University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Flood (noun): Water Where We Don’t Want It

Most readers of this blog know that the Mississippi and its northernmost tributaries are flooding, and that this year’s excessive rainfall has made the flooding worse than most years.

Dennis Anderson’s column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune takes the occasion of the floods, and president Obama’s recent trip to the Twin Cities, as an opportunity to talk about a nexus of land-water-politics/policy that is not well known.

Anderson takes a while to warm up to his real subject, which is the inadequacy of Minnesota’s policies and regulatory structures around agriculture and water.  Yes, he concedes, many farmers are trying to do better about farming as if water matters.  However,

Yet it remains true that we, as a state, treat water as if its clean, abundant flow — surface and subsurface — is guaranteed forever.

It’s not.

Ask California. Or Texas.

We aren’t California or Texas (yet) here in the Upper Midwest, but we persist in dumping water and sediment and noxious chemicals downstream without real accountability.  We manage our land, both urban and rural,  to move water off it as rapidly as possible.  Our federal and state laws encourage the complete commodification of land and water and food, instead of treating them as legacies bequeathed from our ancestors and borrowed from our children.

We have to do better.

“How Long Can You Tread Water?” Some Minnesotans May be Finding Out

June 19, 2014Patrick NunnallyFeatured, PlanningComments Off

The question in the headline here comes from an old Bill Cosby routine where God is persuading Noah to build an ark.  Noah, as portrayed by Cosby, demurs, asking “Well, really, how long will this flood last?”  God, also Cosby in his Biggest, Deepest, Most Portentous voice responds “How long can you tread water?”

OK, it was funny 50 years ago.

Thursday, a new record for rainfall was set at MSP airport, just over 3 inches by noon.  Some parts of the state have received half of a normal year’s rainfall in the past week.  Farm fields are getting washed out, and many streets and highways are flooded across the state.

The floods raise challenging questions about the designed capacity of our storm water systems.  Engineers design storm water removal (more about that in a moment) systems to handle storms up to a certain volume, which is typically gauged to historical norms.  In the Twin Cities, I think it’s something like a 1.5 inch rain event.  Much over this, as we have had all week here, means the water has to go somewhere, and we end up with spectacular (and dangerous) floods.

Some would argue that one of the hallmarks of our changing climate is heavier rainstorms, so future storm water systems need to be built for a larger capacity.

Instead, I wonder why we treat water as a problem, to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible.  How can we retrofit parts of our cities so that water stays where it falls, infiltrating and recharging aquifers?  What would be the secondary consequences of such a change, i.e. how would our whole water system begin to look and function differently if we weren’t designing it to be a “water interstate,” mindlessly moving maximum volumes?

While you ponder on that, take a look at some of these urban water photos, picked up from our Twitter stream, which itself was running at pretty maximum volume Thursday.

Restoring a River, 2,000 Trees at a Time

It’s becoming an article of faith among many professionals that “ecological restoration” is impossible, or, at best, a lot more complex than we used to think.  The most recent culprit for the “impossible” argument is climate change, which can alter a region’s hydrology so thoroughly that other biological and physical processes are irreparably changed as well.

A recent “Earth Journal” column in suggests there may be strong evidence for the “very difficult but not impossible” understanding of ecosystem restoration.  Writer Ron Meador interviewed Maria DeLaundreau, a Minnesota Green Corps participant hosted by the Mississippi River Fund, about her work restoring cottonwoods to the Mississippi River floodplain.

Cottonwoods are important, not least because they are large enough to be prime nesting sites for bald eagles.  Perhaps less well known, though, are the ways in which cottonwoods fix floodplain soil and, while water is high, provide important fish habitat.

But it’s that very high water that may be one of the primary reasons why cottonwoods seem not to be reproducing.  According to DeLaundreau, a 2011 National Park Service survey indicated that there may not have been reproducing cottonwood stocks for the past two decades or so.  Since cottonwoods have little direct commercial value, forestry studies have largely not explored why stands may be dying out.

To many of us city dwellers, the Mississippi River flood plain looks healthy, with robust stands of vegetation, a big river flowing south, and occasional boating traffic.  And it’s not the case that the floodplain is dying, exactly, but rather that its complexity is being reduced and the systems that make up a healthy ecosystem are being simplified.

Perhaps this is our best approach river restoration: one key piece at a time.  Aldo Leopold said that “to keep every cog and wheel is the first requirement of intelligent tinkering.”  The second requirement might then be “think of the system before trying to put any single part back in place.”


St. Anthony Lock to Close: Now What?

