it for millennia.  We must begin to see that our relationship with the river includes both of these tendencies, and that our relationship should be managed with the river’s health in mind, just as it would be for others whom we love and respect.
  • Our stories need to be multi cultural and multi vocal, tapping the deeply held beliefs and value systems and stories of the highly diverse population that lives along the river and depends on it.  Ultimately, the health of the river will depend on efforts of people not yet brought into the conversation.
  • We have to learn to recognize, appreciate, and allow for the dynamic nature of the river.  It’s not just a still picture that we look at and appreciate aesthetically.

Maybe these are self-evident, but I don’t think the full implications of these perspectives are widely understood or well thought through.  That’s part of our job in the Making the Mississippi seminar.  Watch here and elsewhere that River Life posts information about future public events associated with the seminar; come to the events and join the conversation.

In the meantime, I would love to hear other views of what our new narratives and images need to convey.


The Future Mississippi: A “Gardened” Landscape?

This is more or less the vision put forth by John Anfinson a couple of weeks ago at his talk inaugurating the John E,. Sawyer Seminar at the University of Minnesota.  Anfinson, superintendent at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and a historian by training, led the audience through three eras in the human manipulation of the river’s biological and physical systems.  He argued that the river’s future, in the face of a changing climate and threats such as invasive carp and other species, will see us managing the river’s systems “constantly and indefinitely.”

The video of Anfinson’s talk and the robust question session is available here.

Anfinson offers a provocative vision, one that may not sit all that well with advocates who argue for “restoration” of the river’s biological and physical systems.  Literal restoration, of course, is not possible for many reasons; is there a term that better, more precisely, expresses the goals of preserving systems more or less intact and functioning?

I think another important point from Anfinson’s talk is more subtle.  Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that we could somehow obtain all the scientific data on the Mississippi River that we wanted, and that federal and state policymakers were willing to make the river a national priority.  Then what?  How would we find a way to navigate among the multiple competing, overlapping, sometimes conflicting interests on the river?  If Anfinson is right, as I believe he is, that the river cannot be “all things to all people,” then how do we figure out which “things” it will be, and for which people?

Here is where a deeply humanistic study of the river is critically important.  What is it that people have said about their relationships with the river, and how have those been expressed?  How have they changed over time?  Whose voices and visions have been heard, and whose have not been?  The study of history, literature, art history, religion, landscape architecture, and related disciplines that are grounded in the nuanced study of what makes people deeply human–the humanities–is necessary to uncover those vital insights and perspectives.

We know a great deal about the Mississippi River from the perspectives of multiple sciences and policy perspectives.  But those views cannot tell us what we want, or what we ought to want, and for that reason science and policy will forever be necessary but not sufficient for understanding the river’s future.


Knowledge Into Action: Why We Do What We Do

September 17, 2014Patrick NunnallyScience0

All of us who do anything that can be called research want to see the knowledge we create put into action.  For our friend and colleague Kate Brauman, from the Institute on the Environment’s Global Water Initiative, that dream has happened, as this blog post describes.

Kate’s research on “crop per drop” has measured how water is being used in particular agricultural practices.  Bonsucro, an organization working to increase water efficiency in sugarcane production, worked with Brauman to develop production standards for water that have subsequently been adopted as a certification standard to be applied to production facilities around the world.

What if similar efforts were undertaken with corn and soybean production in the Mississippi River basin?  It may be possible, through objective scientific analysis of soils, water sources and other factors, to determine an optimal amount of water for farm fields that would reduce runoff (and the associated carrying of nutrients to the Gulf) while maintaining high production.

And as long as we’re dreaming, we started wondering if there were other areas beyond science where rigorous research would benefit stewardship practices for surface waters in the Mississippi River basin.  Can we try to figure out what pictures people have in their minds of what a healthy river or stream looks like, and then find ways to identify key elements of that image and what it would take to protect that element?  Is there some way to understand the stories people tell in order to hear why the river is important?


River City Revue: Exploring the “Dark Side” of the Mississippi

Rivers have always been “marginal” places, serving as the borders of states and regions, as the way in which, historically, “new” ideas and influences came into the towns along their banks.  There are many good reasons why “river town” has often conjured up synonyms such as “rowdy” or “dangerous.”

Now we can add “filthy” “debaucherous” and “unseemly” to the mix–what fun! (Although I did have to look that second one up.)

The Mississippi River Fund caps a summer of innovative programming with “River City Revue: Filth on the River” riverboat trip on the evening of Wednesday, September 10.  The boat leaves Harriet Island in St. Paul at 7:00.  Look here for tickets and more details.

Partners in River City Revue include the Works Progress studio and the National Park Service.

See you on the boat!

If You’re Interested in the Mississippi River’s Future, Start with Its Past

There are lots of truisms about “history” and “the past”: Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it.  History doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. That sort of thing.

