University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

In Atlanta, Integrated Water Management + Community Engagement=Resilience

March 14, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on In Atlanta, Integrated Water Management + Community Engagement=Resilience

Atlanta GA is, to say the least, a complex place.  It has been the herald of various “New South” efforts (some of which weren’t really so new) since the 1880s, and even today contains all of the depth and self-contradictions that can be found across the entire country.

So it wasn’t really surprising to find that Atlanta is the location for a recent case study report on the American Rivers blog, where it had been picked up from an earlier River Network posting.  These two national organizations, which until fairly recently had reflected stereotypes of environmental orgs as interested in “wild” places where elites could afford to travel for recreation, have become increasingly attuned to urban issues of environmental equity and water management.

This case, like many in Atlanta and other urban locales, begins with a large scale infrastructure decision affecting a neighborhood comprising largely poor people and communities of color.  The vicinity of Turner Field, formerly the home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, has been carved up by highways, leveled for sports complexes and parking lots, and otherwise converted to a sea of impervious surfaces over the past 50+ years.  Now the Braves are leaving; what shall the site become?

In this instance, American Rivers collaborated with ECO-Action, a community environmental justice group, to devise specific approaches to stormwater management that would support the mixed-use development that was the neighborhood’s #1 redevelopment priority.  Working together, planners proposed measures that would capture the first 1.8″ of rainfall, an amount that covers over 90% of the rainstorms the city sees.  Capturing that water on site, rather than having it rush off into an already flood-prone neighborhood, provides benefits for the neighborhood as well as the nearby Chattahoochee River.

How did they do it? The author, Jeremy Diner, offers suggestions that are familiar to community organizers although not, perhaps, part of river advocacy “tool kits” yet:

This experience suggests that we start by breaking out of our own silos. We free up more evenings to attend community meetings. We trade our keyboard for a telephone or a handshake. We listen more and talk less.

Can’t really say it any better.

Innovative Knowledge Sharing and New Relations to Place

March 7, 2017Patrick NunnallyDigital Programs, River MeaningComments Off on Innovative Knowledge Sharing and New Relations to Place

It sometimes surprises our community partners when they learn how “non-placed” much of University scholarship is.  Many of our faculty have their most important professional relationships enacted through a network of scholars working on similar projects; the community represented by their department or college is important, but not really where their primary allegiances are.  In a similar manner, many scholars, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, study broad theoretical frameworks that are not explicitly “placed,” even though the impacts or applications of the ideas are all around us.  For many reasons, places like the U of M tend to reward scholars for the original ideas rather than the application of ideas.

I’m not writing this to complain or start an argument–I know there are many generalizations in the previous paragraph.  But I want to highlight two projects that I ran across recently, both of which provide potentially valuable complementary perspectives to traditional scholarly work. In Vancouver, the  Wikiupedia project offers an augmented reality access to indigenous stories of that place. The app has potential to “unsettle” or “decolonize’ stories of a place that are more commonly seen through the lenses of settler stories and occupation.  Project developers hope that it can preserve indigenous cultures, capturing stories and language, vetted by indigenous cultural-knowledge keepers before the relations to land and place that are expressed through that language are lost.

The other innovative project that offers new connections between knowledge and place originates closer to home. The Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities and other partners are collaborating on a series of art installations and research projects known as “Date/um: Ecological Temporalities of the Lower Schuylkill River.” The project’s lead curator, Patricia E. Kim, explains in an online essay that the sharp juxtaposition of diverse kinds of information serves both to illuminate how science and art can speak together, and also to advocate for continued collection of rich scientific data.  Toward that end, the PPEH project has been a leader in the national DataRefuge project, which seeks to “build refuge for federal climate and environmental data.”

Art, science, and place: key components for the next generation of water programs. The work that needs doing requires an aesthetic and ethic of “both/and”: engagement and science, both grounded in place; scholarship and community perspectives, mutually reinforcing each other.

Bethany Wiggin, the Founding Director at the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, will present a talk on the PPEH work on the Schuylkill River this Thursday, March 9, at Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus.  Further information is on the Institute for Advanced Study web site.


#TBT: Minnesota Digital Library

March 2, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Minnesota Digital Library

Maybe it goes against the “rules” of Throwback Thursday as a trope (meme?) to write about places that have historical materials rather than places or things that are historic.  Nevertheless, I just have to highlight the materials in the Minnesota Digital Library.

If you’re inclined to go to this site, be forewarned: it’s a time warp.  A couple of weeks ago, I was looking around on the site, having typed “Mississippi River” into the search window.  I honestly didn’t think two hours had passed that fast; at least that’s what I tried to explain when I showed up late for a meeting.

