University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

“Building Inclusive and Sustainable Relationships with the Mississippi River”

A persistent challenge to our River Life program have been the questions: what exactly do you folks DO?  What questions do you ask? What impact do you have?

To some extent, the persistence of these questions is a good thing.  At universities, we get to explore complex matters, and go where the shifts in conversations take us.  By contrast, our partners off campus are limited by their organization’s mission, or by funding, or by expectations of the public.  They can move around a little bit, but the Minnesota Historical Society ought to keep dealing with Minnesota’s past, and the National Park Service really needs to be focused on qualities that make this stretch of the river unique, and bringing those qualities to the public nationally as well as here at home.

Our job, on the other hand, is to think differently than our partners.  Not having responsibility for public programs, or for stewardship of public lands, we can tend to our main businesses, which are educating the public, particularly young people, and developing new knowledge.  In both of these areas–education and research–River Life takes very seriously our charge to conduct our work in collaboration with partners from off campus, as well as forging interdisciplinary relationships on campus.

So what is our area of study?  We look at how we–the university, our partners, our communities–can build more inclusive and sustainable relationships with the Mississippi River.  Our focus is necessarily somewhat parochial; our partners, after all, are responsible for lands and waters here, in the Twin Cities metro area.  Furthermore, the Twin Cities region is a great “laboratory” to understand the development and function of complex urban water systems.

But our focus necessarily has to widen out to include the watershed of our “home river,” and a consideration of the river and its communities as they live downstream, absorbing what we have done to the river here. Moreover, we learn a lot about conditions and circumstances and possibilities here by understanding conditions, circumstances, and possibilities elsewhere, across the country and around the world.

Sounds simple: building sustainable and inclusive relationships with the Mississippi River.  But I have a feeling this work will keep us busy for a while.

Fort Snelling and Hidden Falls Park from Two Rivers Overlook.

Fort Snelling and Hidden Falls Park from Two Rivers Overlook.

#TBT: Summer Reading about Rivers

Well, “Throwback Thursday” doesn’t mean we have to go very far back, right?  In the spirit of (hoped for) summer reading time, I offer the Introduction to Issue 2 of Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi, which went live last month:

We commonly think of rivers as, for the most part, staying where they belong, in the river bed, occasionally coming out into the floodplain under fairly predictable conditions conducive to high water that we call “floods.”

The writing in this issue of Open Rivers belies this notion of predictability, to a large degree. In disparate ways our authors write as if rivers should be understood as fundamentally restless, existing under conditions that are dramatically changing. The terms we use to describe these changes matter a great deal; is a flood a “disturbance” or part of the river’s inherent dynamic? Christopher Morris asks us to reflect on this distinction. More pointedly, Richard M. Mizelle Jr. reminds us that periods of high water are commonly understood to be shaped by a combination of “natural” and “intentional” factors; what is consistent is that the people suffering the worst impacts are communities of color and the poor.

Much of the work in this issue of Open Rivers is derived from the spring 2015 symposium, “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change,” which was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through a John E. Sawyer Seminar grant. The essays by Patrick Hamilton and Lark Weller, plus Phyllis Mauch Messenger’s interview with meteorologist Paul Huttner all speak directly to the impacts a changing climate may have on rivers. If rivers have an inherent (and cultural) instability, and are manifestly affected by a changing climate, then how can we “know” the rivers in our landscape?

Other writers represented here have answers, to one degree or another. Kirk MacKinnon Morrow offers us a pathway to learn about the Mississippi by listening to the Dakota, the people who have lived in this place for the longest time. Kate Brauman suggests that “big data” can help us understand worldwide water issues, but only to a degree. Simi Kang recommends learning from one of the preeminent historical geographers in the country. And Len Kne reminds us that mapping is always a valuable way to understand what’s around us.

If you have noted a great deal of equivocation in this introduction, that is because equivocation may be an apt rhetorical stance for addressing a changeable subject such as rivers. Our knowledge must, to a large degree, be understood as contingent rather than definitive. Toward that end, we expect that the writing and images offered here will be the first word in provocative discourses, rather than the last word that settles things “once and for all.”

Happy reading!

and Happy Summer!


Summer Plans and Some (Slight) Changes in the Works

Around universities, summers can be pretty slow.  Faculty and students are mostly away, recharging their batteries between school year urgencies.  The relatively few people around for summer school seem to be working at a slower pace.  It’s a good time for reflection and getting “brain work” done.

