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A Big Week for Water News in Minnesota

Maybe our recent cold and snow has kept report writers chained to their desks.  Whatever the cause, something has happened, because this week has seen a spate of potentially important news about water in Minnesota.  A sampling:

Results of several studies on the impacts of sulfates in water on wild rice have been released.  The state Pollution Control Agency is set to announce shortly (was originally going to be Thursday 2/27, but has been postponed) whether the science indicates that new sulfate standards from mines need to be adopted.

The back story, as explained in an article by Stephanie Hemphill for, is that we have known for a long time that high levels of sulfates damage wild rice.  The new studies show that the level at which damage occurs is lower than had been previously understood.  Wild rice is an iconic plant in Minnesota, and carries a variety of spiritual and cultural meanings for the state’s indigenous Ojibwe population.  Protection of wild rice would seem a “given,” except that mining companies are chafing at the existing restrictions, not to mention the potential for new, higher water quality standards.  Stay tuned: this could well end up in the state legislature and in the courts.

Speaking of the Legislature, the spring session began this week, which means that nothing is safe, or beyond comprehension.  In a very informative article, Elizabeth Dunbar from Minnesota Public Radio rounds up and summarizes a number of bills, mostly having to do with the emerging awareness that the state needs to manage its groundwater better.  Some of these, such as the appointment of a state hydrologist, are clearly good ideas.  Others, like the provision of bonding money to refill White Bear Lake near St. Paul, don’t appear to have been thought through very clearly.  Still, anything is possible.

And finally, it seems distinctly possible that Minnesota could become the first state in the country to ban triclosan, a key ingredient in many anti-bacterial products as well as common household items such as toothpaste, shampoos, and the like.  Research shows that triclosan can interact with chlorine and sunlight to form harmful dioxins in water.  Since water treatment plants commonly use chlorine and sunlight in their processes, this is a big problem.

Another article from MPR’s Dunbar points out that many big household product companies are already phasing triclosan out of their products, while others are dragging their feet.  State action would thus seem to be warranted.  The article has good quotations from Trevor Russell from the local organization Friends of the Mississippi (FMR).  FMR and the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area combined forces to produce a State of the River report in late 2012.  That report, which concentrates on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis-St. Paul, covers triclosan and 12 other key indicators of river health.  Well worth a look.

One more note:  readers wanting to keep up to date on the groundwater issue in Minnesota should bookmark the MPR project Ground Level: Beneath the Surface, which has ongoing analyses and news coverage.

Lots to chew on here, but there are plenty of good journalists covering the issues and advocacy organizations keeping tabs on progress.

Once Again, the Mississippi River is “a place set apart”

Canoeing in the Mississippi RiverI wrote early in February about John Ruskey and the “Mighty Quapaws,” a canoe company in the Mississippi Delta that takes young people out on the Mississippi down where the river is REALLY BIG, and where most people are, frankly, afraid of the water.  Ruskey and his crew are working wonders to set up trips that teach people about the history and geography of the place they live in, open their eyes to the wonders of the natural world around them, teach them self-reliance and teamwork, and get good exercise into the bargain.

What’s not to like, right?

Apparently the Mississippi Department of Revenue has found a lot not to like, assessing Ruskey’s company a five-figure tax bill even though federal law clearly states that taxes shall not be assessed on activities taking place on navigable waterways.  As this article from the Mississippi Business Journal makes clear, Ruskey and his company are in imminent danger of going out of business or, at the very least, being distracted to the point where the quality of their work suffers.

Ruskey’s “Island 63” blog recently announced the formation of a Legal Defense Fund and ways to contribute, an extreme step that obviously pains this proudly independent entrepreneur.  His point that the nature tourism business is in its infancy in Mississippi and has tremendous growth potential is a powerful argument that deserves to be heard more widely.

Aside from the immediate urgency from the tax case Ruskey is facing, I think there is another issue here as well.  Once again, the Mississippi River is “a place apart,” a place where some of the rules “on land” are unclear or not applicable.  The Mississippi River forms the border for eight of the ten states that it passes through, as well as the borders of a number of federal agency regions (the EPA, for example.)

The net effect is two-fold.  On one hand, the river’s status as on the margins of state and agency boundaries leaves it isolated, “falling through the cracks” with no certain responsibility or authority for making sure that it is managed well.  This status is obviously problematic.

