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!
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.
These 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.)
The 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 firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about how to set one up.
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!
Of 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.
A week ago, the Freshwater Society and the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota sponsored the most recent lecture in the Moos Family Lecture Series, highlighting challenges to water issues in the region. Dr. Duane Chapman spoke on “The Biology and Management of Asian Carps: Lessons for Minnesota.”
Not surprisingly, the lessons were mixed, although the news coverage in MinnPost.com and other online sources led with optimism, “Asian carp can be controlled,” for example. That much is certainly true; Chapman made the point very clearly that the carps are not an unstoppable force of Armageddon inexorably moving north and threatening to undo decades of work making our rivers attractive and accessible.
Which is by no means to say that we should stop our vigilance against the invasive fish. Wherever populations have become established, very substantial changes to the aquatic ecology have followed. The changes have been different in rivers from lakes, and vary by species of carp and the part of the previous ecosystem that has been most affected. But make no mistake: the carps that are coming are trouble, and we need to continue policy efforts, research agendas, and communication campaigns to prepare for their coming.
Chapman’s lecture, and the panel discussion that followed, were both well worth hearing, and if you missed the event last week, you’re in luck because the Freshwater Society has a video of the talk and slides available on its web site. Some of my key takeaways, which should by no means be understood as a complete sense of the argument, included:
- we need to know a lot more about the biology of these fish, the physical environment (water temperature, speed, bed surfaces) they live in, and the ecology around them (what eats them? what do they eat?);
- these subjects aren’t rocket science; they’re much harder, because there are so many moving parts, all of which adjust as other conditions adjust;
- some of the four carps species can probably arrive in the Twin Cities river environments (which include the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix rivers), and can probably survive, but the capacity to reproduce and establish a reproducing population is quite unknown at this time;
- the carps seem to require floodplain lakes as habitats where the juveniles grow the most. These lakes would thus seem to be good places to target anti-carps measures;
- we don’t know if areas of the Minnesota River upstream of the Twin Cities might be more susceptible to them than the Twin Cities itself. In other words, the Mississippi River in Pool 2 (St. Paul to Hastings) might not be a good place for them to get established, but they may be able to pass through Pool 2 and establish damaging populations in the Minnesota River, which comes into the Mississippi near the MSP airport;
- south of here, in the Illinois River where carp infestations have become legendary on YouTube, hundreds of thousands of fish are removed every day by commercial fishermen. This effort seems to be having some results, as the average size of the fish being taken has gotten smaller.
- We have some time in Minnesota to be working on this, and now is the time to be working. If we wait until they’re a problem, then the damage is done. (My emphasis).
A good place to learn what individuals can do in the Asian carps struggle is the web site of the Stop Carp Coalition, The federal government, which has a number of agencies working on various aspects of the problem has a web site clearinghouse of information, but that site is unfortunately unavailable right now because of the government shutdown.
Last week, I gave a presentation at the Upper Mississippi River Conference, hosted in Davenport IA by our good friends at River Action and some of their local partners. The theme of the conference was “collaboration,” and I was asked to talk about the ongoing redevelopment efforts at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. It’s an opportune time to focus on this area because the Minneapolis Park Board is undertaking a Central Riverfront Master Planning process, which is likely to shape investment in the area for the next decade or more.
Current work to envision the future of the riverfront around St. Anthony Falls has a long history. In 1972, the City of Minneapolis developed a plan “Mississippi/Minneapolis,” which was the initial blueprint for redevelopment in this area of abandoned, obsolete industrial and transportation infrastructure. By nearly any measure, the next four decades have been wildly successful. According to statistics offered by the City:
- public investment of $338 million has leveraged private investment approaching $1.9 billion;
- there have been 7,000 jobs created and/or saved over this 40 year stretch;
- Estimated Market Value for real estate in the West Side Mill District has grown from $25 million in 1994 to $475 million in 2012;
- where in 1980 there were 7 housing units in the West Side Mill District, there are now 1,250;
- dozens of businesses, small and large, have opened, including such destination attractions as the Guthrie Theater, the Mill City Museum (Minnesota Historical Society) and the Stone Arch Bridge linking east and west sides of the river;
- the Central Minneapolis Riverfront Regional Park draws over a million visitors a year.