One of our big tasks this summer is to plan the reconfiguration of the River Life web site, so it can become a better gateway between the world of the river (and rivers/urban water systems more broadly) and the world of the campus.  Be patient, since we probably won’t have the revamp finished until November.  When we do get it done, though, we expect it will better reflect the lively dynamics of both river corridor and campus.

In the meantime, just let us know if there’s anything in particular you’d like for us to include!


What can Scientific Study Tell Us about the Urban Mississippi?

A year ago, when the Upper St. Anthony Lock closed, there was widespread interest in the impacts the closure would have on the biological and physical systems of the river.  Would the closure, and accompanying lack of dredging to maintain the navigation channel, help or hurt the river’s ecology?

The state LCCMR awarded a grant to the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership to study this very question.  The Partnership, in conjunction with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and River Life (both from the University of Minnesota) is nearing completion of the study.

Join us Thursday May 26, at 6:00 in Mill City Museum to hear the initial results of our investigation into the changing Mississippi.  There will be brief presentations, a panel discussion, and plenty of time for questions.  Go here for more information and to register.

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.

A Sip of Science–The St Anthony Lock Has Closed, So How Is the River Doing?

This Wednesday May 11, A Sip of Science will feature a University of Minnesota graduate student reporting on a nearly-complete “literature review” and baseline assessment of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.  We know the Corps of Engineers will not be dredging the former navigation channel, but how will the river’s water quality, aquatic ecology, and sediment systems respond?  We have to know where we are now to understand future changes, so the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources awarded a grant to the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership to examine existing data on this stretch of the Mississippi and conduct very limited new studies.

Come to the Aster Cafe at 5:30 on Wednesday to hear Jane Mazack, a Ph.D. candidate in Water Resource Science at the U of M, report on the study.

More details below:

The lock is closed: what are the keys to river health?

Jane Mazack, PhD Candidate in Water Resources Science, University of Minnesota

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016  5:30p.m.  
Aster Cafe125 SE Main Street, St. Anthony Main, Minneapolis
No cover, Please RSVP!


A SIP OF SCIENCE bridges the gap between science and culture in a setting that bridges the gap between brain and belly.  Food, beer, and learning are on the menu in a happy hour forum that puts science in context through storytelling.

May 11th Event –

The Mississippi River has long been managed for navigation and transportation purposes. Last June, the St. Anthony Falls lock was closed to navigation and channel dredging was halted. These management actions are expected to change the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the river between the Coon Rapids and Ford Dams. Join us as Jane Mazack describes a current collaborative study between the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership, Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Lab, and River Life program that investigates the keys to evaluating the impacts of the lock closure.


The talk takes place during happy hour at the Aster Cafe || Food and Drink Available for Purchase


Jane Mazack is a PhD candidate in Water Resources Science at the University of Minnesota. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from Calvin College in Michigan and a M.S. in Water Resources from the University of Minnesota. Her primary research interest is in aquatic ecology, and her dissertation research focuses on the winter dynamics of invertebrates in southeastern Minnesota trout streams.


A SIP OF SCIENCE is a science happy hour sponsored by the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED). It is a chance to hear about new and exciting research over beer, in a cool bar.  Come talk with the experts about their efforts to address some of the Earth’s most pressing problems. NCED’s A SIP OF SCIENCE brings the wonder of science to happy hour.

Interested in hearing about Sip of Science events?  Join our mailing list.

#TBT St. Paul and Pool 2: Dynamic Land and Water

January 21, 2016Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River MeaningComments Off on #TBT St. Paul and Pool 2: Dynamic Land and Water

cattle on the flats 1925

Grazing on the West Side Flats. This herd of cattle is standing more or less where Holman Field airport is now located. Lily Lake was filled in early in the 20th century to create the land for the airport.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

flood Upper Landing

Boating on Upper Levee during a flood. The Upper Levee neighborhood near the present Science Museum of Minnesota location flooded regularly during the first half of the 20th century. Residents of the community, nearly all of whom were Italian immigrants, moved out after the flood of 1952. Many went to the Railroad Island/Payne Avenue neighborhood on the east side of St. Paul, while others started businesses such as Mancini’s Char House and Cossetta’s Grocery and Deli on nearby West Seventh Street.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

St. Paul bluff cutback for rr

Cutting away the bluff to make way for railroads. The center of downtown St. Paul, between the Science Museum and the Union Depot, is located on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi. This photograph, probably from the 1870s or 1880s, shows the developing railroad beds below the bluff, where present Shepherd Road and current rail lines still run. The bluff appears to have been cut back through the soft St. Peter sandstone to make more room for the transportation network.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

St. Paul under construction

Filling the Mississippi shoreland to make room for new development. This image, looking upstream from the Upper Landing area toward Fort Snelling, illustrates how watery margins of the Mississippi were filled in to create more land for transportation and settlement. The photograph probably dates to the 1870s.
Image from the collections of the 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.