On the other hand, the margins are where interesting new encounters happen, where growth occurs.  Ruskey would probably agree that much of the magic of paddling the Mississippi lies in the fact that it is away from so many things that define “life here in settled areas.”  In this respect, the “margins,” understood as ecologists understand the margins between ecotones, are dynamic, interesting, the most valuable places on earth.

It is fervently to be hoped that Ruskey and his supporters can talk sense into a hidebound state bureaucracy.  We must be able to continue to send our young people into wild places, into the margins.

Friday Favorites blogroll: California drought version

Steven's Creek, Cupertino CA in drought.  February 2014.California has for decades loomed large in the American imagination and in many American dreams.  Now, with the worst drought in decades gripping the state, it is becoming a place of nightmare.

As with most slowly evolving disasters, this one has many causes: decades of habitual overuse, failures of water governance and public investment, a stretch of abnormally “wet” years that came to be seen as “normal.”

What’s less clear is how Californians will be able to respond and what, if anything, California’s case means for the rest of the country.  Sure, California is dry, but much of it has always been a desert and should have remained so, according to some smug ruminations from the Midwest, that part of the country that Western writer Wallace Stegner habitually referred to as “the humid East.”

But that’s not entirely true, or fair.  The court fight between the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over allocation of the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola-Flint River systems has been to the Supreme Court once and may yet be headed there again.  The recent pollution of the Elk River in West Virginia owing to spilled coal cleaning chemicals showed us that our water protection laws are not always as robust as they need to be.  Patterns of drought and flood on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers still baffle some of the most expensive engineers and planners in the country.

And that’s not even to mention the groundwater challenges in places like the Ogalalla Aquifer, which underlies most of the Great Plains and is being drawn down at an unsustainable rate.

In this climate of confusion and overwhelming information, where are we to turn?  Fortunately the water conversation on the web is incredibly rich.  On the California drought alone, and just within the past week, leading sources have included:

Circle of Blue, a topnotch online platform of news reporting and multimedia materials covering water issues across the world.  The Special Report posted February 20 on California’s response to the water crisis caps a series of detailed analyses of the current crisis.  Brett Walton (@waltonwater) leads the coverage.

Michael E. Campana, faculty in hydrogeology at Oregon State University, is, as his Twitter handle suggests @WaterWired.  The WaterWired blog is a first-rate source of information on a range of water-related disciplines and has a very robust “jobs” listing.

In Minnesota, Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level program is conducting a sustained and detailed investigation of issues pertaining to water scarcity and to groundwater in Minnesota.  Often thought of as one of the most “well watered” states in the country, Minnesota is beginning to see signs of strains on its water systems.

California journalist Emily Green writes at “Chance of Rain.”  Her work often displays a deep skepticism of the platitudes uttered by elected officials at all levels of government.

All of these writers are prominently engaged on Twitter as well as maintaining their own blogs and other digital platforms.  For tweeted insights particular to the California situation, follow the hashtags #cawater and #cadrought.



Change Is a Constant on the Mississippi River: Here’s One Example

February 13, 2014Patrick NunnallyPlanning1

It’s a pretty short, but densely packed, article, a few hundred words noting a relatively minor action by City Council Committees in Minneapolis.  With the recent passage of a city budget item, 2014 will officially be the last year the City’s Upper Harbor Terminal will be open.

The Terminal has fallen on hard times lately, with business down by about half over the past five years or so.  The 48 acre site only supports 11 jobs at the moment, less than what the City asks from new businesses looking for City assistance to get started.  What happened?  Lots of things, really: coal plants switch to burning natural gas; we put less salt on roads in winter; shipping by river overall is down.

The article contains good information on how the Terminal got built in the first place, out of a competition between Minneapolis and St. Paul over most of the 20th century concerning which would be the head of navigation on the Mississippi River.  Clearly, St. Paul won that title, but navigation as a whole is in a long period of decline, so the prize doesn’t glimmer as brightly as it did 50 or 75 years ago.

