University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Water at Minnesota

We’ve made the case here before that Minnesota is a water rich state, so it was nice to hear the concept confirmed by Prof. Deborah Swackhamer at last week’s Frontiers on the Environment program.  She said that Minnesota is the most water rich state in the country, but that we face a legion of problems that, if not addressed, will cause a great deal of anxiety in the not too distant future.

Click the link above to see more of the program and Swackhamer’s sobering assessment of what it will take for Minnesota to have a sustainable water future.

Fortunately the University of Minnesota is well stocked with water specialists across the disciplinary and professional spectrum.  At the Duluth campus, the Large Lake Observatory is undertaking groundbreaking research on Lake Superior, the largest body of freshwater in the world.

The University boasts of a very well-regarded Water Resources Science graduate program, including faculty from across the university’s graduate and professional schools.  The Water Resource Center has been an important participant in numerous statewide water policy discussions.

Contributions outside the scientific disciplines are of more recent vintage.  Assistant Professor Matt Tucker, of the Landscape Architecture department, develops student thinking and design expertise to face coming paradigm shifts in how urban water is managed.  River Life, our program, is central to the Mellon Foundation-supported John E. Sawyer Seminar, which is exploring new narratives and images to express our relationship to the Mississippi River in an age of climate change.

But the whole isn’t yet greater than the sum of the parts, and collaborating across colleges and disciplines is difficult.  The University’s recently-completed strategic planning effort has identified challenges associated with water as an example of the kinds of “grand challenges’ that the University should turn its teaching, research, and engagement programs to address.  Not surprisingly, we have some ideas for how this might be achieved.  It’s important to continue to reward and encourage ongoing substantial efforts that solve big problems, such as the research on Lake Superior described above.  But it’s more important to supplement existing work by:

  • devising ways for scientists to collaborate with faculty in other arenas as well as community partners in turning scientific data into solutions for current and future challenges;
  • developing inventories of who is doing what sorts of work at the University, and promoting those inventories (rosters, libraries, whatever they are called) to campus and community partners who can benefit and support that work.  We can’t collaborate if we don’t know who’s doing what.
  • hosting knowledge exchange forums featuring specialists from a variety of disciplines and practices.  Once we know of each others’ work, and have been able to “put a face to a name,” then collaboration can start.

There are many other possible ways to bring together the University’s strengths in water-oriented research, programs, and teaching.  Sustained, deliberate effort to break down the siloes of academic specialization is essential, though, for the University to serve the state, region, and broader reaches that will be facing water challenges in the coming decades.


“Water Is All We Have”

And in Minnesota, we have plenty–or so we think.  More on that another time, perhaps.

In fact, though, most of us don’t know very much about the water we drink.  We know it comes from some place beyond our house or office, and that it goes some place away from our house or office.  When pressed, we can probably come up with the name of a nearby stream or river as the source of our drinking water.  Sometimes we’d be right.

The artists at Works Progress studio have recently been investigating tap water as an “ecological, emotional, civic, and socio-economic moment–a common experience that opens space for conversation about our relationships with water and water systems.”

The resulting project is “Water Bar,” a physical installation akin to a bar, where water is what is served, usually in “flights” of small glasses, like the “tasting menu” at a place that serves fancy beer or wine.  Here, as the pun over the bar says, “water is all we have,” but the conversations about that water–where it comes from, how it’s treated, who has access, who manages it–serve up a very rich experience indeed.

Learn more about Water Bar at this guest blog written by the artists, Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker, hosted at the blog of the Mississippi River Fund.


The Past in Place: Landscape and Memory

The manifold connections between place and memory, place and history, history and memory are enough to keep departments full of scholars busy for years.  Is the past really past?  How much of our experience of place is tied up in our memories of other places?

We could go on and on, but we’ll spare you that.

Instead, we’ll be at next Thursday’s program The Presence of the Past, being held in the Crosby Seminar Room, Northrop Auditorium on the U of Minnesota campus, October 30, 4:00 pm.

