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Knowledge Into Action: Why We Do What We Do

September 17, 2014Patrick NunnallyScience0

All of us who do anything that can be called research want to see the knowledge we create put into action.  For our friend and colleague Kate Brauman, from the Institute on the Environment’s Global Water Initiative, that dream has happened, as this blog post describes.

Kate’s research on “crop per drop” has measured how water is being used in particular agricultural practices.  Bonsucro, an organization working to increase water efficiency in sugarcane production, worked with Brauman to develop production standards for water that have subsequently been adopted as a certification standard to be applied to production facilities around the world.

What if similar efforts were undertaken with corn and soybean production in the Mississippi River basin?  It may be possible, through objective scientific analysis of soils, water sources and other factors, to determine an optimal amount of water for farm fields that would reduce runoff (and the associated carrying of nutrients to the Gulf) while maintaining high production.

And as long as we’re dreaming, we started wondering if there were other areas beyond science where rigorous research would benefit stewardship practices for surface waters in the Mississippi River basin.  Can we try to figure out what pictures people have in their minds of what a healthy river or stream looks like, and then find ways to identify key elements of that image and what it would take to protect that element?  Is there some way to understand the stories people tell in order to hear why the river is important?


River City Revue: Exploring the “Dark Side” of the Mississippi

Rivers have always been “marginal” places, serving as the borders of states and regions, as the way in which, historically, “new” ideas and influences came into the towns along their banks.  There are many good reasons why “river town” has often conjured up synonyms such as “rowdy” or “dangerous.”

Now we can add “filthy” “debaucherous” and “unseemly” to the mix–what fun! (Although I did have to look that second one up.)

The Mississippi River Fund caps a summer of innovative programming with “River City Revue: Filth on the River” riverboat trip on the evening of Wednesday, September 10.  The boat leaves Harriet Island in St. Paul at 7:00.  Look here for tickets and more details.

Partners in River City Revue include the Works Progress studio and the National Park Service.

See you on the boat!

If You’re Interested in the Mississippi River’s Future, Start with Its Past

There are lots of truisms about “history” and “the past”: Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it.  History doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. That sort of thing.

Interesting thing is, those sayings are pretty generally true, at least I see it.  Yes, as a historian, I have professional bias.

With regard to the Upper Mississippi, the public will get a chance to test these ideas and to learn about the river’s past from one of the best in the business, John Anfinson.  Anfinson, the newly-appointed superintendent at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, will be giving a talk “Trapped by History: The Past and Future of the Upper Mississippi River.”  Check here for full details of the talk, on September 9 at 7:00 pm in Northrop Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

For many people whose professional work concerns the Mississippi River, the central issue at hand is what balance can be struck between competing demands and needs on the river.  The Upper Mississippi is a globally important ecosystem, but it is also a key component of international trade and shipping routes.  Flood control measures protect homes, farms, and businesses, but also cut the main channel off from critically valuable linkages to the broader floodplain.  All of these uses, and the dilemmas about how the can (or perhaps cannot) be balanced are grounded in a long history of changes to the physical fabric of the river and floodplain itself.

The key question is: To what extent are those changes determining and limiting future options?

We hope you’ll join us on September 9 to hear John Anfinson’s presentation and participate in the discussion.

“Trapped by History” is a public program sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study in association with the John E. Sawyer Seminar “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Narratives for the Mississippi River in the 21st Century.”  The Sawyer Seminar is supported by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the University of Minnesota.

Beyond “Either/Or” to “Both/And”

One of my grad students posted an essential question via Twitter a few days ago:

Is the Mississippi River a “taxpayer-funded shipping canal” or home to diverse water stories?

Her tweet, from @waterbugsUMN, included a link to a recent blog post by the travel writer Dean Klinkenberg.  Klinkenberg summarizes just a few of the interesting, varied, some would even say “essential” stories that he came across in a recent trip through the Upper Mississippi River corridor. I’ll write another time about why I think “essential” belongs in this discussion, but on to the main point today.

