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RIVER LIFE

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.

 

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.

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?

 

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 http://riverlife.umn.edu/rivertalk/ ) and/or by going directly to the sources in this post.

 

 

 

Keeping Up with Water Issues in Minnesota

I think it’s fair to say that thousands more people in Minnesota are thinking about water than were, say, a year ago.  The second-rainiest June ever certainly got people’s attention, and if not, the floods that all that rain generated certainly did.  White  Bear Lake, in the northeast suburbs of the Twin Cities, has rebounded a couple of feet since its lowest point, but it’s still a long way from “full.”  Putting the matter more directly: there’s still a lot of land between the end of people’s docks and the water.

Not surprisingly, the amount of information available to people who want to become more knowledgeable has also grown.  The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency web site contains basic descriptive data on watersheds, aquifers and other “building blocks” for water education, in addition to regulatory and planning information, guidance on the varying types of monitoring the state and other entities are engaged in, plus much, much more.  This may be a good place to start looking, but there is a LOT here!

A related resource, but one that has its attention focusing forward into the future, is the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework.  The study was undertaken at the request of the legislature to provide guidance for management of funds from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the MN constitution.

These are all highly informative sources, but they are really rather daunting just to dive into (sorry–been resisting water puns this whole post!) without much background.  Instead of these sources, I would start exploring water issues by reading what’s been posted on Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level blog.  Ground Level, which focuses on issues important to Minnesota communities, has been running a series on groundwater “Beneath the Surface” for several months now.  These stories make policy issues specific and visible, describing challenges, best practices, ways communities in other parts of the country are addressing issues comparable to ours, and a host of other topics.

To stay up to date with this most excellent resource, follow @MPRGroundLevel on Twitter.

We’re going to be talking about water in Minnesota for years, even generations.  We really need to get to where our “taken for granted” water bodies like the Mississippi River, Lake Superior, or “our” lake where Grandma’s cabin is, are seen (that is, recognized not just with the eyes of our emotional attachment), known (how do they work), and loved (why do we care?).

Water Challenges in “The Land of 10,000 Lakes”

The fact that there are water challenges in Minnesota should surprise no one, really.  Last week, the Metropolitan Council released preliminary ideas for what might be done to alleviate water shortages in suburban communities on the northeast side of the region, communities that surround the shrinking White Bear Lake.

Coverage of the report is offered through the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  Both are worth reading, as they address different aspects of this continuing story.

This much seems clear:  The solution to “fixing” White Bear Lake (or the surrounding communities) will be expensive, ranging at this point between $155 million and $600+ million.  And the “problem” is complex; we don’t know, without a couple more years of study, exactly where water in the region comes from, where it goes, or what it’s being used for.

Two blog writers, Brendon Slotterback at Streets.mn and John Harrington at My Minnesota, both offer critically important questions and broader policy perspectives.

This story can’t be simplified, which on the whole is probably good.  The Star Tribune story has gotten 214 comments so far; worthy of a close content analysis to see what “the average citizen” is thinking about with regard to water in this “well-watered” state.

With any luck, we won’t be able to take water for granted here much longer.

 

Invasive Carp Found in St. Paul pool of Mississippi

Perhaps it was inevitable that invasive carp would reach the Twin Cities stretch of the Mississippi River, but this weekend’s announcement that two adult females had been caught in Pool 2 (the stretch of the river from Hastings to the Ford dam) seemed oddly muted.

The press release from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says the discovery is “concerning” but that conditions this spring and summer, with many weeks of high water, have been conducive to carp migration.  When the navigation locks and dams are opened for the passage of flood waters, as they have been for much of June and July, strong swimming fish like the invasive carp can migrate.

Of course, there is still a great deal of effort being made to keep the invaders at bay.  Hopefully, these two individuals were outliers that don’t signal a widespread infestation.  Still, the proof is there that the fish can get this far upstream, in case anyone doubted that.

Ironically, this weekend also saw the publication of a story on Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam,  reflecting on the history of efforts to construct this facility, which  will close on or before next June, per stipulation in the most recent Federal waterways law.  Seems the St. Anthony lock never really did make Minneapolis a river shipping hub after all.