What will come next?  Hard to say.  There are plans that call for the site to remain a shipping transfer point, but one more suited to a 21st century “green economy.”  Other plans, of course, all for mixed use housing and commercial developments, linked by trails to other parts of the city and riverfront.  Looming over all is the question of how much longer the locks at St. Anthony Falls, a couple of miles downstream, will remain open.  The site may not end up being a distinctively “river oriented” place at all, despite its location.

It seems, though, that we aren’t talking about some things that are badly needed.  The site lies across the freeway from Minneapolis’ North Side, where jobs and job training opportunities are hard to come by.  Moreover, the transfer of the Terminal to some other use marks a significant point in the long “retreat of the industrial glacier” that is giving us new land uses, new audiences and connections, a new riverfront.  It remains to be seen whether the new riverfront is accessible fully, whether the river will be an asset that is shared equitably with citizens from across the city.  Past developments, which concentrate on market rate (read: very expensive) housing are not promising in this regard.

In 2007 the National Park Service published a series of reflections on parks and “civic engagement,” that is, places where parks can become spaces to learn our country’s past.  Of course many parks already do this, in very clearly defined ways.  There is one line in the report, though, that has stuck with me: “Parks should be safe places to tell unsafe stories.”  By “unsafe,” I take the author to mean stories that haven’t ended happily ever after for everyone, stories that illustrate ways of thinking and decision-making, community priorities, that are now recognized as out of date and no longer our core values as a community.  I would even go so far as to argue that until parks (the National Park Service unit on the Mississippi, in this case) do this, they will not be fulfilling their truest potential as valued spaces in our communities.

Rivers can be about more than short term gain; they can and should be places that show us who we are.  Read through the “Common Ground” report here and let me know of other opportunities for the riverfront to be a place of civic engagement.

We Know the Minneapolis Central Riverfront Will Change–What Will It Become?

The Central Riverfront in Minneapolis, that area surrounding the Falls of St. Anthony which was once the location of the largest concentration of hydropower in the world, is one of the most significant sites on the entire length of the Mississippi River.  It could be argued that this place with its “outstanding universal values” related to the exploitation and then renewal of the power of water, is worthy of nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is also a vibrant part of a growing metropolitan urban region.  So this place will change, as it has for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  What will it become?

The question has taken on urgency recently with plans to redevelop parts of the west side of the district as “Water Works Park.”  As described in a recent news article, the site’s layers of history are some of its most impressive and enduring qualities.

Here’s hoping that the site’s designers have the wisdom to elicit what is truly unique about this particular spot on the globe in their design, rather than pulling out some generic “could be anywhere” scheme.  Too often, designers design stuff that is more “about the firm” than “about the place,” making places that are recognizable as the work of that company but that don’t speak to what is particularly “there.”

Here, the story is about water, the movement of water, the capturing of water for power, and the perhaps inevitable decay in those structures that served so ably 120 years ago.  As we are forced to think more about our use of water, and can take it less for granted, the headraces, canals, gatehouses, and other structures that served generations of flour milling will have even more to teach us.

The Mississippi River will continue to speak to us–will we learn to listen?


Overdue Examination of an Overlooked Problem

Minnesota is the “land of sky blue waters,” home to 10,000 lakes, the headwaters of three major continental watersheds (Mississippi River, Great Lakes, and Red River of the North), and basis for Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon.”  There’s no way that state could have a water problem, right?


Publicity over the past year has focused on the shrinking of White Bear Lake, the centerpiece of prosperous suburbs northeast of St. Paul.  Closer examination shows, though, that Minnesotans are increasingly drawing on groundwater to slake their ever-growing thirst.  As Minnesota Public Radio journalist Dave Peters notes, the state DNR reports “unprecedented water use conflicts” emerging between businesses, towns, and individual homeowners.  Agriculture undoubtedly is in the mix also.

Peters directs a community journalism project called Ground Level, which uses multiple forms of media, derived from diverse sources, to provide detailed explorations of issues directly affecting Minnesota’s communities.  A previous study examined water quality issues across the state.

“Beneath the Surface,” Ground Level’s exploration of groundwater issues, is just getting started.  Note particularly the link that is posted to a survey “Help us explore Minnesota’s groundwater challenge.”  Hopefully, there will be a robust set of responses generated that will raise questions from multiple perspectives.