Klinkenberg only makes passing reference to the river as a barge canal, but that sense of things was heavily reinforced with the news last week that the Upper Mississippi would be designated the “M-35 Marine Highway Corridor.”

There are many reasons why I personally think this is an appalling development.  The name is reductive, even ugly.  It reduces the river of mystery and mythology, the “spine of the nation” to an anonymous, numbered, static transect down the middle of the country.  The name was apparently chosen to match the Interstate 35 corridor, which runs from Texas to Minnesota.  What better way to make clear that the sole purpose of the river is moving goods.

Someone please write and tell me that I’m wrong, that this new corridor isn’t a signal that the river as highway is taking the upper hand over the river as a globally significant ecological corridor.  But when you do, I really want to know how that dominance won’t happen.  In other words, don’t just write and say I’m wrong (I hear that a lot).  Tell me how this corridor designation won’t tip the balance away from ecological preservation and enhancement, how this won’t pave the way (pun intended) for expanded locks, hardened river edges to tie big barges up, and all the rest of the Pandoras Box that happens when we decide one use of the river will take absolute primacy over the others (despite federal law, as I understand it).

I hope to hear from you and I hope to be reassured.

TONIGHT! River City Revue by Canoe

River City Revue, the always-interesting collaborative between Works Progress Studio, the Mississippi River Fund, and the National Park Service, takes to canoes this evening, leaves from Hastings tonight at 6:00.  Details and tickets through the Mississippi River Fund, nice discussion of the whole series here.

If we’re ever going to care for our rivers long term, we have to reach beyond our usual audience with our usual message.  River City Revue does just that, with innovative and unexpected themes, activities, and encounters to make more of us realize the Mississippi is part of what makes this place our home.

Nation’s Longest River Significantly Affected by Changing Climate

The Missouri River near Williston, N.D. The river's streamflow has changed significantly over the last 50 years. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

The Missouri River near Williston, N.D. The river’s streamflow has changed significantly over the last 50 years. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Sorry, Mississippi River fans, the nation’s longest river is actually the Missouri.  As this news story makes clear, though, the changes on the Missouri are of a sort that will bring big impacts to the Mississippi as well.

It’s not really a surprise that some parts of the Missouri are seeing too little water while others are seeing too much.  Climate change reports for some time have indicated that dry areas will trend drier and wet areas wetter.  A USGS report released recently documents those changes across a broad area (227 stream gages) and through a span of better than 50 years.

In some ways, the varying reception of this news is more significant than the documented changes.  Some farmers are simply adapting, aware that conditions always change in the uncertain world of agriculture.  People in other sectors of the economy are likewise concerned, and adapting.  Fishing is a major economic activity, contributing over $3 billion annually in Montana alone.  No one is quite sure what the changed river conditions are going to mean to this industry.

Still others don’t seem to really accept that the climate is changing, arguing that poor river management by the agencies involved with the Missouri River are to blame.  The Corps of Engineers comes in for criticism, of course.

Whatever the cause, the evidence in front of people shows that the river is changing.  As one source said, ”We no longer have a smooth, easy-going river,” he said. “It’s choppy and eroding the banks and just pretty ugly at this point in time.”

And that’s perhaps the most interesting part of the story, for me at least.  People in a changing landscape respond to the differences they can see, that are most directly affecting their daily lives.  The river is different–”we no longer have…”  The explanations they offer for change vary almost on a person by person basis, and may or may not be grounded in science, in a systematic understanding of policy or any other set of ideas other than their own values and beliefs.

The rivers are changing.  What do we do now?


What’s All This About Canaries and Coal Mines?

I recently ran across a Twitter post that said something like this:

Lake Mead’s record low is “canary in coal mine” for 30M people West who depend on #CORiver water for drinking 

So I started to wonder a bit about this often-used metaphor: “the canary in the coal mine.”

To refresh your memory, the phrase comes from the practice, dating to the 19th century and perhaps earlier, of coal miners taking canaries down into the mine with them.  Before the advent of modern ventilation systems, bad air was a serious threat to coal miners’ safety.  When the canaries stopped singing, that was a signal that something was wrong with the air and that the miners should get to the surface immediately.