On Tuesday, President Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) into law.  Mark Gorman at the Northeast-Midwest Institute has posted a summary from one of the national environmental news services.  WRRDA sets federal policies on inland waterways such as the Mississippi River and its tributaries for a number of years; this is a big deal.

Close to home, a section of the Act stipulates that Upper St. Anthony Lock will be closed on or before June 10, 2015; statutory language is “a year from enactment of the law.” This is also a big deal.  The decision is being widely touted as the most important action that can be taken to stop the spread of invasive carp into the lakes region of Minnesota.

Maybe so, but clearly efforts to stop the invasive fish farther downstream must continue.  We can’t simply let the carp get all the way to Pool 2, in St. Paul, and then say “that’s far enough.”  It remains to be seen, though, how urgent the carp are as a priority now that the lock will be closed.

Other things remain to be seen as well.  To my knowledge, this is one of only a very few times that a lock has been ordered closed on a navigable river.  The circumstance gives us an unparalleled opportunity to study how the Mississippi River works and to develop future river management approaches based on scientific investigations.  For example:

  • The Corps of Engineers has indicated that dredging for channel maintenance will stop above Pool 2 (the Ford Lock and Dam).  Will lack of dredging mean that sediment will fill in the riverbed?  Probably not, but if sediment isn’t dredged out, how will the river array it across the bed?  What will be the impacts for fish habitat on the riverbed if there is a lot more sand and silt and less rock?
  • With the end of commercial navigation and large tow boats and barges on this stretch of the river, what will be impacts on streambank erosion?
  • If the lock opens only occasionally for emergencies, or not at all, what might be the impacts on fish migration?  There are currently more diverse populations of mussels above the falls than there were before the lock opened in the 1960s, because the ability of fish to bypass the falls has meant that larval mussels transported by those fish could likewise move upstream.  What are the impacts of that upstream movement being stopped?

These are just three of the numerous questions that scientific investigation of the river system at the point of lock closure can answer.  Closing the lock represents a major change in the management of the river, with associated alterations of the river’s hydrological and ecological patterns that are unknown.  Prudent management of the Mississippi in the Twin Cities would suggest that a program of research be undertaken immediately in order to establish baseline conditions at the point of lock closure and develop indicators of key trends and patterns that can be monitored further.

The impetus to close the lock was the threat of invasive carp.  But the carp are just four species among hundreds found in this stretch of the Mississippi.  Closing the lock is not itself enough to restore the river’s health, but it’s an important step.  Now we need to do systematic science to understand what additional steps will further enhance progress toward a healthy river.

Stewardship on a Land Grant University

“What is special about this place?” asked Andrew Caddock, senior planner at the University’s Capital Planning and Project Management department. Standing outside of Elliot Hall with spacious views of the University’s historical knoll area, Water Walkers began spouting out answers—“We’re at a bend in the river, right downstream from the only natural falls on the length of the Mississippi”, “There’s good views of downtown”, “The historical buildings and old trees”.  It’s obvious to anyone who has been on campus that we have an exceptional location full of historical landscapes and great architecture right along the Mississippi River, but how did we get so lucky?

The truth is it has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with stewardship. On May 13th we gathered for a Water Walk with Andrew Caddock to discuss how the University’s roots as a land grant institution relates to the River, and how ongoing stewardship and management can help preserve both the historical and natural legacy on campus.

As a Land Grant institution, Caddock explained that the University was given federal land for a public college to expand higher education to the industrial classes as part of the Morrill act of 1862. Impressed by the landscape architect designing Minneapolis’ park system, the University’s first president, William Folwell hired Horace W.S. Cleveland to create a comprehensive plan for campus development. With a passion to secure land around natural resources, Cleveland pursued his vision of a park-like campus where buildings fit in with the landscape. Taking the strengths of the bluffs along the river and eclectic array of historical buildings, Cleveland’s concept was used to guide the development of campus until Northrop Mall was planned in the 1920s.

Developing land with landscapes in mind is at the heart of the University’s most recent master plan for development. Under the 2009 plan, the University is working to take advantage of its location on the Mississippi by maximizing the views of the river when appropriate. Everything from roads, water management infrastructure, buildings, and construction plans must first be evaluated against the master plan to determine whether the project aligns with the plan’s goals.

Building and operating along the river has an environmental impact. So what is the University doing to care for water that comes off its campuses? —A lot actually. The University’s precise storm water practices are implemented into the larger design of campus.  From permeable surfaces of parking lots, roads, and roofs, to a substantial treatment system underground that infiltrates into the river at water level, the University’s system has a sophisticated cleaning capacity.

Preserving the historical and natural legacy on campus is a deliberate and thoughtful process. Like the U’s storm water practices, “Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening”.

