University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

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 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 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.

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.

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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