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RIVER LIFE

Minnesota’s Water Future–One Perspective

Last week I gave a talk at the convention of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIAMN).  The room was full and the audience was attentive, asking thoughtful, informed questions about the ways design in urban space can have an impact on water.  I was pleased to give the talk and thank the AIAMN folks for offering me the platform.

I won’t go through the whole thing here–it was a 90 minute talk after all.  The abbreviated version is that I used the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities as a proxy for water in urban design, and encouraged the audience to think of water as more than an aesthetic dimension to the space they are shaping.  An abundant supply of clean water will be integral to our urban future.

We also spent some time talking about the Mississippi River Critical Area Program, managed by the state Department of Natural Resources in an effort to protect multiple resource values associated with the urban Mississippi River.  The present iteration of the program pays some attention to water quality, but I argued that we need a more robust way for planners, hydrologists, and designers to pool their collective talents.

I closed with some hopes/guesses about Minnesota’s water future.  After all, that was the title of the talk they signed up to hear, right?  I suggest that in Minnesota’s water future:

  • We will design cities as if rivers and water really matter, and that in order to do this, water management will be an important part of every professional designer’s training;
  • Actions such as throwing trash or pet leavings down storm sewers will be regarded as socially unacceptable, as will blowing/raking leaves or grass clippings into the gutter, where they wash down the storm sewers into the nearby water body;
  • Events such as the rain storms we had here last June, which dropped record amounts of rainfall across most of the Twin Cities region, will be expected, and preparing for them will be part of civic planning and design, rather than aberrant emergencies that disrupt our lives and cost millions of dollars to clean up after;
  • Children will know their watershed address, where their water comes from and where it goes after they have used it, in much the way they now know their street address and how to navigate their town to get to school.

I will add one additional point here, and that is to suggest that these concepts will be applicable to all children, in all parts of the city and region, not just a few who have particular advantages.  It’s going to take all of us to manage our water future.

Busy Day for News about Rivers

Sometimes it’s like that:  there will be a series of stories coming through the Google Alert thread that pertain to our river subjects.  Sometimes, of course, there’s a lot of news but it all pertains to bass tournaments and so forth, We aren’t (yet?) writing about bass tournaments.

In northeastern Wisconsin, a plan to build a transport system that will allow boats to bypass a closed lock is causing concern.  Even though there are several steps proposed that would supposedly clean boats passing through the system, as described in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, many people are wondering who would be benefited and what the risks would be in bypassing the lock.  Currently the lock separates waters from Lake Michigan from waters in the Lake Winnebago system, an important Wisconsin sport fishery.  Invasive species of concern include the sea lamprey, round goby and quagga mussel.

Farther south, the Sierra Club’s Three Rivers Project will team up with American Waters and the 1Mississippi campaign for a river cleanup on Saturday November 22 (must be a lot warmer there than here!).  The Three Rivers Project hosts the regional outreach assistant employed by the Mississippi River Network to develop the 1Mississippi campaign.  The purpose of 1Mississippi is to recruit 20,000 River Citizens, people who are committed to taking action to improve the health of the Mississippi River.  Full disclosure: we are in the process of working out the details to become the 1Mississippi host for the Minnesota-Wisconsin region.

Here in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial board argues that plans for the 130 acre Ford truck plant site in St. Paul should be visionary, modeling what a 21st century community can become.  The site’s location on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River is one of its prime assets, and while there is general agreement that the site can be a model for the direction riverfront development should take, concerns remain on what exactly that direction should look like.  How much public green space is appropriate?  How tall should the buildings be?  What ongoing safeguards will be in place against the site’s polluted history?  The devil’s in the details.

Finally, again from the Star Tribune, there is a story reporting that Minnesota farmers are using more barges to transport their crop this year than usual, owing to the heavy use of rail cars by the North Dakota oil fields.  Navigation use of the Mississippi is a contentious issue, with well established talking points by the barge industry and commodity associations on one side and by large environmental groups on the other.  Both are partly right, in a general way, but the debate really needs to become much more specific and detailed before it can be understood properly.  This article does provide some good contextual details, although the usual platitudes in favor of navigation improvements are included as well.  Still, worth a careful, thoughtful read.

Water Works Park is a Step Forward for Mpls Central Riverfront

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorialized this morning in support of Water Works Park, and for the most part got it right.  This iteration of a design for the west end of the Stone Arch Bridge and the section of West River Parkway for a block or so on either side is pretty good.  It gets the most important element of any design for this place–protecting the historic water management system that pulled Mississippi River water out of the channel to power the mills–right through excavating and highlighting those structures.  It moves the proposed new building, which rightly provides amenities such as restrooms and food service, away from the river and immediate falls area.  It solves, at least for a while, the traffic confusion that has bicyclists, walkers, joggers, car drivers, and wedding photographers all sharing the same space, with sometimes fractious results.

We still need to see how a plethora of details are going to get solved, such as what kind of vegetative cover will go where.  I’m not sure the closing of the adjacent Upper St. Anthony Lock has been adequately accounted for (the material is long on marketing sizzle, and not as strong in contextual process as a wonk like me would like).  But this is arguably one of the most historically significant acres in Minnesota, so taking the time to think it through extremely carefully is certainly warranted.

Water In Minnesota–St. Anthony Falls

Last week we posted a short summary and links to some of the key University of Minnesota departments, institutes and centers associated with the study of water.  Today, we want to highlight one of our community partners, Mill City Times, which is a “go to” source for knowing what’s what on the Minneapolis Central Riverfront.

Anyone who has a serious, multidimensional interest in the future of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis needs to know what is taking place in the Central Riverfront.  Here is where the Upper St. Anthony Lock will close in the next few months, and where a number of hydroelectric projects are in various stages of review.  Very particular land use and design and planning decisions are being made here that will affect the perception, feel, and attractiveness of the public space at the city’s “front door” for decades to come.  From the plans for “Waterworks Park” to neighborhood association meetings, Mill City Times has announcements of what’s upcoming and comments on what has happened recently.

Bookmark the site, subscribe to the newsletter, follow it on Facebook or Twitter; if you’re serious about knowing the central riverfront, you can’t afford not to know what’s being written about in the Mill City Times.

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

August 19, 2014Patrick NunnallyFeatured, Planning, River IssuesComments Off
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

August 14, 2014Patrick NunnallyEngagement, PlanningComments Off

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

August 7, 2014Patrick NunnallyFeatured, Planning, River IssuesComments Off

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?).

Contact Us!
Send us a note at rvrlife@umn.edu to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
River Life in Video
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