University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

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.


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.


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!)

In Recognition of World Water Day, A Year of News

World Water Day was Saturday, March 22.  In recognition of the day, Circle of Blue, the online water news source, posted a series of tweets highlighting significant water news from the year just passed.  A sampling of this sample:

Water infrastructure rates a “D” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.  Those of us who are old enough may remember the old commercial tagline, “You can pay me now, …or you can pay me later.”  Investment in infrastructure seems a given, right?  But we aren’t, and we can hope the bill won’t be too high when it comes due.

Floods in Central Europe reached levels not seen in 500 years.  Questions are raised about disaster management and response, whether the floods and their scale could have been anticipated, and what should be done to try to avoid repeats of these disasters.

Oil pipelines connected to Canada’s tar sands boom raise concerns about groundwater in the Great Lakes region.  Twin pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac between Michigan and Ontario raise questions about a rupture that could contaminate the Great Lakes themselves.

Under the terms of a 2007 agreement, the US Bureau of Reclamation makes biennial estimates of flow in the Colorado River.  The 2013 study points to continued decline, which is likely to affect 40 million people.

California’s drought may have been the most visible water story in the United States, although the full impact, including food price hikes, may not be known for some time.

The Great Lakes made the news again, this time with reference to a toxic algae problem that caused at least one public water utility to have to close and flush its system.

Closing on a good note, Circle of Blue reports that its data dashboard has been featured as part of the White House climate change initiative.

None of these stories is about the Mississippi River or the Mississippi River basin, which, as these things go, is probably ok.  But all of these stories speak to issues that are quite readily possible somewhere in the basin or along the main stem in the easily foreseeable future.



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.

Pretty Big Trouble in a Pretty Small Place

January 27, 2014Patrick NunnallyRiver IssuesComments Off

Most of us here in the Midwest don’t think a lot about West Virginia.  It’s over there in the east somewhere, kind of hilly, got lots of coal, right?  I used to have a friend from West Virginia who regaled us with the challenge to “Name five Famous West Virginians.” (As I recall, Jerry West, Mary Lou Retton, Don Knotts, and Soupy Sales made the list.  I forget who else.)

But West Virginia made plenty of water news earlier this month when it was discovered that a chemical used to clean coal had spilled into the Elk River, near the largest water treatment plant in the state.  Tap water was cut off for nearly a week to some 300,000 people.  No drinking water, no water for cleaning, for bathing, for cooking.  No water. Period.  Except for bottled water and water trucked in from elsewhere.  Although the national news attention has mostly died down (short attention span as we know), the stories that are continuing indicate that life is far from back to normal.

It shouldn’t take a major spill and crisis to remind us of the importance of rivers, as sources of drinking water as well as all the other benefits they bring.  It’s probably not surprising that it does, though.  West Virginia is in the Mississippi River watershed, so nominally this story is “our business,” but it’s not a story that is central to understanding the state of waters and the Mississippi River right here where we live in Minnesota.  So, given that this crisis occurred while school was out for the semester break, and in the spirit of ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), here are some links to online sources you should track to learn more.  And in the spirit of our mission of teaching and learning, I’ll give you an idea of where we picked up the link.

A story from Mother Jones published shortly after the spill was discovered highlights the connections between this incident and a lax system of state and federal laws governing some dangerous chemicals.  @AmericanRivers was our source for this particular piece.

@highlyanne (Anne Jefferson) tweeted a link to a New York Times article addressing the same basic theme: lax regulations governing dangerous chemicals.

Finally, Mark Gorman (@NEMWIUpperMiss) a policy analyst for the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington DC posted a link to this story in the Washington Post about West Virginians’ reluctance when told they could finally use their water again.

My point with this post is not to offer exhaustive or complete coverage, but to indicate some sources, in addition to careful Google searches and the like, where additional information on a complex national story like this can be found.  We’ll post coverage like this from time to time, especially on issues where we don’t have particular expertise but can link readers to additional sources.


Uh Oh, Asian Carp in Great Lakes Watershed What Does This Mean?

October 29, 2013Patrick NunnallyRiver Issues,  | Asian CarpComments Off

Yesterday’s news that a reproducing population of Asian carp had been identified in the Great Lakes watershed was greeted with dismay across a wide variety of news platforms.

The four fish, caught in the Sandusky River in Ohio, all contained biological indicators that they had spent their entire lives in that river, and had not come from a fish farm or originated elsewhere and been accidentally transported to the Sandusky.

What does this discovery mean?  Turns out, it can be seen to have several meanings.

As reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, US Geological Survey specialist Duane Chapman says the discovery makes the job of controlling the invasive fish more difficult, but not impossible.

Several sources have noted that grass carp such as the ones identified this week aren’t as big a threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem as silver and bighead carp.  Silver carp, the “jumpers” that are so famous via YouTube, and bighead carp outcompete native species for food, causing vast disruptions to aquatic food chains.  Grass carp, while damaging, are primarily of concern because they damage underwater vegetation.

Nevertheless, as Prairie Rivers Network argues, the presence of a reproducing population of any of the Asian carps anywhere in the Great Lakes watershed means that it’s time to accelerate action to block the others from gaining such a foothold.


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