Many conclusions are being offered to interpret that fact, in the comments section of the article, and on Twitter.  I’ll leave it up to readers to go chase those perspectives.

For more on the discovery of invasive carp in Pool Two, look here

 

Changing the Game by Changing the Question

July 16, 2014Patrick NunnallyFeatured, PlanningComments Off

My previous post made reference to seemingly-intractable conflicts between “developers” and “preservationists” when it comes to managing urban riverfront corridors.  The case in question is the effort by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to craft new regulations governing land use and building along the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities, known locally as Critical Areas.  Some local governments and related interests see this as a land grab and usurpation of local government rights, while some river advocates argue that too much flexibility will render any regulation meaningless.

And don’t talk to me about “balance”: everyone’s “balance” is at a different point in the spectrum of development and preservation; people still craft the debate as “us vs them.”

Maybe we need to change the question.  This recent article in Ensia focuses on energy use, but the concluding point–that changing what we ask means that we often see new solutions–applies to our riverfront dilemma also, I think.

For one thing, I am not 100% sure I know exactly what the “question” is that Critical Area regulation is asking.  Is it about how to maximize the value of the river for “city building”? About minimizing the impact of the city on the river?  Something else altogether?  Traditionally, both river advocates and local government business development interests see each other as somewhat adversarial.  Notice how both of my questions frame themselves in terms of “maximizing” one side of the equation, or “minimizing” the other.

What if we asked more detailed questions, such as:  What are the qualities of the river corridor that are most important to city developers?  Are the potential residents of riverfront housing wanting unobstructed views?  parks and trails?  Thankfully, after the Clean Water Act, we rarely have to talk about “rivers that don’t catch on fire” as criteria, although less visible pollutants are still a problem.  Likewise, what are the river’s qualities that are most important to advocates?  Can any of those qualities be maintained with development that is designed in a particular way?

I’m not an urban designer (and I don’t play one on TV), but there are many people working at various levels of government and in the private sector throughout the region who have a lot of expertise in this area.  As we recognize that the urban riverfront is an asset for all of us, how about having some more specific conversations about what exactly we hope for and how we can get to that.  Changing the questions can get us off the “us/them,” “preserve/develop” spot that we’ve gotten stuck on.

Where should we start?  What are the questions that come to mind?

Ancient Burial Sites on Mississippi River Bluffs Preserved

Burial mounds overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul have achieved protection through being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  As described in an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, this listing affords a measure of protection against harm from federally funded activities, and also provides protection under Minnesota state laws protecting private cemeteries.  David Mather, National Register archaeologist for the Minnesota Historical Society, noted that the designation is a “past due” recognition of the mound’s significance.

The mounds, which are a small fraction of the original mounds complex, are in public ownership; Mounds Park is owned and managed by the St. Paul Department of Parks and Recreation.  It’s unlikely, then, that we would ever revert to the practices of a century ago when treasures such as these mounds were summarily leveled to make way for modern desires.  Many of the mounds that were removed in the late 19th-early 20th century were taken out to improve the views from newly built, expensive housing in that part of St. Paul.

Conflicts between “preservation” and “development” continue to play out in the Twin Cities Mississippi River corridor.  The state Department of Natural Resources is in the middle of a process to review and revise the regulations governing development along the river corridor for 72 miles through the heart of the cities.  As another recent news story put it, apparently no one is very happy.  Development interests are quoted to the effect that they worry about government intrusion and regulation on local land use measures, while river protection advocates decry “giving up” authority to protect a landscape of national, maybe global, significance.

This article in Minnpost.com provides interesting and helpful context on the debates about development in the river corridor.  In addition, this piece points out that development conflicts are not just over bluff top developments and protection of steep slopes, but also affect the floodplain itself, which has been home to varied settlements of immigrants off and on since the 1870s.

What does all this add up to?  Hard to say, aside from the point, which bears repeating, that the river is an important element of the community and of this place that people have called home for millennia.  It is testament to the river’s power that divergent strongly held opinions are still such a current part of the debates over the river’s future.

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