University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Busy Day for News about Rivers

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

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

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

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

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

Water at Minnesota

We’ve made the case here before that Minnesota is a water rich state, so it was nice to hear the concept confirmed by Prof. Deborah Swackhamer at last week’s Frontiers on the Environment program.  She said that Minnesota is the most water rich state in the country, but that we face a legion of problems that, if not addressed, will cause a great deal of anxiety in the not too distant future.

Click the link above to see more of the program and Swackhamer’s sobering assessment of what it will take for Minnesota to have a sustainable water future.

Fortunately the University of Minnesota is well stocked with water specialists across the disciplinary and professional spectrum.  At the Duluth campus, the Large Lake Observatory is undertaking groundbreaking research on Lake Superior, the largest body of freshwater in the world.

The University boasts of a very well-regarded Water Resources Science graduate program, including faculty from across the university’s graduate and professional schools.  The Water Resource Center has been an important participant in numerous statewide water policy discussions.

Contributions outside the scientific disciplines are of more recent vintage.  Assistant Professor Matt Tucker, of the Landscape Architecture department, develops student thinking and design expertise to face coming paradigm shifts in how urban water is managed.  River Life, our program, is central to the Mellon Foundation-supported John E. Sawyer Seminar, which is exploring new narratives and images to express our relationship to the Mississippi River in an age of climate change.

But the whole isn’t yet greater than the sum of the parts, and collaborating across colleges and disciplines is difficult.  The University’s recently-completed strategic planning effort has identified challenges associated with water as an example of the kinds of “grand challenges’ that the University should turn its teaching, research, and engagement programs to address.  Not surprisingly, we have some ideas for how this might be achieved.  It’s important to continue to reward and encourage ongoing substantial efforts that solve big problems, such as the research on Lake Superior described above.  But it’s more important to supplement existing work by:

  • devising ways for scientists to collaborate with faculty in other arenas as well as community partners in turning scientific data into solutions for current and future challenges;
  • developing inventories of who is doing what sorts of work at the University, and promoting those inventories (rosters, libraries, whatever they are called) to campus and community partners who can benefit and support that work.  We can’t collaborate if we don’t know who’s doing what.
  • hosting knowledge exchange forums featuring specialists from a variety of disciplines and practices.  Once we know of each others’ work, and have been able to “put a face to a name,” then collaboration can start.

There are many other possible ways to bring together the University’s strengths in water-oriented research, programs, and teaching.  Sustained, deliberate effort to break down the siloes of academic specialization is essential, though, for the University to serve the state, region, and broader reaches that will be facing water challenges in the coming decades.


Beyond “Either/Or” to “Both/And”

One of my grad students posted an essential question via Twitter a few days ago:

Is the Mississippi River a “taxpayer-funded shipping canal” or home to diverse water stories?

Her tweet, from @waterbugsUMN, included a link to a recent blog post by the travel writer Dean Klinkenberg.  Klinkenberg summarizes just a few of the interesting, varied, some would even say “essential” stories that he came across in a recent trip through the Upper Mississippi River corridor. I’ll write another time about why I think “essential” belongs in this discussion, but on to the main point today.

Klinkenberg only makes passing reference to the river as a barge canal, but that sense of things was heavily reinforced with the news last week that the Upper Mississippi would be designated the “M-35 Marine Highway Corridor.”

There are many reasons why I personally think this is an appalling development.  The name is reductive, even ugly.  It reduces the river of mystery and mythology, the “spine of the nation” to an anonymous, numbered, static transect down the middle of the country.  The name was apparently chosen to match the Interstate 35 corridor, which runs from Texas to Minnesota.  What better way to make clear that the sole purpose of the river is moving goods.

Someone please write and tell me that I’m wrong, that this new corridor isn’t a signal that the river as highway is taking the upper hand over the river as a globally significant ecological corridor.  But when you do, I really want to know how that dominance won’t happen.  In other words, don’t just write and say I’m wrong (I hear that a lot).  Tell me how this corridor designation won’t tip the balance away from ecological preservation and enhancement, how this won’t pave the way (pun intended) for expanded locks, hardened river edges to tie big barges up, and all the rest of the Pandoras Box that happens when we decide one use of the river will take absolute primacy over the others (despite federal law, as I understand it).

I hope to hear from you and I hope to be reassured.

Nation’s Longest River Significantly Affected by Changing Climate

The Missouri River near Williston, N.D. The river's streamflow has changed significantly over the last 50 years. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

The Missouri River near Williston, N.D. The river’s streamflow has changed significantly over the last 50 years. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Sorry, Mississippi River fans, the nation’s longest river is actually the Missouri.  As this news story makes clear, though, the changes on the Missouri are of a sort that will bring big impacts to the Mississippi as well.

It’s not really a surprise that some parts of the Missouri are seeing too little water while others are seeing too much.  Climate change reports for some time have indicated that dry areas will trend drier and wet areas wetter.  A USGS report released recently documents those changes across a broad area (227 stream gages) and through a span of better than 50 years.

In some ways, the varying reception of this news is more significant than the documented changes.  Some farmers are simply adapting, aware that conditions always change in the uncertain world of agriculture.  People in other sectors of the economy are likewise concerned, and adapting.  Fishing is a major economic activity, contributing over $3 billion annually in Montana alone.  No one is quite sure what the changed river conditions are going to mean to this industry.

Still others don’t seem to really accept that the climate is changing, arguing that poor river management by the agencies involved with the Missouri River are to blame.  The Corps of Engineers comes in for criticism, of course.

