University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change (2015)

Towboat at Sunset

The Mississippi River is one of the best-known American landscapes, accessible through the writings of Mark Twain and imagery from painters and photographers for more than a century. Yet how well do we really know the river through these sources? Are these narrative and visual traditions adequate to understanding it in an era of climate change? What does it even mean to “know” or “understand” the Mississippi River?

The symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change” brought scholars from the humanities and social sciences into conversation with experts from the realm of river policy and management to explore the river as both a cultural and physical entity. Individual sessions addressed numerous ways of defining the spatial and conceptual scope of the river, the ways artistic expression shapes—and is shaped by—the physical landscape, and what “resilience” and “sustainability” might mean for the river in the future.

The symposium was conducted as part of the John E. Sawyer Seminar  “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Water Narratives for the 21st Century” which was awarded to the University of Minnesota by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Visit the symposium web site for summaries of the sessions, and videos of the presentations.

Irony of Carp by Brian Ickes (2014)

Grass Carp

River Life organized a program panel discussion with Brian Ickes, Research Ecologist, US Geological Survey as a part of a series of events and presentations to celebrate the re-opening of Northrop after extensive renovations.

“The Irony of Carp” draws on the international fisheries experience of US Geological Survey biologist Brian Ickes to explore the threats to Twin Cities rivers posed by invasive Asian Carp. Ickes takes a global perspective on this issue, noting among other ironies that the fish are very scarce now in their native waters in China. Ickes’ presentation will be followed by a panel discussion featuring specialists in fisheries science, community engagement, and river policy. Questions will also be taken from the audience. Panelists discussed ideas of what an invasion of Asian Carp might mean to Twin Cities rivers and how those rivers will be used in the future.

View the Presentation.

The Secret Life of a Tweet (2014)

Canary. Photo courtesy of Ryan Sullivan, jubilus @ flickr

River Life presented at Sip of Science  “The Secret Life of a Tweet : A Case Study of Twitter and Knowledge Ecosystems of Science Communications” to discuss a way of using Twitter to trace the path of information, scientific or otherwise, as it is shared online.  Starting with a Tweet that had been posted by Anne Jefferson @highlyanne, we traced the information in that Tweet back to the source material (in this case, a book review and a book), and then forwards through the retweets (nine of them), to start to paint a picture of the people and platforms touched by the information, and thereby understand more fully its context.  This was followed by a discussion in which the crowd very intelligently questioned the scope, power, and credibility of digital platforms for the dissemination and discussion of scientific knowledge.

River Futures (2014)


In 50 years, the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities will likely be a significantly different place than it is now. Currently an (apparently) stable water body is the location for recreational trails and high-end, amenity-oriented housing, with only a few relic holdovers from the period when the river was the heart of an industrial city. Parts of the river occasionally flood, and are an inconvenience to recreational users for a week or two, but the river is by most accounts “the front door to the cities” and a destination attraction.

Students at the University of Minnesota were invited to imagine the futures of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities and to create a work that responds to that imagined future. How will people gain access to the water? What wildlife will inhabit this corridor in the city? How will the region’s long history be evident?

Read More: Student “River Futures” Offer Dynamic Riverfront Vision for 2064

Water Walks (2009-14)



River Life has led a series of Water Walks since 2009 to help explore the connections between campus and the Mississippi River to help walkers learn about important aspects of the river corridor and the water systems that support it, and us.  River Walks have covered such diverse topics  as Life on the River: The Bohemian Flats, Stewardship and the Land Grant UniversityCreating a Culture of Value, The Campus, The River, and The Park, Seasonal Changes, and The River in Winter, and more.

See a video of a Water Walk taken by Laura Betker of Kare11: Come along for a ‘Water Walk’

River at Our Doorstep (2014)

The Mississippi River in the Twin Cities has been designated a National Water Trail.

Not too many universities are located directly on one of the great rivers of the world, which is the case of the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, which is bisected by the Mississippi and is located, as well, inside the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

This fact of geography offers us at the University unique opportunities and, it could be argued, unique responsibilities.  We’re a land grant school, charged with developing practical knowledge that is helpful to the people of our state.  The Mississippi River, though, is not just a statewide resource: it is truly a significant regional, national, and global water system.  What we do here has implications for urban rivers everywhere.  The road from thinking about our own backyard to thinking about the planet is challenging, but must be undertaken.