They probably took the canary with them, don’t you think?

So “canary in the coal mine” has become a figure of speech to represent a fairly complex, but important, set of facts: when one indicator (the canary) demonstrates adverse reactions (singing stops) that shows that conditions are worsening in the affected environment (the mine) and that something needs to be done to protect health and safety (get out of the mine).

If the planet is our “mine” in this figure of speech, then there is no “getting out of the mine;” there’s not another planet that we can go to (that we know of).  So the phrase enjoins us to take some other corrective action, usually one that is either self-evident to the readers in question or one that is the subject of the rest of the article, blog post or what have you.

The question I want to pose, and enlist discussion about, is this:  what might “the canary in the coal mine” mean when applied to the Mississippi River, in whole or in part? You can pick your spot, your reach, whatever, or the whole river.  What should we be watching/listening to by way of a “canary” and what adverse conditions might the canary be warning us about?  What actions should be taken in response to this warning?

As they say on talk radio (so I hear): All lines are open.  Let us know your thoughts!

Big Day for News on Rivers, Water

Some days, there doesn’t seem to be much going on other than the usual headlines: Terrible Stuff Happening; Famous (?) People Doing Strange Things, Sports: a Team Won, Sports: a Team Lost.

Then there are days like today when the Twitter feed pops with important news, trends, and updates.  My non-random sample of Things You Should Know About:

From National Public Radio, a story about how Iowa corn farmers are adapting to a changing climate.  This of course is good news, and reminds us that farmers can adapt to changing water values as well.  When we realize as a society that the water coming off farm fields is more valuable than the crops coming off those fields, we will be on our way to clean water. (Never said I wouldn’t editorialize along with the news, did I?)

In a similar vein, the Minneapolis Star Tribune editorializes in support of the state’s Pollution Control Agency and the adoption of new phosphorus standards for Minnesota’s rivers and streams.  Having a pollution standard for surface waters is the first step toward identifying corrective actions to take to reduce phosphorus in our rivers.  The editorial is a response to the recent Toledo water crisis and the question that is everywhere: Could that happen here?

Writing for American Rivers, Olivia Dorothy cites new evidence that large rivers like the Mississippi need connections to extensive floodplain wetlands in order to increase species diversity that is important to the overall health of the river and its corridor.  It’s pretty widely known that an ecologically healthy Mississippi is necessary for the economic health of the cities and towns along the river; here’s some evidence on how to improve that ecological health.

In case you might think that solving problems of river-floodplain connectivity, phosphorus pollution in rivers, and farm runoff was a pretty complex set of tasks, imagine addressing those in a context of unstable climate patterns.  Mark Seeley, the former Minnesota state climatologist reports on the “new normal” that a changing climate is bringing to the state.

Out west, where the drought is making national news, the connections between surface water and ground water are becoming increasingly clear.  American Rivers reports that the biggest threat to the Colorado River isn’t urban or agricultural water use; it’s the dropping water table that feeds groundwater that supports the Colorado, a source of drinking water for 30 million people.  We need to see this connection much more clearly in the Mississippi River corridor and basin.

Finally, Circle of Blue reports from the California drought front that CA lawmakers passed a $7.5 billion water bond that was promptly signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.  Up next in California: a groundwater bill.

All of this water news is pertinent for everyone who knows, uses, or loves the Mississippi.  Keep up with these stories and others like them either by subscribing to our blog (instructions on the right hand side of ) and/or by going directly to the sources in this post.




Complex Legacy for a Land Grant College

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which provided that each state would receive land, the proceeds from the use or sale of which would fund collegiate training in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.”  In Minnesota, the Morrill Act was perhaps overshadowed by the tragedy of the US-Dakota War, fought in August and September of that year.  The legacies of the war continue to reverberate throughout the state, including on the campus of the University of Minnesota, the state’s land grant university, which is located on land that was fraudulently obtained from people who were later driven away or killed.

One of my colleagues sometimes asks “What does it mean to be a land grant school in a place where the land was obtained by theft, fraud, and violence?  If ‘land grant’ is connected to community engagement, then surely this is a legacy that we must face.”