“Yes, and…” Student Projects Expand Our Visions

May 19, 2014Patrick NunnallyEngagement, PlanningComments Off

I was fortunate to hear three of the Masters capstone thesis project presentations from our Department of Landscape Architecture last week.  These imaginative pieces, all concerned with urban waters, illustrate how well a new generation of professionals is engaging very broad questions through close examination and design of a particular site.

Newtown Creek, on the border between Brooklyn and Queens, flooded its surrounding neighborhood badly during Superstorm Sandy a couple of years ago.  Rehabilitation efforts have been hindered by polluted sites, legacies of industrial use that have been historically the dominant identity of the area but that are not central to the its  future.  So the big question student Solange Guillaume posed is how a site’s pollution can be remedied, the water that is central to the area protected from further pollution, all the while providing public landscapes and open space for the surrounding neighborhood, which is very densely populated and low income.

Erin Garnass-Holmes poses similar questions in his study of the Anacostia River, in Washington, DC.  Garnass-Homes’ site is a Superfund site, owing largely to its having been the location of trash dumping and storing for at least 70 years.  Remedies to the site’s physical contamination have to take into account issues of environmental justice; the nearby neighborhoods are among the most-impoverished in the region, and are very poorly served if “open space” is simply the answer to remediation efforts at this former dump.  Garnass-Holmes asks: What will this place be in 50 years, and how can it serve to remedy the legacy of inequality that created it in the first place?

The question of legacy is also part of Amber Hill’s concerns with the riverfront in Cedar Rapids Iowa.  After suffering devastating floods in 1993 and 2008, the community has worked with state and federal agencies, as well as private design firms, to develop a new vision for the river corridor  that runs through the heart of the city.  Hill’s addition to that work focuses heavily on creating a memorial, monumental landscape that pays tribute to people whose lives have been shattered by these floods.

The students’ focus on environmental justice and the populations surrounding these sites is admirable, and a welcome move away from just designing a pretty place with no thought for the surrounding context.  As they advance in their careers, the impacts of a changing climate will become an increasing part of the complex issues their work will need to face.  With a changing climate, of course, will come changing responses to phenomena such as floods.  For example, in the Cedar Rapids of 2064, 50 years from now, the flood levels seen in 1993 and 2008 may be regular patterns, the natural consequence of locating cities on rivers.  We’ll tell different stories about these floods, not the “heroism in the face of disaster” narratives that accompany “natural disasters,” perhaps, but stories as yet to be formulated.

Our designers will help forge both those stories of what it means to live with rivers, but also the means by which we do so.

And So It Begins: Upper St. Anthony Lock to Close in 2015?

Buried in today’s newspaper article about progress on the federal water infrastructure bill is this sentence:  ”The lock and dam would close one year after the legislation is enacted.”  Passage of the bill is considered a shoo-in, and likely to happen in the next week or so, which would mark sometime in 2015 as seeing the closing of the Upper Lock at St. Anthony Falls.

I have to say, if this does happen on that timetable, it will be much faster than I thought it could be done.  Good thing I don’t make my living guessing about Congress!

The timetable offers a window into a deeper set of questions:  what next, and what needs to be thought of, by whom?  Read the article and you’ll recognize that opinions are sharply divided on the advisability of this closure.

Here’s my invitation/request:  write a Comment (keep it civil) making the case for what we should be thinking about, learning, researching, considering right now since the lock closure is apparently imminent.  I have participated in a couple of conversations about this, so I know there’s thinking going on.

The timetable for closing the lock should begin shortly; let’s spend that time thinking clearly about what is being done, what are the advantages, what are the disadvantages, what additional opportunities may be opened, what constraints should we be careful of.  Environmental issues, economic issues, social implications, educational opportunities–all seem reasonable subjects.

I look forward to learning from you.


Not a Great Week for the Mississippi River’s Indigenous Landscapes

May 12, 2014Patrick NunnallyInclusion, PlanningComments Off

Most of us know that people have lived in the Mississippi River valley for millennia.  Some of us know that indigenous people are still in the valley, living in every state, every city, from the headwaters in northern Minnesota to the Gulf.  A more complete discussion of that theme awaits future posts.

Meanwhile, it was a disappointing week for news of some of the most visible sites in the valley that are associated with indigenous people.  At Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa, National Park Service reports document that illegal construction projects (by the Park Service) have damaged the site.  At the other end of the river, Poverty Point Historic Site in Louisiana has met a roadblock in the process to have it added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

There may be a pattern, or some larger meaning at work here.  In the Iowa case, it appears that park managers repeatedly ignored laws that required consultation with Indian tribes and others before construction projects were undertaken.  As a result, boardwalks have been built, trails and a maintenance shed constructed, without proper review to mitigate damage to heritage resources.

