University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Carp Expert: They’re Probably Coming, But We Don’t Know What That Means

Leaping Silver CarpA 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 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.



Minneapolis’ Central Riverfront: Rebuilding the City-River Interface for the Long Haul

Central RiverfrontLast 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.

More on Asian Carp–article has complexity and depth

Central RiverfrontLast 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.


Ecosystem Services for River Basin Management – ideas and lessons from Europe

September 18, 2013Kate BraumanPlanning, ScienceComments Off

RiskbaseBookCoverDo 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!


Mississippi River Key to Minnesota’s Recent History

DSC_0862_trimmedA recent article in the online newspaper 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?

Mississippi River is Location for Winning “Forever St. Paul” Idea

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.

Designing a River Campus for Water Sustainability

In some locations, campuses are some of the largest continuous areas of land under single management in a community.  The University of Minnesota, for example, takes up approximately 1300 acres in the Twin Cities, along and immediately upstream of the Mississippi River.  Making changes on the campus to improve water quality in stormwater runoff is therefore a matter of working with just one landowner, rather than the potentially thousands who would have to be persuaded for a comparable urban area elsewhere.

This is why the EPA’s Campus RainWorks challenge is so exciting.  Teams of students at colleges and universities across the country are invited to develop proposals on how to improve water quality and management on their campus.  Winning entries will be awarded cash prizes and some will be offered the chance to develop their proposals further toward implementation grants.

Campuses have a lot of talent, and big comprehensive schools such as the University of Minnesota have schools of planning, design, engineering, and natural sciences.  There is great  potential to develop interdisciplinary, multi-practice proposals that really do illustrate the next generation of urban design.

We really need to do this here at Minnesota–who should be included?

Can We Design Cities as if Rivers Matter?

August 14, 2013Patrick NunnallyPlanningComments Off

You would think this would not be a problem, that is, designing our landscapes as if the rivers that we profess to love really are central to our lives.  Experience of course shows otherwise:  We dedicate all kinds of time and money to advocacy for our rivers, and then live in houses with great green lawns requiring fertilizer and pesticides which wash into and pollute those very same rivers.

But of course we’re contradictory; we’re humans.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has once again taken up the question of how cities can live with rivers.  A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune describes the renewed effort to set up land use rules for the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities metro region. The state designated a “critical area” along the Mississippi corridor in the 1970s and hasn’t really made any revisions to the policy since then.

Of course, in this day and age there is lots of pushback from local governments against state “takeover” of local land use planning authority.  And in the United States land use regulation is a local concern.  Still, the 1970s designation recognized that the Mississippi River in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region is a regional and national asset, an asset which could be threatened by local decisions that were not made with the “river in mind.”

Quick background on the 1970s plan:

  • it works as an “overlay district” appended to local land use plans.  Municipalities (there are some 25 in the corridor) are required to update their corridor plan every few years, and to include the corridor as a special designation in their city planning efforts;
  • it defines categories of resources that are of particular interest: scientific, natural, scenic, historic, cultural, economic, and recreational;
  • it establishes “districts” (urban developed, urban undeveloped, rural undeveloped, etc.) as a way of sorting out where development would be encouraged or discouraged;
  • the boundaries established in the 1970s became the boundaries of a new unit of the National Park Service in 1988 when the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area was established.

So what the Minnesota DNR is doing now is taking a look at how things have changed since the 1970s and what parts of the Critical Area Act might need to be changed also.  Most of the pushback comes from the idea that the original districts should be modified to reflect the region’s growth over the past 35+ years.  Mississippi River advocates, on the other hand, have typically been most fearful of encroachments on the river corridor’s scenic values, contesting the proposed heights of buildings near the river and pushing for more setback requirements and other planning/design regulations to protect the corridor.

Here’s another idea, which probably won’t make anyone very happy:  How can we better protect the Mississippi River as a critically important source of drinking water and other necessary “ecosystem services”?  Can we treat the river as part of a broader regional hydrology rather than just a pretty thing to look at and play on?  Can we use urban design guidelines to enhance water quality and, maybe, make the river and its systems more resilient to alterations from a changing climate?

Now thinking that way would REALLY be “designing as if the river mattered”!

How can we convene that conversation?  Ideas and nominations welcomed!

