University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

The Rivers Beneath Our Feet

March 28, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on The Rivers Beneath Our Feet

We generally know that rain runs off the ground into the neighboring river, and that this process takes place somewhere below ground.  Maybe we’ve seen the “Don’t Pollute Drains to River” stencils on storm drains in our neighborhood.

But what exactly are the conduits below ground that carry storm water to the Mississippi (in the case of St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as dozens of other communities)?

My friend and colleague Matt Tucker, from the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota refers to these waterways as “Anthropocene rivers,” which I take to mean that they are part of the earth’s circulatory system that has been made by humans.  The metaphor–or maybe it’s a literal statement?–that rivers are the circulation system of the living earth is powerful.  So it was interesting to see this article about the Capitol Region Watershed District, highlighting one of the main arteries, if you will, conveying St. Paul’s storm water to the Mississippi.  Be sure to watch the video; good images and articulate voices about the relationships between the community and the river.

For a historian like me, the sight of century-old limestone blocks still carrying storm water is completely fascinating in its own right.  But the tunnel also makes me wonder  “Why did they do that?” and “What else happened?”  (And who were “they” anyway?) Was the development of this large storm water system a means to drain wet lands to build out new neighborhoods? Who pressed to make the project happen, and how was it paid for?  If the project was about draining land for development, what happened to the people who had been using the land before?

So many questions about how recent generations of humans have changed land and water systems to make a city.  And, following Tucker’s terms, if these are “anthropocene” rivers, what does that mean?  Certainly we have a responsibility to and for these water ways, even if they aren’t as charismatic as the above-ground Mississippi River.  Hard to imagine picnicking by the storm drain.    That’s an important part of the watershed district’s work: helping us see the connections between the rivers beneath our feet and the rivers in front of us.

Why Should People in the Mississippi River Basin Care about the Oroville Dam?

February 21, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on Why Should People in the Mississippi River Basin Care about the Oroville Dam?

I’m writing this on the afternoon of Monday, February 20, a week after heavy rain across northern California caused Lake Oroville to overflow and an emergency spillway to become activated for the first time in the 49 years the Oroville Dam has been in existence.  Nearly 200,000 people were evacuated when engineers and public safety professionals feared that the spillway would collapse, releasing a devastating flood.  This week, tonight and tomorrow, another rain event known as an “atmospheric river” is taking place; by the time you read this Oroville Dam and the Feather River may once again be at the top of national headlines.

The Oroville Dam crisis has been the subject of a great deal of smart journalism.  Brad Plumer at offers a good basic explainer of the various structures on the ground and how the system is supposed to work; the Sacramento Bee complements this account with historical background explaining some of the decisions made when the dam was built in the 1960s. Writing in Circle of Blue, Brett Walton puts the Oroville situation in the context of recurring issues of dam safety across the nation, while Ethan Elkind broadens his consideration to more general policy implications of the crisis. City Lab raised the issue of how Oroville speaks to the country’s ongoing infrastructure issues, although the writer (and editor? page designer?) got some flack for politicizing the question of how infrastructure might be funded.  Three other articles take up more focused, though still important, subjects: American Rivers argues for more natural management of rivers and two articles connect Oroville Dam and Lake to California’s statewide water management system and the provision of water in faraway Los Angeles.

Whew! That’s a lot of information and knowledge to process, largely concentrated on California and on national water issues. All speak of Oroville as a “wake up call” with far reaching “implications.” The real connection to the Mississippi River basin, though, comes from articles that raise the specter of how a changing climate is contributing to the Oroville crisis.  At the very least, the repeated atmospheric rivers that have pounded California this winter seem to be symptoms of a warmer, more humid atmosphere.  More subtle arguments point out that precipitation that falls as rain rather than snow has a direct impact on intensity of flood events.  Finally, not only are California’s dams and water infrastructure showing the signs of years of neglect and deferred maintenance, but, as one observer puts it, the water system was “designed and built in an old climate, one in which extremely warm years were less common and snowpack was more reliable.”

The problem of how to design water management for a new climate is a challenge the entire country is, or should be, facing. Oroville is indeed a wake up call, that we should be hearing in the Mississippi River basin as well.


Amid Crowded, Confusing Agenda, What might President’s Infrastructure Plan Hold for Inland Rivers?

January 31, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on Amid Crowded, Confusing Agenda, What might President’s Infrastructure Plan Hold for Inland Rivers?