There will be three panelists:

  • Mary Relindes Ellis, author of the new novel The Bohemian Flats,
  • Catherine Watson, travel writer and memoirist,
  • Scott Vreeland, longtime Mississippi River advocate and Minneapolis Park Board commissioner

It’s sure to be a lively discussion of how the past informs work about the Mississippi and work on the Mississippi.


A Report from the “Front Lines”

Every so often it’s nice to get out of the (paradoxical) “sheltered shouting” of the academy and into the world where real, on the ground work takes place.  Last week, I spent my time in Moline Illinois, attending the Annual Meeting of the Mississippi River Network and the Upper Mississippi River Conference, put on by River Action and its partners.  Here are some quick observations:

The 50 or so members of the Mississippi River Network (MRN) separately and collectively are doing game-changing work to protect the health of the Mississippi River.  As the movement matures, our biggest questions and challenges may well turn to how well the members of the MRN can help each other out, share insights and strategies and truly formulate a collective impact on the river that is greater than what all of us as individual programs can do.  It’s going to take communication, coordination, and collaboration, each of which is easier to say than it is to do.  The group is clearly on the right path, though.

At the conference, Mark Gorman, a policy analyst from the Northeast-Midwest Institute (a member of the MRN) gave a talk with the intriguing title “The Cheshire Cat was Right.”  Gorman’s point?  ”If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”  Indeed, figuring out where we really want to go is the hardest part of our work, and the planning element most easily truncated.  It’s much more fun just to do something, anything, for the sake of appearing to have momentum.

Finally, Patrick Seeb of the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation (another MRN member) closed the conference with a reflection that asked us all to think bigger, to envision the future of our riverfront cities as well as the future of the rivers/riverfronts themselves.  Seeb listed five issues in urban resiliency that all of us should be thinking about:

  1. the looming health crisis–can we design and plan our cities so they are healthier places?
  2. the achievement gap–disparities in education, access to good jobs, and a host of other qualities is holding back a large percentage of our population.
  3. food and water security–the drinking water crises in West Virginia and Toledo OH this year point to a striking vulnerability.
  4. environmental disruption–what impact will a changing climate have on the physical fabric of our cities?
  5. the new face of America–across the nation, by 2045, the majority of the population will be nonwhite.  Moreover, younger people, the so-called “millennials,” are acquiring and processing knowledge very differently than older people do, even as the percentage of retirees grows and becomes a demographic factor to consider with the particular needs of an aging population.

Indeed, it’s always salutary to be reminded in these tangible, material ways why our work is important.

The Secret Life of a Tweet : A Case Study of a Knowledge Ecosystem

Last week I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at Sip of Science, a monthly happy-hour forum organized by our friends over at NCED. Sip of Science a wonderful and regular opportunity to listen to interesting people with a beer in your hand!

I presented “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.  I started with a Tweet that had been posted by the marvelous Anne Jefferson @highlyanne and 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 an excellent discussion in which the crowd very intelligently questioned the scope, power, and credibility of digital platforms for the dissemination and discussion of scientific knowledge.

Though during the lecture, I did trace a specific Tweet of Anne’s, it is really something that can be done with almost any piece of information on the internet.  Ultimately it boils down to finding ways to answer these questions:

  • Where did the information come from?  What is the source, and is it credible?
  • Where did the information go?  What is the ultimate audience of the information?
  • How did the audience engage with the information?  Was it repeated, discussed, changed?

To answer these questions, and depending on the platforms involved, you can use built-in functionality as well as some judicious Googling.  For instance, Twitter will tell you how many times a Tweet has been retweeted, and by whom.  You can then go and look at those accounts and see who was interested enough to share the message.  Is this comparatively on- or off-topic for them?  Does it represent a widening or narrowing of the audience?  Do the accounts represent individuals, agencies, or membership organizations?