River is Central to New Park Initiatives

Minneapolis and St. Paul have enjoyed exemplary systems of parks and parkways since the late 19th century.  Beginning in the 1880s, community leaders were inspired by visionaries such as landscape architect Horace William Shaler Cleveland to set aside lands beyond the boundaries of the growing cities, where prices were still affordable.  The ensuing green spaces around lakes served for a while to protect sources of city drinking water as well as provide respite and recreation for the community.

Now, as this article in elaborates, new visionaries are developing park plans for the twenty-first century.  While the article’s title refers to “parks 3.0″ and I’m unsure what “parks 2.0″ was, we’ll just take it to mean “parks for the system’s third century.”

It is abundantly clear that new park planning will be marked by a multifunctional approach and a recognition that parks serve new constituents, who may well desire particular patterns of use that park planners don’t fully understand yet.  It will be important to recognize that park systems must serve the needs of people as well as provide habitat for wildlife and a base for “ecosystem services” on a broad scale.   New demands for features such as urban agriculture are examples of the opportunity and challenge for open space lands to meet new needs.

The article highlights the fact  that the Mississippi River is central to planning in both St. Paul and Minneapolis.  Both cities have just completed and adopted large scale planning frameworks: Riverfirst in Minneapolis and the Great River Passage in St. Paul.  Both of these plans will set the tone for making the Mississippi River once again the “front door” to these cities.

But the river can, and must, be more than just a reclaimed open space or a “destination area.”  We are beginning to recognize  that the Mississippi River itself, and the water system that it is the most visible part of, is increasingly unstable, and is a vital part of the region’s health in many diverse ways.  Riverfront open space is an ideal “field school” for the paradigm shift that is coming with regard to our recognition that we can’t take our water system for granted.  Moreover, these places provide essential learning spaces for us to understand how to live “with” our river system, rather than just “on” the river or “beside” the river.  Here we can learn, and teach, how the rivers actually work, that they are more than just wet features of our urban geography.

The people who can help us with this new learning are all around us, from scientists at local universities and at state and federal resource management agencies to people who have studied and absorbed what the river is for a long time.  And even though there is no mention of this population in the article, our native people, who have lived here for millennia and who are still inhabiting this place, have much to offer us as we try to live better with our water.

Bold new initiatives may well be coming to our rivers, but we would be wise to listen more than we talk; sometimes the boldest way forward is the most subtle and easily-overlooked.

Ecosystem Restoration Part 2: New Dialogues Needed

August 2, 2013Patrick NunnallyPlanning, Science, SustainabilityComments Off

Yesterday’s post offered big, perhaps unanswerable, questions about restoration of ecosystems.  In many respects, our responses to these questions arise as much from some of our core beliefs and values, about the nature of community and responsibility, indeed, the “nature of nature” as they come from our scientific knowledge.

So here’s the thing: powerful responses to questions like these require the development of new ways of thinking and talking.  For example, at one of the conference sessions I attended, the question was raised: “How much ecosystem restoration on the Upper Mississippi River is enough?  How do we know we’re making progress?”  Well, if the answer is posed solely to politicians and managers, the answer might be a variation of “However much we can afford.”  Biologists, on the other hand, may be tempted to respond, “We need to restore enough in order to respond to  these basic questions about biological patterns and indicator species, which could take several decades to answer.”  Local members of the community may think that preserving enough habitat so there will be important experiences, say birdwatching for example, or duck hunting, will be preserved for generations, is enough.

The point is, these are not necessarily mutually exclusive responses, but they almost never are shared, given the present state of fragmented and often opaque discussions about the future of places that we think are important.  All of these groups have to weigh in, and they have to learn to speak together so they can be mutually understood.

I’m not so idealistic that I think this can happen overnight, but I am of a belief that such inclusive, sustainable conversations can be encouraged and developed.  Maybe it will take some time: the next generation of ecosystem restoration specialists will have to be scientists who tell stories and poets who know how ecosystems work.  And both segments will have to be able to make their arguments transparent to the people who manage money and policy.  It won’t be enough, isn’t enough now, really, just to articulate that people care deeply about a particular place.  How can that deeply felt sense of place be articulated in such a way that planning processes are affected and funding decisions altered?

Hard questions, but maybe necessary to shaping the world we want to live in.

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