Maps, historic photographs, images of historical documents; you name it, it can be found on this site.  One of the great advantages of the site as a platform is that it encompasses the collections of many libraries and archives across the state.  The range of sources and the rich metadata combine to make this an invaluable stop for “river students” of all sorts.

If any of you end up searching these collections and are interested in writing about what you find, let me know.  The Open Rivers journal is always looking for good articles!


Climate Change, Heritage, and the “Future(s) of the Past”

February 28, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on Climate Change, Heritage, and the “Future(s) of the Past”

Climate change poses a whole host of problems for all of us (whether we acknowledge them or not), but some of those problems have not gotten as much attention as others.  In “The Art of Losing,” a blog hosted by the University of Minnesota Press, author Caitlin DeSilvey writes about the recent National Park Service policy document concerning heritage resources that are at risk from a changing climate.  In the United States, the administrative structure around historic preservation is oriented around a conception that wants to “stop time,” to preserve the significant fabric of historic structures as they were in the significant part of the past.  In some cases, “restoration” is called for, but for the most part programs such as the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Landmarks Program, indeed even many individual units of the National Park System, make an implicit promise that the visitor will see the past landscape or building “as it was” during the historically significant time.

In this conception of time, the effort is always uppermost to preserve, to stop time somehow, to slow down or interrupt the processes of decay and loss.  So the new Park Service Climate Change Strategy breaks new ground with its acceptance that a changing climate will necessarily result in the loss of historically significant places.  In the face of inevitable loss, what are the appropriate ways to recognize the importance of what was in this place?  Perhaps a more difficult, yet more important, question is how to talk about the multilayered systems that are changing a place that is loved and that has wide significance.  When rising seas bring the Tidal Pool up to the base of the Jefferson Memorial, how will we have to change our thinking about the passage of time and the impermanence of landscape?

A community visioning project in Boston “Boston Coastline: Future Past” offers one approach.  As illustrated on a web site and video, participants walked the streets of the city, more or less tracing the future shoreline, given some climate change projects.  Maybe it’s not surprising that the future shoreline closely approximates the shoreline of the area when Europeans landed in the 17th century.  What does surprise many people is how much of the present city, including some of the region’s most famous areas, is built on created land, fill that has been scooped up and solidified, and on which buildings, streets, and parks have now been placed.

Neither the National Park Service nor the Boston walkers directly engage the ways in which water shapes our sense of where we are, our sense of what physical components of our best-known spots make it distinctly “here.”  We have a lot to learn about our “water past” in order to understand better our potential “water futures” and how our most desired future might be achieved.

#TBT: Mississippi River is Central in Early Statehood Racial Controversy

February 23, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Mississippi River is Central in Early Statehood Racial Controversy

In 1860, two years after Minnesota became a state and a year before the Civil War would close the Mississippi as an avenue of regional transportation, the Eliza Winston case rocked the village of St. Anthony (now part of Minneapolis). Eliza Winston, an African-American slave, was brought north by her “owners,” a Mississippi family who had come north to escape the heat and humidity of the Southern summer.  As detailed in this article in the invaluable online encyclopedia MNopedia, Eliza Winston connected with influential white and African American community members and sued for her freedom, since slavery was illegal in Minnesota.  Although her suit was successful, she faced mob violence from members of the community who felt that interference with another person’s “property” was a violation of social order.  Under the threat of pro-slavery violence, Eliza Winston was spirited away from where she had been staying with abolitionist sympathizers.

Although this is not a story of water management or the direct impact of the Mississippi River on the city’s material landscape, it nevertheless reiterates the many ways in which the river runs through our history, our stories, and our politics.

Why Should People in the Mississippi River Basin Care about the Oroville Dam?

February 21, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on Why Should People in the Mississippi River Basin Care about the Oroville Dam?

I’m writing this on the afternoon of Monday, February 20, a week after heavy rain across northern California caused Lake Oroville to overflow and an emergency spillway to become activated for the first time in the 49 years the Oroville Dam has been in existence.  Nearly 200,000 people were evacuated when engineers and public safety professionals feared that the spillway would collapse, releasing a devastating flood.  This week, tonight and tomorrow, another rain event known as an “atmospheric river” is taking place; by the time you read this Oroville Dam and the Feather River may once again be at the top of national headlines.

