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RIVER LIFE

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 Streets.mn 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 http://www.startribune.com/local/263954251.html#m7VQLIorGpw1pvLx.97

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 Minnpost.com, 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!)

Contact Us!
Send us a note at rvrlife@umn.edu 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