Among the many many plans and priorities offered by the incoming Presidential administration, it’s been easy to overlook the promise for a massive infrastructure program that would create jobs and facilitate economic growth. This post won’t enter into speculation about what structure of investment the President has in mind, such as tax credits for private investment or direct public spending.  Nor will it engage in the tempting but pernicious process of guessing what the President really means by his various communications.  Instead the post reports on two recent news stories, and invites readers to pursue the matter further if they so desire.

One of several industry trade publications pertaining to commercial shipping, navigation, and the management of ports reports that at least some investment in the Mississippi River is part of the administration’s plan.  Port Technology reports that dredging on the Mississippi River in and around the Port of South Louisiana ranks #7 on the list of 50 critical projects. The Port of South Louisiana is a 54-mile port district on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that ranks among the busiest ports in the world.  The river has not been fully dredged to the depth of 50 feet required for full access of all oceangoing vessels, despite that depth having been authorized decades ago.

The DC office of McClatchy news service offers a broader look at the full list of 50 critical projects.  A quick scan of the list shows that almost 40% of those listed–18 of the 50 on the list–directly involve water management.  Ports get a lot of attention, as already noted in the case of the Port of South Louisiana, but lock and dam refurbishment is also in line for major investment, should this plan become reality.  Of particular note in the Mississippi River basin are plans for locks/dams on the Illinois, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers, as well as Locks and Dams 20-25 on the Mississippi’s main stem.

The Upper Mississippi River, that stretch from St. Paul, MN to St. Louis, MO, has been declared by federal law to be a nationally significant ecosystem as well as a nationally significant transportation system.  Here’s hoping that in the planning for transportation improvements, the ecosystem part of the balance is not left short.

An Embarrassment of Riches: Minnesota Water News

October 4, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on An Embarrassment of Riches: Minnesota Water News

Looking for something to read, as the nights get longer here in the upper Mississippi River basin?  There is no lack of thought-provoking river material, beginning, of course with the continued coverage of the water protectors work at Standing Rock, North Dakota.  Find all you want through Google or on Twitter by looking for #NoDAPL.  It’s important to remember that part of the dispute centers on the threat to the Missouri River from the pipeline, a concern that is echoed by water protectors in Iowa and Illinois where the line is supposed to cross the Mississippi.  There will be more on this issue in subsequent posts.

Meanwhile…the Minneapolis Star and Tribune has a very strong, detailed set of articles on rivers in Minnesota that opened Sunday with a discussion on the Mississippi, continued yesterday with an article about the Red River of the North, and finishes today with a piece about agriculture and the Chippewa River, in western Minnesota.  These articles make it abundantly clear that water conflicts aren’t simply about “science’ vs “nonscience,” or “selfish interests” vs “the public.”  There are clearly articulated strongly held values in conflict in these dilemmas about managing land and water, and unpacking how those values form, how they can be understood more clearly and brought together is vital to any sort of long term stewardship that will work beyond the force of regulation.  Check out the graphics and special features also–great stuff!

Speaking of the Red River, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources has denied a permit for the Fargo-Moorhead diversion project that would flood thousands of acres of farmland.  According to the Corps of Engineers person quoted, this project has been in the planning stages for eight years.  Might be in the courts for another eight.

Maybe what the folks on the Red River need is their version of the report produced by the National Park Service and Friends of the Mississippi for the Mississippi River stretch in the Twin Cities.  The second version of the acclaimed State of the River report was released September 22.  The report is grounded in solid scientific data and includes specialized guides to recommend courses of action for policy, education, and personal stewardship actions.

Like us, the folks who publish Mill City Times are recognizing that there is a lot of activity and important policy and program development taking place with regard to rivers.  In their case, the response is to produce a very nice, focused “Great River Digest.” Check it out to keep up with what’s happening to impact the Mississippi River and nearby neighborhoods in the Central Riverfront area of Minneapolis.

Finally (for now at least) this past weekend saw the opening of the justly-famous “Water/Ways” exhibit and programming collaborative, this time in Red Wing Minnesota, where the Cannon River comes into the Mississippi.  The lineup of programs looks very rich and diverse; congratulations to the Goodhue County Historical Society and all the local partners who teamed up with the Minnesota Humanities Center, the MPCA and other statewide partners.  This series just keeps getting better!