Ultimately, you can’t engineer the perfect piece of information that will reach only the intended audience in only the intended ways.  Wildness and randomness are unavoidable, and information will take on a life of its own.  To explore this, I encourage you all, next time a Tweet or something similar catches your eye, to take a moment to consider and investigate its context.  Where did it come from, and where it is going?

For those of you who are overcome with curiosity, the Tweet we traced was this one “California’s drought is bad, but calling it “unprecedented” is simply untrue. … #eesKSU”

Adventure learning on the Big River

Veteran Mississippi River watchers can count on a few teams each year that will plan to navigate the full river under their own power, and will reach out to schools as they go.  Most of these trips take place in summer, so the outreach engages children through summer camps and things like that rather than formal curriculum connections.

Last winter, a couple of guys from Seattle got in touch with us, seeking advice and recommendations about a trip they were planning for fall 2014.  Jordan Hanssen and Greg Spooner make up OARNorthwest, a nonprofit group that researches and educates about water through self-propelled adventures on big waters.  They had done a couple of ocean trips in large specialized rowboats, and were thinking about a Mississippi River tour that would connect directly with classrooms in river communities as they progressed.

The result is Adventure: Mississippi River, which began September 2 and is now as of today south of the Quad Cities.  Jordan, Greg, and the rest of their team have done a great deal of advance work, lining up classes and resources the length of the river, working out where they will be gathering water samples for analysis, and scheduling their internet connections, webinars, and other communications.

Adventure: Mississippi River is turning into one of the most organized, best connected and communicated river trips we have heard of recently.  Follow them on the expedition web site, through Facebook and Twitter.  You’ll see a whole different river than the one you know!

The Mississippi in a Minute

Being a “20th century guy,” it has taken me a bit to warm up to things like “One Minute Film Festivals.”  But one minute is about all the attention span I have any more, so maybe I’ll have to look for more of these.

The Minneapolis Riverfront partnership has made it easy for me to explore this new territory, with its competition “One River, One Minute, Your Vision,” which took place this summer and fall.  All of the entries are accessible at this web site, and voting is open for the “People’s Choice” award.

Winners will be announced, and the second Riverfront Vitality Indicators report will be released, in a program Monday October 20 at Mill City Museum in the Minneapolis Central Riverfront.  The program starts at 6:00 and is free, but registration is required.

Recently in this space I wrote about the need for new stories and images to express our relationship with the Mississippi River in the 21st century.  As the examples of these films show, new media, or “old” media used in new ways, are important parts of bringing new voices and visions to the river.

On Disasters, “Natural” and Otherwise

Lots of people have pointed out that Hurricane Katrina can be considered a “natural” disaster only if we ignore the historical and social patterns that clustered New Orleans’ poorest residents in low-lying parts of town such as the Ninth Ward, or the engineering of water systems in the city that aimed the storm surge directly at the eastern part of the city.

Next Thursday, October 9, at 4:00, Sandra Zellmer, Robert B. Daugherty Professor of Law, University of Nebraska, will give a talk “Unnatural Disasters: How Law Hurts, How Law can Help.”  The Thursdays at Four program is in the Crosby Seminar Room, second floor, Northrop Auditorium, on the east bank of the University of Minnesota campus.

Zellmer’s current focus on issues of disaster and law pertains to laws governing water and how they may or may not be in alignment with what we know about water’s behavior.  As the lecture description points out:

It’s seductively deceptive to call floods and other catastrophes “natural.” They are anything but.  Storms may well be natural phenomenon, but humans have an uncanny ability to exacerbate their own vulnerability to them by shortsighted engineering projects, undue faith in technology, poor decisionmaking processes that encourage development in the floodplain, and federal, state, and local subsidies. The acknowledgement of our own responsibility for unnatural disasters can lead to blame and finger-pointing, but it can also prod us to confront the consequences of our actions, leading to the knowledge necessary to avoid future disasters.  This, in turn, can stimulate a liberating sense of possibility and opportunity—melding our own social and economic aspirations with the environmental imperatives of water and waterbodies.  If we acknowledge that at least some disasters are unnatural, not uncontrollable “acts of God,” then we have a fighting chance at making better laws and better decisions in the future.