Interesting thing is, those sayings are pretty generally true, at least I see it.  Yes, as a historian, I have professional bias.

With regard to the Upper Mississippi, the public will get a chance to test these ideas and to learn about the river’s past from one of the best in the business, John Anfinson.  Anfinson, the newly-appointed superintendent at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, will be giving a talk “Trapped by History: The Past and Future of the Upper Mississippi River.”  Check here for full details of the talk, on September 9 at 7:00 pm in Northrop Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

For many people whose professional work concerns the Mississippi River, the central issue at hand is what balance can be struck between competing demands and needs on the river.  The Upper Mississippi is a globally important ecosystem, but it is also a key component of international trade and shipping routes.  Flood control measures protect homes, farms, and businesses, but also cut the main channel off from critically valuable linkages to the broader floodplain.  All of these uses, and the dilemmas about how the can (or perhaps cannot) be balanced are grounded in a long history of changes to the physical fabric of the river and floodplain itself.

The key question is: To what extent are those changes determining and limiting future options?

We hope you’ll join us on September 9 to hear John Anfinson’s presentation and participate in the discussion.

“Trapped by History” is a public program sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study in association with the John E. Sawyer Seminar “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Narratives for the Mississippi River in the 21st Century.”  The Sawyer Seminar is supported by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the University of Minnesota.

Beyond “Either/Or” to “Both/And”

One of my grad students posted an essential question via Twitter a few days ago:

Is the Mississippi River a “taxpayer-funded shipping canal” or home to diverse water stories?

Her tweet, from @waterbugsUMN, included a link to a recent blog post by the travel writer Dean Klinkenberg.  Klinkenberg summarizes just a few of the interesting, varied, some would even say “essential” stories that he came across in a recent trip through the Upper Mississippi River corridor. I’ll write another time about why I think “essential” belongs in this discussion, but on to the main point today.

Klinkenberg only makes passing reference to the river as a barge canal, but that sense of things was heavily reinforced with the news last week that the Upper Mississippi would be designated the “M-35 Marine Highway Corridor.”

There are many reasons why I personally think this is an appalling development.  The name is reductive, even ugly.  It reduces the river of mystery and mythology, the “spine of the nation” to an anonymous, numbered, static transect down the middle of the country.  The name was apparently chosen to match the Interstate 35 corridor, which runs from Texas to Minnesota.  What better way to make clear that the sole purpose of the river is moving goods.

Someone please write and tell me that I’m wrong, that this new corridor isn’t a signal that the river as highway is taking the upper hand over the river as a globally significant ecological corridor.  But when you do, I really want to know how that dominance won’t happen.  In other words, don’t just write and say I’m wrong (I hear that a lot).  Tell me how this corridor designation won’t tip the balance away from ecological preservation and enhancement, how this won’t pave the way (pun intended) for expanded locks, hardened river edges to tie big barges up, and all the rest of the Pandoras Box that happens when we decide one use of the river will take absolute primacy over the others (despite federal law, as I understand it).

I hope to hear from you and I hope to be reassured.

TONIGHT! River City Revue by Canoe

River City Revue, the always-interesting collaborative between Works Progress Studio, the Mississippi River Fund, and the National Park Service, takes to canoes this evening, leaves from Hastings tonight at 6:00.  Details and tickets through the Mississippi River Fund, nice discussion of the whole series here.

If we’re ever going to care for our rivers long term, we have to reach beyond our usual audience with our usual message.  River City Revue does just that, with innovative and unexpected themes, activities, and encounters to make more of us realize the Mississippi is part of what makes this place our home.

Nation’s Longest River Significantly Affected by Changing Climate

The Missouri River near Williston, N.D. The river's streamflow has changed significantly over the last 50 years. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

The Missouri River near Williston, N.D. The river’s streamflow has changed significantly over the last 50 years. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Sorry, Mississippi River fans, the nation’s longest river is actually the Missouri.  As this news story makes clear, though, the changes on the Missouri are of a sort that will bring big impacts to the Mississippi as well.

It’s not really a surprise that some parts of the Missouri are seeing too little water while others are seeing too much.  Climate change reports for some time have indicated that dry areas will trend drier and wet areas wetter.  A USGS report released recently documents those changes across a broad area (227 stream gages) and through a span of better than 50 years.

In some ways, the varying reception of this news is more significant than the documented changes.  Some farmers are simply adapting, aware that conditions always change in the uncertain world of agriculture.  People in other sectors of the economy are likewise concerned, and adapting.  Fishing is a major economic activity, contributing over $3 billion annually in Montana alone.  No one is quite sure what the changed river conditions are going to mean to this industry.

