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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

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!)

A Big Week for Water News in Minnesota

Maybe our recent cold and snow has kept report writers chained to their desks.  Whatever the cause, something has happened, because this week has seen a spate of potentially important news about water in Minnesota.  A sampling:

Results of several studies on the impacts of sulfates in water on wild rice have been released.  The state Pollution Control Agency is set to announce shortly (was originally going to be Thursday 2/27, but has been postponed) whether the science indicates that new sulfate standards from mines need to be adopted.

The back story, as explained in an article by Stephanie Hemphill for, is that we have known for a long time that high levels of sulfates damage wild rice.  The new studies show that the level at which damage occurs is lower than had been previously understood.  Wild rice is an iconic plant in Minnesota, and carries a variety of spiritual and cultural meanings for the state’s indigenous Ojibwe population.  Protection of wild rice would seem a “given,” except that mining companies are chafing at the existing restrictions, not to mention the potential for new, higher water quality standards.  Stay tuned: this could well end up in the state legislature and in the courts.

Speaking of the Legislature, the spring session began this week, which means that nothing is safe, or beyond comprehension.  In a very informative article, Elizabeth Dunbar from Minnesota Public Radio rounds up and summarizes a number of bills, mostly having to do with the emerging awareness that the state needs to manage its groundwater better.  Some of these, such as the appointment of a state hydrologist, are clearly good ideas.  Others, like the provision of bonding money to refill White Bear Lake near St. Paul, don’t appear to have been thought through very clearly.  Still, anything is possible.

And finally, it seems distinctly possible that Minnesota could become the first state in the country to ban triclosan, a key ingredient in many anti-bacterial products as well as common household items such as toothpaste, shampoos, and the like.  Research shows that triclosan can interact with chlorine and sunlight to form harmful dioxins in water.  Since water treatment plants commonly use chlorine and sunlight in their processes, this is a big problem.

Another article from MPR’s Dunbar points out that many big household product companies are already phasing triclosan out of their products, while others are dragging their feet.  State action would thus seem to be warranted.  The article has good quotations from Trevor Russell from the local organization Friends of the Mississippi (FMR).  FMR and the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area combined forces to produce a State of the River report in late 2012.  That report, which concentrates on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis-St. Paul, covers triclosan and 12 other key indicators of river health.  Well worth a look.

One more note:  readers wanting to keep up to date on the groundwater issue in Minnesota should bookmark the MPR project Ground Level: Beneath the Surface, which has ongoing analyses and news coverage.

Lots to chew on here, but there are plenty of good journalists covering the issues and advocacy organizations keeping tabs on progress.

Once Again, the Mississippi River is “a place set apart”

Canoeing in the Mississippi RiverI wrote early in February about John Ruskey and the “Mighty Quapaws,” a canoe company in the Mississippi Delta that takes young people out on the Mississippi down where the river is REALLY BIG, and where most people are, frankly, afraid of the water.  Ruskey and his crew are working wonders to set up trips that teach people about the history and geography of the place they live in, open their eyes to the wonders of the natural world around them, teach them self-reliance and teamwork, and get good exercise into the bargain.

What’s not to like, right?

Apparently the Mississippi Department of Revenue has found a lot not to like, assessing Ruskey’s company a five-figure tax bill even though federal law clearly states that taxes shall not be assessed on activities taking place on navigable waterways.  As this article from the Mississippi Business Journal makes clear, Ruskey and his company are in imminent danger of going out of business or, at the very least, being distracted to the point where the quality of their work suffers.

Ruskey’s “Island 63” blog recently announced the formation of a Legal Defense Fund and ways to contribute, an extreme step that obviously pains this proudly independent entrepreneur.  His point that the nature tourism business is in its infancy in Mississippi and has tremendous growth potential is a powerful argument that deserves to be heard more widely.

Aside from the immediate urgency from the tax case Ruskey is facing, I think there is another issue here as well.  Once again, the Mississippi River is “a place apart,” a place where some of the rules “on land” are unclear or not applicable.  The Mississippi River forms the border for eight of the ten states that it passes through, as well as the borders of a number of federal agency regions (the EPA, for example.)

The net effect is two-fold.  On one hand, the river’s status as on the margins of state and agency boundaries leaves it isolated, “falling through the cracks” with no certain responsibility or authority for making sure that it is managed well.  This status is obviously problematic.