What Kinds of Science Can Be Learned from Twitter?

Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of good scientific information is exchanged on social media platforms.  Next week’s “A Sip of Science” program explores how this happens by following “The Secret Life of a Tweet.”

Joanne Richardson, the digital maven behind most of River Life’s digital information work, will explore the “knowledge ecosystem” in which a particular bit of scientific knowledge is contained.  Where did the link in the tweet originally appear?  Who would have seen it there and what would have their expectations been?  Who might have seen the tweeted version of the information, and what can be understood about that audience?

Science is increasingly a broad field interdisciplinary enterprise that looks for impacts beyond the lab or originating discipline.  More and more, scientists from agencies and from academe are taking to social media to share and discuss their work.  Social media channels will never replace peer-reviewed journals, nor should they.  But the future of scientific communication is here, and it lies in digital media.

Learn more next Wednesday October 8, at 5:30, River Room, Aster Cafe.  RSVP requested through the link above.

New Stories, New Images for the Mississippi River

I just finished putting together the reading list for something we’re doing this year called “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Narratives for the Mississippi River in the 21st Century and Beyond.” The seminar is funded by a John E. Sawyer Seminar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and we very much appreciate the support.  Working in collaboration with scholars from other institutions, as well as Mississippi River experts from outside academe, we are excited to begin conversations about how we have “made” the river through words and images.  For more on the Mississippi River seminar, check this page at the Institute for Advanced Study.

So I’m kind of a geek; putting together reading lists is something I’m really interested in.  For the seminar, we’ll be reading some journalism, some technical reports, and a fair amount of scholarship on the history, archaeology, and literary perspectives on the Mississippi River.  So that’s all fun, of course.

What makes the seminar really exciting, though, is the prospect of exploring the sources for new narratives for the Mississippi River.  Don’t get me wrong, the stories we tell about the river remain powerful and important.  But climate change is showing us that we should think more specifically about what we may mean when we call for “restoration” of natural systems in the watershed.  And the old “fight the river floods” stories, while heroic, maybe should recede into history if we would quit building in the floodplain, where we shouldn’t be putting houses and buildings.  Furthermore, as the demographics of our cities and regions change, leaders two generations hence may not be moved at all by the Mark Twain/Huckleberry Finn story that, implicitly or explicitly, is embedded in so much of what we write about the river.

So what should new narratives and images do, or look/sound like?  Several points come readily to mind:

  • We need to acknowledge that the Mississippi River is the most visible component of a water system that includes surface waters from some 40% of the continental United States and that is highly connected to groundwater in aquifers spanning the middle of the continent.  We ought to know better how the system works.
  • We should recognize that we have a complex relationship with the river, that we abuse and mistreat it by dumping wastes into it and tightly constraining its movement, but that we have also loved and respected it for millennia.  We must begin to see that our relationship with the river includes both of these tendencies, and that our relationship should be managed with the river’s health in mind, just as it would be for others whom we love and respect.
  • Our stories need to be multi cultural and multi vocal, tapping the deeply held beliefs and value systems and stories of the highly diverse population that lives along the river and depends on it.  Ultimately, the health of the river will depend on efforts of people not yet brought into the conversation.
  • We have to learn to recognize, appreciate, and allow for the dynamic nature of the river.  It’s not just a still picture that we look at and appreciate aesthetically.

Maybe these are self-evident, but I don’t think the full implications of these perspectives are widely understood or well thought through.  That’s part of our job in the Making the Mississippi seminar.  Watch here and elsewhere that River Life posts information about future public events associated with the seminar; come to the events and join the conversation.

In the meantime, I would love to hear other views of what our new narratives and images need to convey.


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