Still others don’t seem to really accept that the climate is changing, arguing that poor river management by the agencies involved with the Missouri River are to blame.  The Corps of Engineers comes in for criticism, of course.

Whatever the cause, the evidence in front of people shows that the river is changing.  As one source said, ”We no longer have a smooth, easy-going river,” he said. “It’s choppy and eroding the banks and just pretty ugly at this point in time.”

And that’s perhaps the most interesting part of the story, for me at least.  People in a changing landscape respond to the differences they can see, that are most directly affecting their daily lives.  The river is different–”we no longer have…”  The explanations they offer for change vary almost on a person by person basis, and may or may not be grounded in science, in a systematic understanding of policy or any other set of ideas other than their own values and beliefs.

The rivers are changing.  What do we do now?


What’s All This About Canaries and Coal Mines?

I recently ran across a Twitter post that said something like this:

Lake Mead’s record low is “canary in coal mine” for 30M people West who depend on #CORiver water for drinking 

So I started to wonder a bit about this often-used metaphor: “the canary in the coal mine.”

To refresh your memory, the phrase comes from the practice, dating to the 19th century and perhaps earlier, of coal miners taking canaries down into the mine with them.  Before the advent of modern ventilation systems, bad air was a serious threat to coal miners’ safety.  When the canaries stopped singing, that was a signal that something was wrong with the air and that the miners should get to the surface immediately.

They probably took the canary with them, don’t you think?

So “canary in the coal mine” has become a figure of speech to represent a fairly complex, but important, set of facts: when one indicator (the canary) demonstrates adverse reactions (singing stops) that shows that conditions are worsening in the affected environment (the mine) and that something needs to be done to protect health and safety (get out of the mine).

If the planet is our “mine” in this figure of speech, then there is no “getting out of the mine;” there’s not another planet that we can go to (that we know of).  So the phrase enjoins us to take some other corrective action, usually one that is either self-evident to the readers in question or one that is the subject of the rest of the article, blog post or what have you.

The question I want to pose, and enlist discussion about, is this:  what might “the canary in the coal mine” mean when applied to the Mississippi River, in whole or in part? You can pick your spot, your reach, whatever, or the whole river.  What should we be watching/listening to by way of a “canary” and what adverse conditions might the canary be warning us about?  What actions should be taken in response to this warning?

As they say on talk radio (so I hear): All lines are open.  Let us know your thoughts!

Big Day for News on Rivers, Water

Some days, there doesn’t seem to be much going on other than the usual headlines: Terrible Stuff Happening; Famous (?) People Doing Strange Things, Sports: a Team Won, Sports: a Team Lost.

Then there are days like today when the Twitter feed pops with important news, trends, and updates.  My non-random sample of Things You Should Know About:

From National Public Radio, a story about how Iowa corn farmers are adapting to a changing climate.  This of course is good news, and reminds us that farmers can adapt to changing water values as well.  When we realize as a society that the water coming off farm fields is more valuable than the crops coming off those fields, we will be on our way to clean water. (Never said I wouldn’t editorialize along with the news, did I?)

In a similar vein, the Minneapolis Star Tribune editorializes in support of the state’s Pollution Control Agency and the adoption of new phosphorus standards for Minnesota’s rivers and streams.  Having a pollution standard for surface waters is the first step toward identifying corrective actions to take to reduce phosphorus in our rivers.  The editorial is a response to the recent Toledo water crisis and the question that is everywhere: Could that happen here?

Writing for American Rivers, Olivia Dorothy cites new evidence that large rivers like the Mississippi need connections to extensive floodplain wetlands in order to increase species diversity that is important to the overall health of the river and its corridor.  It’s pretty widely known that an ecologically healthy Mississippi is necessary for the economic health of the cities and towns along the river; here’s some evidence on how to improve that ecological health.

In case you might think that solving problems of river-floodplain connectivity, phosphorus pollution in rivers, and farm runoff was a pretty complex set of tasks, imagine addressing those in a context of unstable climate patterns.  Mark Seeley, the former Minnesota state climatologist reports on the “new normal” that a changing climate is bringing to the state.

Out west, where the drought is making national news, the connections between surface water and ground water are becoming increasingly clear.  American Rivers reports that the biggest threat to the Colorado River isn’t urban or agricultural water use; it’s the dropping water table that feeds groundwater that supports the Colorado, a source of drinking water for 30 million people.  We need to see this connection much more clearly in the Mississippi River corridor and basin.

Finally, Circle of Blue reports from the California drought front that CA lawmakers passed a $7.5 billion water bond that was promptly signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.  Up next in California: a groundwater bill.

All of this water news is pertinent for everyone who knows, uses, or loves the Mississippi.  Keep up with these stories and others like them either by subscribing to our blog (instructions on the right hand side of ) and/or by going directly to the sources in this post.




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.