A Mississippi River National Historic Trail?

August 2, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on A Mississippi River National Historic Trail?

This article on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail raises the question of what a Mississippi River National Historic Trail might encompass:

  • route(s) associated with explorer/colonizers?
  • route(s) associated with the movements of ideas and culture, such as jazz and the blues?
  • route(s) associated with movements of “natural” resources such as fish or bird migrations, particular habitats, etc.?

The Twin Cities, of course, is home to the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, but that is only a 72-mile stretch of the Mississippi’s 2500 mile +/- length.  Other regional efforts are achieving notable successes, but many people and organizations still have a dream of “One Big River Collaboration.” The Chesapeake model is water-based, and has a strong thematic and historical grounding, both excellent starting points for Mississippi River work.

That dream may simply be too big for the whole river, except as a virtual connector through some sort of expanded, linked mapping effort.  The Chesapeake folks, though, could be a good model or starting point for broader, integrated thinking.  There seem to be two elements of that program, in particular, that are salutary for Mississippi River work: The Chesapeake program is broadly based in partnerships, even to the point where the web presence breaks out of the NPS web template.  Secondly, and more important, the presence of indigenous people both historically and continuing into the present, is an inescapable part of the overall vision and mission of the site.  Indeed, the Chesapeake Trail has been the site of inaugural planning and designation of “indigenous cultural landscapes,” sites that “evoke the natural and cultural resources that support American Indian lifeways and settlement patterns” throughout the Bay.

The National Park Service is justly proud of its record over the first century of its existence.  Here’s something to start on for the second century.

TBT: The Mississippi River Gorge as “natural”

There is a growing buzz about making the Mississippi River Gorge in Minneapolis more “natural.”  It’s certainly a fine idea to talk about and plan for restoration of some features and dynamics that the river had at this place in the past.  But we should not rely on a static concept of “nature,” in large part because “nature” simply isn’t static.  So “restoration” of any dynamic system like a river requires close attention to the complex question: Restoration to what condition?

With these ideas in mind, here are some images from the gorge, each of which shows it before the installation of the Ford dam.

Lake St. Bridge looking upstream c 1888

The Lake Street bridge is in the foreground of this image, which is oriented to look upstream.  The metadata for the image lists it as being taken around 1888, although the inscription on the right above the bridge says “1883-4.” The very shallow water conditions, illustrated by expansive mud flats, indicate the time of year is probably autumn.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

old Franklin Ave br and Meeker Is. 1900

If the metadata/caption for this 1900 photograph is correct, the orientation of the shot is downstream, with the Franklin Avenue Bridge in the foreground and Meeker Island in the middle distance.  The rapids around the island, however, appear to indicate the water is flowing toward the camera.  Any historically-minded river rats out there have a good read on this image and which way the river is flowing?

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

parkway postcard 1910

The part of this postcard image that strikes me the most is the caption: “A view of the Mississippi River between the Twin Cities Minn.”  At the time this card was made, around 1910, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had not yet physically grown into one contiguous urban space.  The Mississippi River gorge served as a semi-wild “natural” space between the two urban industrial centers, each then at the height of its regional importance as milling and shipping centers.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

TBT Where’s the Mississippi?

May 19, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on TBT Where’s the Mississippi?

Bridge Square 1888

In this image, dated circa 1888, the Mississippi River has largely disappeared in the fabric of the industrialization of Minneapolis.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

downtown aerial 1928

This aerial photograph of Minneapolis in 1928 shows the Mississippi River across the upper part of the image.  By this point in time, flour production at St. Anthony Falls had already begun to fall off from its peak, although it would not fully cease for a number of decades.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

Water Is News in Minnesota

January 19, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on Water Is News in Minnesota

That fact, to some extent, is news in and of itself.  For too long Minnesota has rested on the laurels of promotional slogans (“Land of 10,000 Lakes” and arcane facts (more boat and fishing licenses per capita than any other state) as evidence of the state’s love and stewardship of its waters.

Last week Governor Mark Dayton announced that he would be asking the legislature for nearly a quarter of a BILLION dollars in state bonding to begin the process of upgrading local water infrastructure systems.  This sum is rightly understood as a down payment on a multi-decade investment that will end up costing billions over the long term.