The case of Poverty Point is a little more complex.  Apparently the UNESCO committee that reviews applications agrees the site has “outstanding universal value,” but also sees the site as compromised by the presence of a state highway and the lack of land use regulations that would protect it from further encroachment.  US and Louisiana officials say they are committed to the site’s being inscribed on the list, so stay tuned.

While it is encouraging that Poverty Point is being considered for world heritage status, and that Effigy Mounds is a National Monument (and thereby a unit of the National Park Service) we can hope that administrative and planning safeguards on places representative of indigenous heritage would be so strong that there would be no question about protection.  As the Poverty Point article notes, inscription on the World Heritage list would put the site in the conversation with iconic places such as Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt.

Certainly the great indigenous places of the Mississippi River valley deserve no less.

While we’re at it, what makes us think that we have identified all of the places in the valley important to indigenous people?  That list, and a more refined sense of how these significant places should be treated, is sorely needed.

How Things Change: Slowly, With Several Complementary Tactics

The Minneapolis Star Tribune posted an article this week that continues discussion of the connections between farmland runoff and river pollution in important new ways.  Well, maybe “new” to me, but obvious and well known to everyone else.

Here’s the deal: despite being the only state in the country that mandates the preservation of a 50 foot vegetated buffer along all streams and rivers, most of the affected waters are not buffered.  A detailed aerial survey shows that some small watersheds in the agricultural part of the state have practically no buffers, while others have achieved 100% coverage.

What gives with this distinction?

In most cases, it turns out to be a matter of the priorities a county puts on the issue.  The state agencies responsible are reluctant to come down hard on counties, although many clean water advocates think the state should do more.  Some counties and watershed districts simply don’t know the law, while others are reluctant to ruffle feathers in small communities by pushing for action from individual farmer/neighbors.

Blue Earth County, on the other hand, recognizes that “our rivers are highly valued,” to quote a county land use planner.  Blue Earth County officials targeted over 300 landowners whose buffers needed improvement and so far about 2/3 have responded well.  Persuading the laggards, though, is the hard part, and this particular official suggests that the county’s policy makers and county attorney’s office need to be committed here as well.

And that gets to the heart of the matter, a place where complexity reigns.  County officials feel the need for a push from the state, while state officials are reluctant to overreach.  Within a county, different offices have to share the commitment for change.  All of these conditions can be met when the value of rivers is better recognized and more widely shared.

Sounds simple, but the arguments to value rivers will differ with local conditions.  Understanding and responding to those conditions is a matter of listening, listening again, and then working together for change.

What Can Be Ironic About Asian Carp?

Leaping Silver CarpI’m guessing it was about 25-30 years ago (think David Letterman in his early “Late Show” snarkiness) when it seemed that irony would be the trope that defined the age.  Whatever came along, there was a smart-aleck putdown, a side comment, a mocking dismissal, all of which served to establish superiority of the mocker over the mockee.

Some called this “irony”: I’m not so sure, seemed pretty sophomoric to me.  Thinking like the English major that I was then, irony was more along the lines of “whoa, didn’t see that coming,” most especially when the unexpected turn of events led to a whole new perspective on the subject at hand.

It’s that “whole new perspective” thing that is what’s “ironic” about our “Irony of Carp” program.  We are not at all suggesting that the invasive carps are not a serious issue, and we are not looking for laughs here either.  The intent of our program is to leave the audience reflecting “I never thought of it that way before.  Maybe I should look into this further.”

I think that’s one of our jobs at a university, to invite people to think more broadly and more deeply than they might otherwise.  Brian Ickes, from whom we borrowed the title to the program, certainly does so with his featured talk.  Our panel will be likewise provocative.  What might we mean by “resilience,” a term that is thrown around pretty loosely these days?  When we say the carp are going to destroy the “natural” processes of the river, we know what we mean by “nature,” right?  Clearly, community engagement is simply a matter of rallying the public to take advocacy action.

Or is it?  We feel that these assumptions and questions should be asked, and that robust conversation about them along with direct advocacy action is what’s necessary to rally our communities to address our changing river, and water, issues.

Of course another part of our university responsibility is providing access to reliable information.  If your reflection in the issues associated with carps has you hungry for more information, you might start with these web sites:

We’ll pick up the issue from time to time, of course, but with so many other first rate sources of information, we’re just as likely to be reporting on what they have as contributing new insights ourselves.  Still, we’ll post something from the “Irony of Carp” session, just to say we did.

(Bad effort at ’80s dismissive attitude there, closing the loop to the top of the post!)

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River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation