University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Designing a River Campus for Water Sustainability

In some locations, campuses are some of the largest continuous areas of land under single management in a community.  The University of Minnesota, for example, takes up approximately 1300 acres in the Twin Cities, along and immediately upstream of the Mississippi River.  Making changes on the campus to improve water quality in stormwater runoff is therefore a matter of working with just one landowner, rather than the potentially thousands who would have to be persuaded for a comparable urban area elsewhere.

This is why the EPA’s Campus RainWorks challenge is so exciting.  Teams of students at colleges and universities across the country are invited to develop proposals on how to improve water quality and management on their campus.  Winning entries will be awarded cash prizes and some will be offered the chance to develop their proposals further toward implementation grants.

Campuses have a lot of talent, and big comprehensive schools such as the University of Minnesota have schools of planning, design, engineering, and natural sciences.  There is great  potential to develop interdisciplinary, multi-practice proposals that really do illustrate the next generation of urban design.

We really need to do this here at Minnesota–who should be included?

Ecosystem Restoration Part 2: New Dialogues Needed

August 2, 2013Patrick NunnallyPlanning, Science, SustainabilityComments Off

Yesterday’s post offered big, perhaps unanswerable, questions about restoration of ecosystems.  In many respects, our responses to these questions arise as much from some of our core beliefs and values, about the nature of community and responsibility, indeed, the “nature of nature” as they come from our scientific knowledge.

So here’s the thing: powerful responses to questions like these require the development of new ways of thinking and talking.  For example, at one of the conference sessions I attended, the question was raised: “How much ecosystem restoration on the Upper Mississippi River is enough?  How do we know we’re making progress?”  Well, if the answer is posed solely to politicians and managers, the answer might be a variation of “However much we can afford.”  Biologists, on the other hand, may be tempted to respond, “We need to restore enough in order to respond to  these basic questions about biological patterns and indicator species, which could take several decades to answer.”  Local members of the community may think that preserving enough habitat so there will be important experiences, say birdwatching for example, or duck hunting, will be preserved for generations, is enough.

The point is, these are not necessarily mutually exclusive responses, but they almost never are shared, given the present state of fragmented and often opaque discussions about the future of places that we think are important.  All of these groups have to weigh in, and they have to learn to speak together so they can be mutually understood.

I’m not so idealistic that I think this can happen overnight, but I am of a belief that such inclusive, sustainable conversations can be encouraged and developed.  Maybe it will take some time: the next generation of ecosystem restoration specialists will have to be scientists who tell stories and poets who know how ecosystems work.  And both segments will have to be able to make their arguments transparent to the people who manage money and policy.  It won’t be enough, isn’t enough now, really, just to articulate that people care deeply about a particular place.  How can that deeply felt sense of place be articulated in such a way that planning processes are affected and funding decisions altered?

Hard questions, but maybe necessary to shaping the world we want to live in.

Ecosystem Restoration: Big Questions, Few Definite Answers

We’ll jump right to the Big Questions, for example:

  • What’s the best way to proceed in making an ecosystem (riverine or otherwise) healthier, when it’s not possible to look back to an earlier, perhaps more stable, era as a model?
  • If we accept the necessity for dramatic actions to alleviate threats such as the advance of Asian Carp, or harmful/toxic algal blooms, or emerald ash borer, foes that reduce “nature” to just another collection of elements that humans manipulate for our (perceived) own benefit?
  • Can we imagine that we have the technological, policy, or regulatory “know-how” or skills to address ecosystem change at an ecosystem scale, e.g. the Everglades, or the Great Lakes, the Gulf Coast, or the Mississippi Basin?  If our answer is “no,” then what?

My head is starting to spin a little bit at the scale and scope of these ideas, but I wanted to offer a bit of a sample of the sorts of questions hovering around our sessions and discussions at the Fifth National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration.  There are over 300 of us here in a conference center outside of Chicago bouncing around from session to session, hearing case studies, reports from the field, and policy analyses from some of the most expert participants in the field.  Look for more about the conference and the issues to be in this space in the future (including another post tomorrow); these are questions that get at the heart of many of the more complicated things River Life, and our partners, are working on.

Stay tuned!

Wisdom Lives in Many Places

Many readers may remember the Mississippi Water Walk that took place this spring, led by Sharon Day, an Ojibwe woman from Minnesota.  Now, after some time to reflect on this particular journey, Day shared some insights with

Sharon Day is very eloquent, and I just want to offer some brief passages from her interview.  Please go to the link and absorb the full document and its links.

Today we’re missing a spiritual connection to the water because all we have to do is turn on a faucet. It’s like going to the store and buying a loaf of bread. We don’t have a relationship with our water, and we don’t have a relationship with our food. They are just products that we consume, as opposed to life-giving forces.

We must change this idea of water as a commodity. When we see the water as something that lives, then it’s hard to think of it simply as a commodity.


I did the Mississippi River Water Walk because I live a block from the river, and I cross it several times a day. I have a relationship with the Mississippi River. But it’s about love. It’s about moving toward something, as opposed to resisting anything. The old people say that if you want peace, you must be with love.

One day when someone asked, “Why do you do this? What do you hope to accomplish?” I said I was walking because I want world peace. And ultimately that is why we walk. If we can treat the water with respect and love—not violence—then perhaps that sentiment will spill over into our relationships with each other and our relationships with the earth.


I believe that the water spirits are much more powerful than our corporations and cities. So ask for the deepest truth and purest love through invocation. Then add science.

Yes. Spirit and relationships create meaning, which informs science.  Put another way, science can tell us anything except what we ought to want and ought to do.  Both/and; spirit and science.

Given the other big Mississippi River news of the week, yesterday’s defeat of a federal farm bill that would have created conservation incentives for farmers across the country, we must move, as ever it seems, from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Wendell Berry has written that one of the particular conditions of our time is the requirement that we take seriously that which we cannot respect.  So it is with Congress.

And to finish without the “bad taste in our mouth” of thinking about Congress, I offer one last passage from Sharon Day’s interview:

I think the biggest connection is the idea of “all that we share.” We share the water, we share the earth. And because we share, we all have a responsibility.

Does the Mississippi River Have a Future? Of course it does, but maybe not the one we think

City of Davenport, Iowa in 1858

City of Davenport, Iowa in 1858

Two weeks ago, I was pleased and honored to present an address at the Henry Farnam Dinner, an annual event sponsored by a variety of Quad Cities Mississippi River advocates.  Farnam was the president of the Rock Island Railroad in the mid-1850s, when the line reached the Mississippi at Rock Island IL, thereby becoming the first complete rail connection between the Atlantic and the Mississippi.

Dinner organizers asked me to talk about the Mississippi in 2054, 200 years after the rail connection and accompanying “Grand Excursion” focused attention on what was then known as the Great Northwest. Read more →

River and Stream Restoration: Not Magic or Rocket Science

It may seem like magic to see a stream restored to its former glory, or something close to its former state.  Fish return, clear ripples emerge where before there was just brown sludge before; the water is a place where you want to be again.

The Partnership for River Restoration and Science in the Upper Midwest (PRRSUM) is dedicated to sharing knowledge about precisely what tools work to make these transformations happen.  Learn more at the PRRSUM web site.

This is not just a random post this morning:  this week is the last week for submittal of poster abstracts and to register for the upcoming Stream Restoration Conference.  The conference will be held in LaCrosse WI this year, February 24-27.  Don’t miss out–lots of cutting-edge paper presentations, keynote talks by nationally-recognized experts, plus, my favorite, “Adjourn for dinner and drinks” sessions!


Drought photos may convey unintended message

We all know the maxim “A picture is worth a thousand words.  The eight photos shown in this sequence aren’t quite enough to match the tens of thousands of words being spilled about the Mississippi River’s declining water levels and the threat (or not) to commerce, but they’re a start.

By USACE Team Saint Louis

By USACE Team Saint Louis

But you should look a little closer at these photos.  What do you see?  A lot of barges concentrated in some areas; ok, that’s fine, to be expected when the river’s depths are variable.  Photo #6 shows a lot more though.  There’s a massive quarry, or maybe open pit mine, adjacent to the river, separated only by a levee that looks like it might double as a service road. Read more →

Of “Water Wars” and water myths

December 31, 2012Patrick NunnallySustainabilityComments Off

DSC_9870“Water Wars” is the term increasingly being used to describe conflicts over water around the world as well as across the United States.  No longer just an issue for the arid West (although water shortages are a constant subject in the work of writers such as John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal and the blog Inkstain) water disputes have come to the Southeast and other parts of what Wallace Stegner referred to as the “humid east.”

Water wars are even coming to Minnesota. Read more →


December 1, 2012Patrick NunnallyPlanning, SustainabilityComments Off

It’s been about a month now since Hurricane Sandy walloped (great word there—haven’t gotten to use it since I was a sportswriter as an undergraduate!) the New York City region and spread devastating impacts across most of the northeastern quarter of the United States.  Immediate post-storm analysis touched on a number of topics important to our work, including climate change, water and cities, water infrastructure and resilience.  Some of the more thoughtful reflections include:

Think “sustainability” and “resilience” mean the same thing?  Then you should read this piece from The Atlantic Cities on how the important distinction between the terms comes to light in Sandy’s aftermath. Read more →

It’s a Big River: Think and Act both Globally and Locally

The bioregional mantra is “Think Globally, Act Locally.”  The Mississippi River is both a local system and one of the largest river basins in the world, so we have to act in our own back yard as if we’re protecting our back yard and simultaneously making a difference at the broader scale.

This recent article from the Memphis Commercial Appeal touches on many of the most important elements of this “double vision”:  the “9 Things You Can Do” is a great list, but getting out and knowing the river through kayaking, walking along it, and really seeing it is important also. Read more →

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