As planning and development enter a fifth decade, there remain challenges, of course. Besides the perennial search for adequate funding, here are a few longer term, more structural issues that agencies working in this area face:
- the area does not yet attract a substantial visitorship from nearby communities and neighborhoods, particularly from people who may be recent immigrants to the country, or who may not have English as their first language, or from students at the nearby University of Minnesota;
- the area has for millennia been important to indigenous people here, particularly the Dakota, but that presence and importance is invisible. What are some strategies to build relationships with those communities so that appropriate visibility can be developed?
- the importance of this place has always been connected to the power of the river here, at the only waterfall on the entire length of the Mississippi River. But we know very little about how the water actually works, what it contains, whether it can (or should) be made accessible for swimming, etc.
- Finally, climate change and the potential encroachment of invasive aquatic species such as Asian carp are long term variables that could fundamentally change the ways people inhabit and interact with the river in this particular place.
There are many more immediate issues that keep planners and managers burning the midnight oil. Despite these challenges, the Minneapolis Central Riverfront remains a place of regional, national, and perhaps even world, significance. Along the Mississippi River, it is one of perhaps a half dozen urban sites where the shared future of our cities on rivers is being worked out. As a lab and “pilot project” for developing a city as if the river matters, Minneapolis is worth continued close examination.
Last week I posted about the need for better, more nuanced, thinking on the issue of whether or not to close navigation locks on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis to guard against the spread of Asian carp. Well, I’m quite sure that the editors at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune weren’t listening to me, but they did publish a story last week that gave considerable breadth and complexity to the issue.
Some points of particular note:
- Congresswoman Betty McCollum of St. Paul is lukewarm in her support of Minneapolis lock closure as the primary response to the threat from carp. If the response to the threat is just closing Minneapolis locks, that strategy essentially concedes St. Paul’s stretch of the river to the invasive fish. McCollum’s preferred plan, also in a proposed bill, would undertake a more comprehensive research and policy analysis that would attempt to thwart carp as far downstream as possible,
- The potential for lock closure in Minneapolis is being watched closely by people monitoring the advance of Asian carp up the Illinois River toward Chicago and the Great Lakes. There, a pitched battle is being fought in courts, in industry and Congressional offices, and in the “court of public opinion” about the question of “re-reversing” the Chicago River and establishing a permanent physical barrier to the carp. The Minneapolis bill attempts to sidestep the controversial proposal to close locks on the basis of threats from carp by tying lock closure to traffic counts. If the traffic through St. Anthony Falls locks drops below a certain volume, then the process to close the locks would start. These locks are at the head of the system, so while there would be some impact on jobs and on transportation alternatives (more trucks on the region’s highways, for example) that impact would be much lighter than closing locks farther downstream
- There’s an urban design and community development angle to the issue as well. One of the industries upstream of St. Anthony Falls that uses the locks is the city’s Upper Harbor Terminal. For a number of years now city staff have been studying the terminal site, and believe that redevelopment of the site would be more in line with the city’s economic and community development strategies
Complexities abound, and this dispute is a long way from being over. Still, the step reported last week–inclusion of lock closure provisions in a federal water resource development bill–represents the strongest effort yet to fight the carp battle by creating a permanent physical barrier on the Mississippi River.
Do you know about the Water Framework Directive? It calls for all waters in the European Union to be managed as river basins and for those river basins to be brought up to “good status.” That’s tremendous – a really forward-looking way to think about managing water. But as you can surely imagine, it’s also quite a task to implement!
I was lucky enough to work with the RISKBASE group during 2009-2010 to help develop risk-based approaches for managers to guide river basins to good status. I’m not an expert in risk, nor an expert about European river basins, but I was really excited to get involved – this had the potential to bring biophysical science together with new management approaches to actually solve problems.