But the alternative, letting the state’s drinking water supplies fall into further disrepair, is unthinkable.  Just ask anyone involved with the crisis Flint Michigan is facing over its drinking water supplies.  The short version: two years or so ago, the city switched water supply sources in an effort to save money.  Not only was the new supply tainted, but chemicals in the water leached lead out of outdated pipes.  The result: unusable water and measurably high levels of lead in children’s bloodstreams.  This poisoning will affect at least a generation of people.  I won’t link to more details.  There are hundreds of stories on this; find the news source that you trust most and you’ll find a more complete account.

Closer to home, the issue of who cares for water in Minnesota is implicitly a concern for folks outside the “usual suspects” in water stories.  The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s outdoors writer, Dennis Anderson, noted in a recent article that one of the “storms” facing natural resource managers is that the emerging generation of Minnesota residents is less likely to have first-hand experience with the state’s waters than “boomers” have.  Anderson does not explore the changing demographics of the state, but anyone who has knows that Minnesota will become more diverse in the future.  Resource managers, and others concerned with water issues, need to broaden their appeal beyond evocations of childhood canoeing and fishing trips.

A historic shift for the Mississippi River in Minneapolis: ecological impacts being studied

Last summer, when the Upper St. Anthony lock closed for good (at least as permanently as anything done through federal policy-making) there was considerable discussion about changes in the ways the river and adjacent corridor might be used.  Would the absence of barge traffic through the lock spell the end of industrial waterfront uses above the falls?

The jury is still out on that, but in the meantime another study of potential impacts has begun.  The Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership, working with the River Life program as well as several other partners, has received a grant from the State of Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Together we are studying the ecological and physical attributes of the river between the Coon Rapids Dam upstream and the lock/dam at the site of the old Ford Plant in St. Paul, just upstream from the junction with the Minnesota River.  We’re trying to establish baseline data on a number of conditions such as sediment load, presence and density of mussel populations, and river bed conditions, so that we can assess changes over the next 3-5 years.

The Mississippi River is, of course, a very complex system even up here.  Some people have worried that the absence of Corps of Engineers dredging will cause the river to “fill in” with silt.  Others see the absence of navigation as an opportunity to manage the river for recreation and ecological benefits.

Whatever the future management and policy decisions are for the river in Minneapolis, they should be informed by good science.  Good science starts with close observation and analysis of the data.  Stay tuned–we’ll know more in a few months!

For more on our study, and comments from our partners, see “Study to review effects of retiring a stretch of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis”


A Tale of Two Cities Revisited: Minneapolis, St. Paul offer more diverse and connected visions

December 18, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on A Tale of Two Cities Revisited: Minneapolis, St. Paul offer more diverse and connected visions

It would be interesting to go back through the past 20+ years of riverfront redevelopment in St. Paul and Minneapolis and chart the changing rationales and public benefits that were ascribed to particular projects.  “Back in the day,” that is, the 20th century, it might have been enough to repeat that the Mississippi River is a really cool place, one of the greatest rivers in the world, so everyone ought to support the project.  That would probably have worked, regardless of the project.

Things have changed, I think.  A recent article describing the early visions for the redevelopment of the Ford plant site in St. Paul goes into much more specifics of what community task forces are looking for.  The range is greater, and the bar is higher.  After all, this is 130 acres +/- on the river, near established commercial districts, in the geographic heart of the metropolitan region.  Community expectations ought to be higher.  The city staff members involved with the project have not got a lot to offer, since any discussion is still at very early stages.  But what they do say sounds as if they have learned a lot from some of the bruising battles from the past decade or so.

Upstream some 15 miles, Minneapolis’ riverfront is likewise in a state of transition, per a recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.  The area above St. Anthony Falls is undergoing the same conversion from industrial and commercial use to recreation and park land that the Central Riverfront began in the 1970s.  We can hope that the conversion above the falls will take less than 40 years, a hope that seems likely since better than half the land is now in public ownership.  Progress is steady.

Progress of another sort is shown in the article’s discussion of how trail projects that cross North Minneapolis and Northeast are being connected to riverfront efforts.  This connectivity has been sadly lacking in previous decades, which continues a century-long pattern of exclusion of those neighborhoods from many of the large park amenities in the city.

Connective projects are more important than ever, since the people living a mile or so away from the riverfront must have access that is clear and easy to navigate.  Only when the amenities of the riverfronts are broadly accessible to all the neighborhoods in the city will we have the fully inclusive relationship with the Mississippi that we need.

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
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.