University faculty, staff, students, and community partners joined us for a workshop “The River at Our Doorstep” on Friday, February 28, 2014.

Read More: The River At Our Doorstep: Taking Advantage of a Unique Opportunity

Experiments on Rivers: The Consequences of Dams — An Interdisciplinary Conference (2010)


“In the view of conservationists, there is something special about dams, something…metaphysically sinister….the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam.”
– John McPhee Encounters with the Archdruid (1971)

Dams have been characterized as “long-term experiments on rivers,” and as affronts to the freedom embodied in flowing rivers. But they also provide needed hydroelectric power to many parts of the world, and serve as important regulators of floods. Dams represent tremendous concentrations of engineering expertise, capital, and political power in the developing world, and they disrupt biological and hydrological processes. Yet they keep getting built.

This conference brought together diverse experts from a range of academic practices and disciplines to examine the phenomena of dams and the consequences, intended and unintended, that accrue from their construction.  The sessions entail a broadly dialogic approach, with perspectives focusing on global as well as more localized frames of reference, critical and theoretical perspectives as well as immanent and pragmatic views, and the understandings derived from biological and physical sciences as well as disciplines that might be thought of as the “human sciences.”

Our intentions with the conference were to raise questions and explore complexities, to provoke reflection from consideration of new perspectives, and to suggest future lines of inquiry in diverse disciplines and practices.  Our sessions will most likely not speak directly to present questions of removal of actual dams, but will, we hope, suggest areas of research, policy, and thinking that can guide future actions.

See the Videos: Experiments on Rivers: The Consequences of Dams — An Interdisciplinary Conference, Nov. 2010

Life on the (Future) Mississippi: Or, It’s Not (Just) Mark Twain’s River Anymore (2010)

Ships Passing in the Mississippi River Gorge

Pat Nunnally presented in the Institute on the Environment’s lecture series Frontiers in the Environment in March, 2010.  The Mississippi River is a critical source of drinking water, transportation and recreation for tens of millions of people, as well as an important flyway for migratory birds and a critically important fishery. Currently, dozens of groups in various disciplines are passionately engaged in planning for the future of the Mississippi and its watershed, but lacking communication in coordinating these efforts. Learn how the River Life program works from its “lab” in the Twin Cities to strengthen the connections among the University of Minnesota, the Mississippi River, and communities and organizations along the river to create a sustainable urban riverfront.

See the Video: Institute on the Environment, Frontiers in the Environment, Pat Nunnally

Imagining the River: The Mississippi Gorge – Roundtable Discussion with Pat Nunnally, Mona Smith, Chris Lenhart, Christine Baeumler, and Scott Vreeland (2009)



Tucked below the street level and parkways in south Minneapolis and the Highland neighborhood of St. Paul, the Mississippi River Gorge is, literally, often overlooked. Located between the Minnesota/Mississippi River confluence and the Falls of St. Anthony, this reach of the river lacks the drama and evident historical significance of those spots. But it is beautiful, a regional recreational asset, the only true gorge on the entire Mississippi River, and may hold the key to a future sustainable relationship with the urban river. A panel of scientists, artists, historians, and community advocates speak about how their imagined futures for the gorge speak more broadly to our relationship with the river.

Read More and see the Videos: Imagining the River: The Mississippi Gorge – Roundtable Discussion with Pat Nunnally, Mona Smith, Chris Lenhart, Christine Baeumler, and Scott Vreeland, December 3, 2009

The City, the River, the Bridge (2008)


The rebuilt I-35W/St. Anthony Falls bridge is complete, but the tasks of rebuilding after the disaster of August 1, 2007 are not complete. News reports indicate continued debate over issues associated with public infrastructure. Victims and their families continue to deal with the aftermath. Businesses in that area of town continue to adjust to new traffic patterns. Recreational users of the riverfront continue to have to work around the crash site, as trails and parkways are not yet stitched together.

As planners, politicians, and the public began to envision life after the new bridge, it was an appropriate time for the University of Minnesota to convene a public discussion on that aftermath: What lessons have been learned from the disaster and the response? What policy and planning changes have occurred, or are likely to occur? What are likely to be the long-term consequences for the City? For its relationship with the Mississippi River? In ten years, what will we see as opportunities from this effort that we’re glad we took, or, alternately, that we’ll wish we’d taken?

Read More and see the Videos: The City, the River, the Bridge: Thursday, October 9 and Friday, October 10, 2008

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.