#TBT: What do Rivers have to do with “Heritage”?

January 14, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on #TBT: What do Rivers have to do with “Heritage”?

The answer, like so much these days, might be “it depends,” or “more than you might think,” or (unfortunately) “who wants to know”?

OK, we can leave that last challenging bit out (been watching too much political commentary while at the gym) and return to our main topic.  Yesterday’s announcement of the inaugural issue of our new journal  Open Rivers got us thinking: what else have we been writing about at the beginnings of the year?  So here is the first “Throwback Thursday” piece, looking back at several previous posts that have spoken to how rivers engage our pasts, and through our pasts, our identity and sense of who/where we are.

Five years ago, we highlighted a project near St. Louis where archaeologists discovered a town site that appears not to have been inhabited for some 800 years.  Current floods and the record high water in 2011 have emphasized how perilous it is to build towns and farms in the floodplain of a river as volatile as the Mississippi.  Seems this is a lesson we have to learn over and over again.

“Heritage” has a less-gloomy side, though, and that aspect often appears when river communities “redevelop” their riverfronts.  Three years ago, my former student Derek Holmer wrote about how St. Paul could do a better job connecting the riverfront to spectacular architecture such as downtown’s Union Station.  Those changes are probably in the works, as subsequent news accounts have mentioned.  Meanwhile, check out Derek’s work at the Minneapolis For People blog.

In some ways, though, the most enduring and thought-provoking connection between “heritage” and rivers echoes the famous line from Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”  He is referring, of course, to the analogies between the passage of time and the flow of a river.  But I think the comment also connects us to the future of rivers; just as we have “made” the Mississippi that we have now, we are making the Mississippi for our futures.  I explored this a bit more in a post about the three main lessons of the River Life program, a post which seems as true today as it was two years ago.  The river is vital to our understanding of our past in this place, but it is also central to how we imagine ourselves continuing to live here in a sustainable way.  Final point: we can all contribute to that future, whether scientist or storyteller, policy work or parks user.

Introducing Our New Digital Journal Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi

January 13, 2016Patrick NunnallyFeatured, Program & AnnouncementsComments Off on Introducing Our New Digital Journal Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi

We announce today the inaugural issue of our digital journal, Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi.

openrivers_banner_rlpjan2016“Open” speaks to our commitment to multiple voices, perspectives and subjects.  We will write about the public lands along our rivers, as well as about hydrology.  We will have perspectives from science and policy, from community engagement efforts and from interesting people, places, and events from wherever we find them.

“Rivers” speaks to our primary concern, but we understand that waters are connected and that rivers have watersheds.  So we will go beyond just the urban corridor of the Mississippi, although given our location, that’s probably our home territory and foundation for our inquiries.

Why rethink the Mississippi?  We argue that there are a number of reasons.  There are a bewildering number of people, agencies, organizations and resource and research efforts on the Mississippi.  They don’t talk to each other.  We don’t actually think they probably can; there are just too many differences.  The river is too big to understand.  But our effort is intended to bring together perspectives that don’t normally see or hear from each other, so that conversations might become more connected and integrated even if only a little.

We also feel that the stories we tell about the Mississippi, while important, should be reexamined. We talk about the dead zone, about the importance of flood ways and floodplains, about community redevelopment and navigation.  We ritualistically talk about Mark Twain, perhaps even quote his work.  Two factors, though, are only beginning to emerge as part of the story of the Great River.

First is climate change.  Simply put, the past is not any longer a good predictor for how systems will behave in the future.  The winter flooding stories in the news now speak to this fact; look for more in upcoming issues of our journal.

The second factor is demographic.  The populations in the cities and towns along the river and in the watershed are changing, becoming more diverse and are perhaps not as grounded historically and culturally in the history of the area over the past couple of centuries.  Many communities that have been in this region for generations have a fraught, violent, or transitory relationship with the river or its tributaries.  Mark Twain may not mean much to the regions newest residents.  And his work may not mean much to the residents of longest duration either.  We are committed to learning from and learning with native people, believing as we do that the perspectives of people who have been here the longest are vital to help us understand what we might do to live here sustainably for the long duration.

We hope you’ll read and enjoy the journal.  Share it, tell us what you think and what we should write about.  Write for us or contribute in some other way.

It’s a big river and we need to hear from everyone.

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.