The connection between this Ground Level initiative and the Mississippi River is subtle, but important.  It’s easy to forget that all of our water makes up one system, so the fate of groundwater affects the fate of the Mississippi, and vice versa.  There has already been some loose talk about drawing water from the Mississippi to “refill” White Bear Lake, for example.

There are literally thousands of people committed to improving the health of the Mississippi River.  The sooner we can learn to see the river as part of a much bigger system, only a fraction of which is visible in the actual river bed, the sooner we’ll be able to really treat the river as a river, not just a wet playground, or a highway, or some other reductive figure of our imagination.

Let’s Not Overlook A Key Fact: Clean Water is Vital to the US Economy

November 26, 2013Patrick NunnallyPlanning1

Those of us who think about water for a living can pretty easily find ourselves lamenting the lack of interest or insight from “everybody else” who doesn’t “get it.” (Whatever “it” is, whether it’s the importance of a particular river, the value of wetlands, the necessity of understanding urban stormwater, etc.)  At least here in the Upper Midwest, we don’t live in a very “hydroliterate” society, at least not yet.

Earlier this month, I was a bit taken aback, then, by a stream of information and links from the US EPA on the importance of water to the US economy.  As is the case for most of us with water, the economy is mostly “just there,” notable when it’s going too fast or too slow, just like we only notice water in floods or drought.

But the EPA has a large body of important information, starting with a report spelling out the importance of clean water to our economy.  Once again, it’s always salutary to spell out in detail what we think “everybody knows.”

Accompanying the report, the agency released a statement from Nancy Stoner, the Acting Assistant Administrator in charge of the Office of Water. The agency has also published a good primer on the effects of climate change on water resources.

This is a short work week for many of us, so between spending time with family, shopping, eating and watching football, there should be plenty of time to read up on all of this vital information.

Yes, this will be on the final!



Who Knows the Mississippi River Best? What Difference Does it Make?

A recent blog post on rulemaking for the Mississippi River corridor through the Twin Cities generated some comments, both to the blog itself, and to the Facebook notice of the blog post.  This is great; one of the important functions of the River Talk blog is to inspire discussions.

PN present 4These comments raised for me the question:  Who knows the River best?  Arguments that one or another group has “undue influence” or “knows the river best because…” are vital because the Mississippi needs all of the concerned citizens we can rally to it.  But I have to add, when I see that a group “speaks for the River,” I just have to ask: “How did the River ask you to speak for it?”

To take another perspective, a scientist friend of mine recently told a group we were meeting with “The Mississippi River doesn’t have a crisis.  It simply is; it’s us who is having a crisis about the Mississippi.”

Well now.  That’s not a perspective I hear every day, though it may well be true.  (How would you ask the Mississippi how it feels?  Some people do believe the river is a sentient being.)

St Paul MarinaThe basis for claims to know the river are pretty interesting.  Do we know the river best when we:

  • spend a lot of time on the water, and know it through long experience boating?
  • study its hydrology and understand the variations in its flows?
  • know the life cycles and connectivities among the animals and plants that live on, in, and beside it?
  • spend our careers studying it, protecting it through regulatory and political/legal actions and advocacy work?

Seems to me that “all of the above, plus more” might be the best answer.

If that’s too wishy-washy, as it legitimately could be to many, then I will offer this: it depends on the context where knowledge is needed.  In the context spoken of in the earlier blog post, processes whereby communities and other organizations establish development rules for the cities along the river in this part of the world, I would suggest that scientific and urban design knowledge would be vital, and that we need both local points of view that see the river as an economic force in a local community and a bigger perspective that understands the river as a national and internationally significant landscape.

At that point, we need to fall back to a process that ensures sides are heard and feel that they have been taken seriously.  Should a local community act completely in its own self interest, and thereby perhaps harming the great commons that is the river?  Multiple perspectives need to be heard.

Once again, then, it seems that we need to have strong community expression that is clear, yet subtle and significant, which informs governance structures that are fair.  Both should be informed by solid science where appropriate.

That won’t solve controversy, which is as much about local circumstance as anything else, often enough.  But it’s not my hope to solve controversy, but to stimulate more, and better discussion.

As before, comments welcomed!  Guest posts are also available–get in touch with me at to talk about how to set one up.