On the other hand, the margins are where interesting new encounters happen, where growth occurs.  Ruskey would probably agree that much of the magic of paddling the Mississippi lies in the fact that it is away from so many things that define “life here in settled areas.”  In this respect, the “margins,” understood as ecologists understand the margins between ecotones, are dynamic, interesting, the most valuable places on earth.

It is fervently to be hoped that Ruskey and his supporters can talk sense into a hidebound state bureaucracy.  We must be able to continue to send our young people into wild places, into the margins.

Friday Favorites blogroll: California drought version

February 21, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, PlanningComments Off

Steven's Creek, Cupertino CA in drought.  February 2014.California has for decades loomed large in the American imagination and in many American dreams.  Now, with the worst drought in decades gripping the state, it is becoming a place of nightmare.

As with most slowly evolving disasters, this one has many causes: decades of habitual overuse, failures of water governance and public investment, a stretch of abnormally “wet” years that came to be seen as “normal.”

What’s less clear is how Californians will be able to respond and what, if anything, California’s case means for the rest of the country.  Sure, California is dry, but much of it has always been a desert and should have remained so, according to some smug ruminations from the Midwest, that part of the country that Western writer Wallace Stegner habitually referred to as “the humid East.”

But that’s not entirely true, or fair.  The court fight between the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over allocation of the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola-Flint River systems has been to the Supreme Court once and may yet be headed there again.  The recent pollution of the Elk River in West Virginia owing to spilled coal cleaning chemicals showed us that our water protection laws are not always as robust as they need to be.  Patterns of drought and flood on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers still baffle some of the most expensive engineers and planners in the country.

And that’s not even to mention the groundwater challenges in places like the Ogalalla Aquifer, which underlies most of the Great Plains and is being drawn down at an unsustainable rate.

In this climate of confusion and overwhelming information, where are we to turn?  Fortunately the water conversation on the web is incredibly rich.  On the California drought alone, and just within the past week, leading sources have included:

Circle of Blue, a topnotch online platform of news reporting and multimedia materials covering water issues across the world.  The Special Report posted February 20 on California’s response to the water crisis caps a series of detailed analyses of the current crisis.  Brett Walton (@waltonwater) leads the coverage.

Michael E. Campana, faculty in hydrogeology at Oregon State University, is, as his Twitter handle suggests @WaterWired.  The WaterWired blog is a first-rate source of information on a range of water-related disciplines and has a very robust “jobs” listing.

In Minnesota, Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level program is conducting a sustained and detailed investigation of issues pertaining to water scarcity and to groundwater in Minnesota.  Often thought of as one of the most “well watered” states in the country, Minnesota is beginning to see signs of strains on its water systems.

California journalist Emily Green writes at “Chance of Rain.”  Her work often displays a deep skepticism of the platitudes uttered by elected officials at all levels of government.

All of these writers are prominently engaged on Twitter as well as maintaining their own blogs and other digital platforms.  For tweeted insights particular to the California situation, follow the hashtags #cawater and #cadrought.



Change Is a Constant on the Mississippi River: Here’s One Example

February 13, 2014Patrick NunnallyPlanning1

It’s a pretty short, but densely packed, article, a few hundred words noting a relatively minor action by City Council Committees in Minneapolis.  With the recent passage of a city budget item, 2014 will officially be the last year the City’s Upper Harbor Terminal will be open.

The Terminal has fallen on hard times lately, with business down by about half over the past five years or so.  The 48 acre site only supports 11 jobs at the moment, less than what the City asks from new businesses looking for City assistance to get started.  What happened?  Lots of things, really: coal plants switch to burning natural gas; we put less salt on roads in winter; shipping by river overall is down.

The article contains good information on how the Terminal got built in the first place, out of a competition between Minneapolis and St. Paul over most of the 20th century concerning which would be the head of navigation on the Mississippi River.  Clearly, St. Paul won that title, but navigation as a whole is in a long period of decline, so the prize doesn’t glimmer as brightly as it did 50 or 75 years ago.

What will come next?  Hard to say.  There are plans that call for the site to remain a shipping transfer point, but one more suited to a 21st century “green economy.”  Other plans, of course, all for mixed use housing and commercial developments, linked by trails to other parts of the city and riverfront.  Looming over all is the question of how much longer the locks at St. Anthony Falls, a couple of miles downstream, will remain open.  The site may not end up being a distinctively “river oriented” place at all, despite its location.