I brought my background in ecosystem services to the table. Ecosystem services are a way of identifying and keeping track of how all the biophysical processes that happen in the environment – plants photosynthesizing, nutrient cycling, water trickling or rushing through a landscape – impact people – having enough food to eat, clean water to drink, and keeping safe from floods.
There are two things I think are especially good about the ecosystem services approach. First, using an ecosystem services framework forces me, as a biophysical scientist, to identify and articulate exactly how changes in the environment affect the things we all like to do in watersheds. So, for example, I have to go a big step further than just saying that some action will change nutrient loading in a river. I have to figure out how much that change is going to affect the drinkability, swimability, or abundance of fish in that river. Second, because ecosystem services can help us articulate the diverse impacts of land use change on the things we care about, it can help us avoid the unintended consequences of changing land use. For example, it’s easy to see the benefits of logging a hillside and selling the timber. Ecosystems services helps illuminate how that change might put a lot of sediment in a river or lake at the bottom of the hill, and how that would affect the people who want to drink, swim, or fish there.
Ecosystem services get a lot of attention for putting monetary values on biophysical processes like the way trees on a hillside help keep soil in place instead of in the river below. And calculating that value can be really useful – it helps us use policy tools we already have, like cost-benefit analysis, to weigh the tradeoff between logging and impacts to the river. But ecosystem services isn’t all about monetary valuation. Lots of times, identifying that there will be impacts to things people care about, and quantifying how big those impacts will be, is enough to help inform decisions.
So how does this all come back to European river basins? I think ecosystem services can be a great way to get people talking productively about all the ways they use a watershed and how that will, or won’t, change if land use or land management changes. All that time and effort we spent working has finally turned into something, too: a book summing up all our work just came out: Risk-Informed Management of European River Basins. I’m excited to see the chapter I led, Ecosystem Services and River Basin Management, finally in print! I hope it provides some guidance and inspiration for folks trying to make rivers all over the world a little bit healthier. Please feel free to be in touch if I can tell you anything more – I’m kbrauman at umn.edu!
A recent article in the online newspaper Minnpost.com highlights an often-overlooked era in Minnesota’s history when the Mississippi River was indeed the “front door” to the state. The article, reprinted from the Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia project, describes how communities such as Red Wing and Winona thrived as shipment points for “King Wheat,” which dominated farming production in southeastern Minnesota. The Mississippi River formed the primary link between Minnesota farming and markets across the country until the coming of the railroads in the 1870s.
After that era, the story is familiar to local historians and river buffs. Minneapolis industrialists figured out how to harness the waterpower at St. Anthony Falls and the falls became the epicenter of flour production for the next several decades. Eventually flour production tailed off, as did use of the Mississippi River as a primary transportation route.
This history is pertinent today, as communities up and down the Mississippi River reinvent their connections to the great river. Up here in the Upper Midwest, the river will most likely never again have the transportation importance it once had, but urban waterfronts remain important parts of community development planning throughout the region. The key question is: can cities redevelop their connection to the Mississippi River in new ways that are more responsive to the river’s status as central to an overtapped, and unstable water system? Or will we continue to follow outdated development models, seeing the river as a constant and unquestioned asset, always there for us to do with as we wish?
The St. Paul Foundation has been managing a campaign that offers $1 million to the best idea that will remake St. Paul. After a winnowing-out process that took the 946 submitted ideas down to 3, and a community vote, the winner was announced this morning. ”Urban Oasis,” a project that proposes renovation of a former warehouse in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary into a local food center, has won the competition.
The four minute video outlining the project is eloquent about the project’s benefits and features Dan McGuiness, one of the most respected Mississippi River advocates in the region. This is an important inclusion; the rehabilitation of the Vento Sanctuary from a 25 acre former rail yard is one of the “pearls on a necklace” of great riverfront open spaces in the Twin Cities. The Sanctuary area has been important to indigenous Dakota people for millennia, and the Urban Oasis project ensures that this site will continue to give life to the region for years yet to come.
The initial news story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press has more details.