Minnesota’s Clean Water Legacy Amendment: Impact at National Scale to Undo a Century of Degradation

November 13, 2013Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, PlanningComments Off

A week ago yesterday was Election Day, which I personally barely noticed because I had not been inundated with television ads telling me that [whoever the ad's opponent is] threatens the very basis of democracy as we know it.  For once, we weren’t being told that this election is The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime.

The lack of attention to this year’s election should not let us overlook the truly remarkable election results in Minnesota five years ago.  In 2008, Minnesotans voted to raise taxes on themselves to provide a steady 25 year source of funds to improve water quality, enhance parks, recreation, trails, and wildlife habitat, and support arts and cultural heritage work.

This remarkable achievement, known in shorthand as the “Legacy Amendment,” has allowed government agencies concerned with water quality to take a longer view in addressing the state’s needs, rather than only being able to respond to crises after they occur.  The first step was to develop a Water Sustainability Framework to identify key challenges, define the most urgent research, governance and planning needs to meet those challenges, and to serve as a guide for ongoing investment.

The work is bearing fruit.  Last week, in recognition of this five year anniversary, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a press statement describing some of the more innovative and visible long term efforts to enhance water quality in certain parts of the state.  These include:

  • more detailed water quality monitoring at a watershed scale, rather than just along individual sections of selected streams;
  • a long term program of restoration and cleanup in the St. Louis River, near Duluth;
  • continued detailed attention to the ongoing efforts to clean up the Minnesota River.

The Minnesota River is one of the largest single sources of the nutrients that make up the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.  The St. Louis River, which empties into Lake Superior, has suffered extensive damage from industrial uses for the past 130 years.  It is fair to say, then, that the Clean Water Legacy Amendment is having an important effect at the national scale and is working to reverse better than a century of degradation.

Maybe the 2008 election, at least in Minnesota, really WAS The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime!

Who (Should) Make the Rules for the Mississippi River?

Nicollet Island and the Hennepin Avenue BridgeOf course, anyone who has thought about this for more than about a minute and a half would realize that a river the size of the Mississippi makes its own rules.  As my friend Karen Campbell used to say “Even dams are really just long term experiments on rivers.”

Nevertheless we are humans, so we have to try to impose our will on natural systems, and the Mississippi is no exception.  It serves us well; we serve it much less well.  In the metropolitan Twin Cities region, efforts to align the goals of a population now numbering about 3 million with the living system of the Mississippi really began in the 1970s, although there were some notable urban design efforts before then.  The 1970s saw the establishment of the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities as the state’s first “Critical Area,” which set in motion all kinds of activity that continues to this day.

I’ll try to keep this short, I promise.  In the United States, land use decisions are typically managed at the local level.  Matters such as community planning, zoning, and related special studies are done by cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, or counties rather than by states, for the most part.

In the 1970s, the State of Minnesota recognized that the Mississippi River, a regional landscape with statewide, even national and international, significance, was being altered by locally-based zoning and planning decisions.  A community might allow a tall apartment building to be constructed along the river corridor, which made for great views, high value apartments, and a good addition to the tax base, but was a visual intrusion.  Or another community might allow development to take place right up to the shoreline, thereby ensuring that lawns would get established at the river edge, with damaging impacts on water quality.

The details of how cities administer the river corridor under their planning and zoning purview are worked out through state administrative rules.  After a disastrous effort a couple of years ago to revise these rules, the state Department of Natural Resources is trying again, this time with an approach that is much more responsive to local governments.  Local governments appear to be responding well to the new process; when you read this article closely, you’ll see lots of language to the effect that local government control is better than “having the state tell us what to do.”

But there lies the rub: as a landscape corridor of statewide and now designated national significance (this stretch of the Mississippi was added to the National Park System in 1988) there must be a strong role for government above the local level and for advocacy groups and other interested parties of all kinds.  If local governments can do with the Mississippi River corridor what they please, then it won’t be long before this mythic river looks like every other ignored, mistreated urban river.

Yes, I am that pessimistic.  I would love to be persuaded otherwise though, and welcome the discussion about appropriate balance of governance authority on such a world-class landscape as the Mississippi River.  This is difficult stuff, and I don’t have an answer ready at hand, so am hoping to hear from you, through comments on the blog, tweets to @RiverLifeUMN, on Facebook, or all three.


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