Indeed it is, and one aspect of that legacy has emerged in the past week. The University of Minnesota has asked the local professional football team, the Minnesota Vikings, to work with the University to ensure that the team name of the Washington NFL team, which is widely considered a racist slur against Indian people, not use that name during the November 2 game between Minnesota and Washington.  The University has asked that “throwback” (historic) jerseys be used, which do not include the name, and that the name not be said over the PA system or on the stadium message boards.

The Vikings are playing home games in the university’s stadium for two years while a new stadium for the professional team is being built.

Local and national newspapers have carried the story of the University’s request.

Coverage of the nickname dispute can be followed on Twitter through the hashtag #Racistslur and in commentaries such as that posted here and here.

The University’s stake in this matter should be obvious: as a school that seeks a climate of respect and opportunity for all of its members, there is simply no place for this slur on its campus.  According to some accounts, over 1,000 of its students are American Indian; there is a highly respected Department of American Indian Studies; the Circle of Indigenous Nations is a campus group focused on raising awareness of the ongoing relations that Dakota people have to this place; there is an emergent dialogue on shared interests between University staff and community members concerning wild rice.  These are just a few of the most readily-accessible ways in which the University and local indigenous communities come together.

Our program has a stake here as well.  All of the above listed groups and programs are part of our effort to connect the campus to people off campus who share our interest in sustainable, inclusive practices toward the Mississippi River.  Some of our deepest community partnerships are with indigenous people.  The use of the racist slur on our campus would be deeply embarrassing and would be a challenge to our continued collaboration.

Honestly, the University should do more than request that the name not appear; it should demand that the Vikings put the strongest possible pressure on the NFL to intervene on this matter.  It should not be enough to say that “we have to abide by the league’s promotion policies;” the NFL should be put in a position where it has to either defend the indefensible or explain why it puts up with this disgrace.   Enough is enough: if a similar derogatory term were used against another racial, ethnic, or cultural group, we would not have a controversy.  The name would simply not be used.

As a student was quoted in the Star Tribune, the University’s stance is welcome, but could be more:  “I’m very grateful that the University of Minnesota has stepped up to say something as well,” he said. “Finally. It’s about time [it] took a stance.”



Keeping Up with Water Issues in Minnesota

I think it’s fair to say that thousands more people in Minnesota are thinking about water than were, say, a year ago.  The second-rainiest June ever certainly got people’s attention, and if not, the floods that all that rain generated certainly did.  White  Bear Lake, in the northeast suburbs of the Twin Cities, has rebounded a couple of feet since its lowest point, but it’s still a long way from “full.”  Putting the matter more directly: there’s still a lot of land between the end of people’s docks and the water.

Not surprisingly, the amount of information available to people who want to become more knowledgeable has also grown.  The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency web site contains basic descriptive data on watersheds, aquifers and other “building blocks” for water education, in addition to regulatory and planning information, guidance on the varying types of monitoring the state and other entities are engaged in, plus much, much more.  This may be a good place to start looking, but there is a LOT here!

A related resource, but one that has its attention focusing forward into the future, is the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework.  The study was undertaken at the request of the legislature to provide guidance for management of funds from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the MN constitution.

These are all highly informative sources, but they are really rather daunting just to dive into (sorry–been resisting water puns this whole post!) without much background.  Instead of these sources, I would start exploring water issues by reading what’s been posted on Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level blog.  Ground Level, which focuses on issues important to Minnesota communities, has been running a series on groundwater “Beneath the Surface” for several months now.  These stories make policy issues specific and visible, describing challenges, best practices, ways communities in other parts of the country are addressing issues comparable to ours, and a host of other topics.

To stay up to date with this most excellent resource, follow @MPRGroundLevel on Twitter.

We’re going to be talking about water in Minnesota for years, even generations.  We really need to get to where our “taken for granted” water bodies like the Mississippi River, Lake Superior, or “our” lake where Grandma’s cabin is, are seen (that is, recognized not just with the eyes of our emotional attachment), known (how do they work), and loved (why do we care?).

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