It seems, though, that we aren’t talking about some things that are badly needed.  The site lies across the freeway from Minneapolis’ North Side, where jobs and job training opportunities are hard to come by.  Moreover, the transfer of the Terminal to some other use marks a significant point in the long “retreat of the industrial glacier” that is giving us new land uses, new audiences and connections, a new riverfront.  It remains to be seen whether the new riverfront is accessible fully, whether the river will be an asset that is shared equitably with citizens from across the city.  Past developments, which concentrate on market rate (read: very expensive) housing are not promising in this regard.

In 2007 the National Park Service published a series of reflections on parks and “civic engagement,” that is, places where parks can become spaces to learn our country’s past.  Of course many parks already do this, in very clearly defined ways.  There is one line in the report, though, that has stuck with me: “Parks should be safe places to tell unsafe stories.”  By “unsafe,” I take the author to mean stories that haven’t ended happily ever after for everyone, stories that illustrate ways of thinking and decision-making, community priorities, that are now recognized as out of date and no longer our core values as a community.  I would even go so far as to argue that until parks (the National Park Service unit on the Mississippi, in this case) do this, they will not be fulfilling their truest potential as valued spaces in our communities.

Rivers can be about more than short term gain; they can and should be places that show us who we are.  Read through the “Common Ground” report here and let me know of other opportunities for the riverfront to be a place of civic engagement.

We Know the Minneapolis Central Riverfront Will Change–What Will It Become?

The Central Riverfront in Minneapolis, that area surrounding the Falls of St. Anthony which was once the location of the largest concentration of hydropower in the world, is one of the most significant sites on the entire length of the Mississippi River.  It could be argued that this place with its “outstanding universal values” related to the exploitation and then renewal of the power of water, is worthy of nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is also a vibrant part of a growing metropolitan urban region.  So this place will change, as it has for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  What will it become?

The question has taken on urgency recently with plans to redevelop parts of the west side of the district as “Water Works Park.”  As described in a recent news article, the site’s layers of history are some of its most impressive and enduring qualities.

Here’s hoping that the site’s designers have the wisdom to elicit what is truly unique about this particular spot on the globe in their design, rather than pulling out some generic “could be anywhere” scheme.  Too often, designers design stuff that is more “about the firm” than “about the place,” making places that are recognizable as the work of that company but that don’t speak to what is particularly “there.”

Here, the story is about water, the movement of water, the capturing of water for power, and the perhaps inevitable decay in those structures that served so ably 120 years ago.  As we are forced to think more about our use of water, and can take it less for granted, the headraces, canals, gatehouses, and other structures that served generations of flour milling will have even more to teach us.

The Mississippi River will continue to speak to us–will we learn to listen?


Overdue Examination of an Overlooked Problem

Minnesota is the “land of sky blue waters,” home to 10,000 lakes, the headwaters of three major continental watersheds (Mississippi River, Great Lakes, and Red River of the North), and basis for Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon.”  There’s no way that state could have a water problem, right?


Publicity over the past year has focused on the shrinking of White Bear Lake, the centerpiece of prosperous suburbs northeast of St. Paul.  Closer examination shows, though, that Minnesotans are increasingly drawing on groundwater to slake their ever-growing thirst.  As Minnesota Public Radio journalist Dave Peters notes, the state DNR reports “unprecedented water use conflicts” emerging between businesses, towns, and individual homeowners.  Agriculture undoubtedly is in the mix also.

Peters directs a community journalism project called Ground Level, which uses multiple forms of media, derived from diverse sources, to provide detailed explorations of issues directly affecting Minnesota’s communities.  A previous study examined water quality issues across the state.

“Beneath the Surface,” Ground Level’s exploration of groundwater issues, is just getting started.  Note particularly the link that is posted to a survey “Help us explore Minnesota’s groundwater challenge.”  Hopefully, there will be a robust set of responses generated that will raise questions from multiple perspectives.

The connection between this Ground Level initiative and the Mississippi River is subtle, but important.  It’s easy to forget that all of our water makes up one system, so the fate of groundwater affects the fate of the Mississippi, and vice versa.  There has already been some loose talk about drawing water from the Mississippi to “refill” White Bear Lake, for example.

There are literally thousands of people committed to improving the health of the Mississippi River.  The sooner we can learn to see the river as part of a much bigger system, only a fraction of which is visible in the actual river bed, the sooner we’ll be able to really treat the river as a river, not just a wet playground, or a highway, or some other reductive figure of our imagination.

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