Whatever the cause, the evidence in front of people shows that the river is changing.  As one source said, “We no longer have a smooth, easy-going river,” he said. “It’s choppy and eroding the banks and just pretty ugly at this point in time.”

And that’s perhaps the most interesting part of the story, for me at least.  People in a changing landscape respond to the differences they can see, that are most directly affecting their daily lives.  The river is different–“we no longer have…”  The explanations they offer for change vary almost on a person by person basis, and may or may not be grounded in science, in a systematic understanding of policy or any other set of ideas other than their own values and beliefs.

The rivers are changing.  What do we do now?


Keeping Up with Water Issues in Minnesota

I think it’s fair to say that thousands more people in Minnesota are thinking about water than were, say, a year ago.  The second-rainiest June ever certainly got people’s attention, and if not, the floods that all that rain generated certainly did.  White  Bear Lake, in the northeast suburbs of the Twin Cities, has rebounded a couple of feet since its lowest point, but it’s still a long way from “full.”  Putting the matter more directly: there’s still a lot of land between the end of people’s docks and the water.

Not surprisingly, the amount of information available to people who want to become more knowledgeable has also grown.  The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency web site contains basic descriptive data on watersheds, aquifers and other “building blocks” for water education, in addition to regulatory and planning information, guidance on the varying types of monitoring the state and other entities are engaged in, plus much, much more.  This may be a good place to start looking, but there is a LOT here!

A related resource, but one that has its attention focusing forward into the future, is the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework.  The study was undertaken at the request of the legislature to provide guidance for management of funds from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the MN constitution.

These are all highly informative sources, but they are really rather daunting just to dive into (sorry–been resisting water puns this whole post!) without much background.  Instead of these sources, I would start exploring water issues by reading what’s been posted on Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level blog.  Ground Level, which focuses on issues important to Minnesota communities, has been running a series on groundwater “Beneath the Surface” for several months now.  These stories make policy issues specific and visible, describing challenges, best practices, ways communities in other parts of the country are addressing issues comparable to ours, and a host of other topics.

To stay up to date with this most excellent resource, follow @MPRGroundLevel on Twitter.

We’re going to be talking about water in Minnesota for years, even generations.  We really need to get to where our “taken for granted” water bodies like the Mississippi River, Lake Superior, or “our” lake where Grandma’s cabin is, are seen (that is, recognized not just with the eyes of our emotional attachment), known (how do they work), and loved (why do we care?).

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


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.

Flooding hits Minneapolis, St. Paul

Star Tribune

Some ducks found a dry spot along the flooded Mississippi River near the University of Minnesota on Friday after history-making rains pelted the state. Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Record rainfall last week is having an entirely predictable impact: near-record floods this week in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Good coverage of the situation is provided by the New York Times and by local TV station KSTP Channel 5.  The KSTP story has really great video of the Mississippi flowing through the wide-open Upper St. Anthony Lock.

Reports are that the Mississippi will crest in St. Paul this week at the sixth-highest level on record, higher than any time since 2001.  Personally (and I’m not a hydrologist) I wonder if the big push through the Minnesota River has made it to St. Paul yet.  Parts of the Minnesota River watershed got 11 inches of rain last week–is that water yet in the major river systems?

Anyone with knowledge of how the flow is working through the Minnesota River system and what’s in store for St Paul feel free to help us out with a comment.

One more thing:  I don’t know what our high water means downstream.  Sure, the water will be higher as it moves through the corridor, but should Winona expect a flood?  Dubuque?

Climate Change and Rivers: Prognosis for the Upper Mississippi

Writing as part of the “Earth Journal” blog on, Ron Meador recently summarized some of the key takeaway points for the Upper Midwest from the National Climate Assessment report released in May.  His verdict: hotter summers, longer dry periods, bigger downpours when it does rain.

Incidentally, the 2.37 inches of rain the Twin Cities got on Sunday June 1 is a record for that date.  Just sayin.’

What does the National Climate Assessment offer in terms of the future of rivers in the Upper Midwest?  Some quick points:

  • Flood magnitudes are expected to increase, both in the Mississippi River Basin,and, perhaps more alarming, in the Red River of the North;
  • Water quality and quantity are being affected by complex changes in patterns of the hydrologic cycle such as the timing and volume of rains;
  • Changes in growing seasons are likely to affect crop patterns, thereby altering shipping needs on the Mississippi;

More locally, the St. Croix River may see “monster” algal blooms by 2050, owing to higher water temperatures and reduced summer flows.

It seems fair to guess that many of these anticipated disruptions may change the ways some of us who work on river issues do things.  For instance, does it make sense to talk about “ecosystem restoration” on the Upper Mississippi when the dynamics that create the landscape and fluvial patterns in the region are fundamentally altered?  If “restoration” isn’t the right term, then what might be?

At River Life, we are increasingly understanding that responding to questions such as these is central to our work.  One of the things that universities are really good at is thinking on longer time horizons than some of our community partners.  In fact, some people think that our primary responsibilities are not to replicate the work our partners do but to consider a wider range of potential scenarios, bring up new issues ahead of their coming to public attention, imagine new futures beyond the urgency of the daily grind.

Climate change and rivers: a conversation that is just getting started and not stopping any time soon.  Let us know specifically what you’d like to hear about.


Contact Us!
Send us a note at to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
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
Hold the Date! Mississippi River Symposium April 8-10
Come join us at our symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change” taking place in Northrop in early April.

For up-to-date program information on the symposium, please visit