The Oroville Dam crisis has been the subject of a great deal of smart journalism.  Brad Plumer at offers a good basic explainer of the various structures on the ground and how the system is supposed to work; the Sacramento Bee complements this account with historical background explaining some of the decisions made when the dam was built in the 1960s. Writing in Circle of Blue, Brett Walton puts the Oroville situation in the context of recurring issues of dam safety across the nation, while Ethan Elkind broadens his consideration to more general policy implications of the crisis. City Lab raised the issue of how Oroville speaks to the country’s ongoing infrastructure issues, although the writer (and editor? page designer?) got some flack for politicizing the question of how infrastructure might be funded.  Three other articles take up more focused, though still important, subjects: American Rivers argues for more natural management of rivers and two articles connect Oroville Dam and Lake to California’s statewide water management system and the provision of water in faraway Los Angeles.

Whew! That’s a lot of information and knowledge to process, largely concentrated on California and on national water issues. All speak of Oroville as a “wake up call” with far reaching “implications.” The real connection to the Mississippi River basin, though, comes from articles that raise the specter of how a changing climate is contributing to the Oroville crisis.  At the very least, the repeated atmospheric rivers that have pounded California this winter seem to be symptoms of a warmer, more humid atmosphere.  More subtle arguments point out that precipitation that falls as rain rather than snow has a direct impact on intensity of flood events.  Finally, not only are California’s dams and water infrastructure showing the signs of years of neglect and deferred maintenance, but, as one observer puts it, the water system was “designed and built in an old climate, one in which extremely warm years were less common and snowpack was more reliable.”

The problem of how to design water management for a new climate is a challenge the entire country is, or should be, facing. Oroville is indeed a wake up call, that we should be hearing in the Mississippi River basin as well.


Open Rivers Issue 5 Now Available: Networks and Collaboration

February 14, 2017Patrick NunnallyFeatured, Program & AnnouncementsComments Off on Open Rivers Issue 5 Now Available: Networks and Collaboration

When I got fully engaged with Mississippi River work, in the mid-90s, there was a lot of talk about public-private partnerships. That has ebbed and flowed and morphed over the years, but the idea of partnership has remained. Pretty much anyone in any sector—public, nonprofit, or corporate—understands that work beyond a small one-time project rarely happens through just one entity.

The features in this issue celebrate partnership and collaboration. Taken separately or together, this issue’s articles focus on community work as opposed to scholarship. They will, we hope, show community folks the work of others that they can learn from. We hope also that campus people can see the range of community partners and what they do, and see possibilities for expanding their engagement in particular ways they hadn’t thought of. These articles illustrate a range of ways to engage in collaboration; if you know of a great collaboration that is not mentioned here, let us know and maybe we can get that case written up for a future issue.

Our Minneapolis campus is almost completely within the boundaries of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park System that is known as a “partnership park.” The feature by Superintendent John Anfinson (A U of M graduate, by the way) examines a number of the formal partnerships that enable the park to do the work that makes it successful. Our River Life program, as well as any number of individual researchers and instructors, has worked with park staff on a variety of projects over the years; we will have to figure out how all of that work can be rolled into a more formal agreement. That agreement would be a significant asset for the University and we trust it would be valuable for the park as well.

The work of the Healing Place Collaborative shares a geography with the local national park unit, but operates quite differently. The series of interviews offered here reflect the decentralized nature of the Collaborative’s work, and the myriad ways that significant work is taking place by partners either individually or in various combinations, but all working under the aegis of “healing,” “place,” and “water.” The Collaborative’s November meeting perhaps exemplified the mutual strength members give each other; “How We Are Caring,” a collection of reflections from that meeting, is included as a sidebar to the multiple voices in the article authored by Martin Case.

Diagram of the Healing Place Collaborative members’ working relationships.

The river in our community is, of course, connected to the broader Mississippi River and, through the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Two additional features in this issue trace collaborative efforts that work toward the overall health of these waters. Kelly McGinnis articulates a number of the key principles underlying the collaborations among 50+ organizations of the Mississippi River Network. America’s Wetland Foundation, as described in the article by Valsin Marmillion, works differently, by convening groups that don’t normally work together into efforts that find innovative responses to seemingly intractable solutions.

Collaborations among multiple partners can achieve great things, but there will always be a need for good, old-fashioned river advocacy. John Helland describes the general perspectives offered by some of the most prominent national river advocacy groups; nearly all of them can be followed through social media if any in particular pique your interest. On the subject of national perspectives on rivers, Joanne Richardson reviews the current touring exhibit, “Water/Ways,” which is anchored by the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street show on the importance of water in our lives.

Our final three columns bring us back to the campus of the University of Minnesota and its vicinity. Laura Matson offers an examination of the treaty provisions that underlie much of the conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline and its crossing of the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation. The conflicts over water and the pipeline itself are fairly well known, but the treaty provisions are not.  Hilary Holmes describes for us a quite different geography, Bridal Veil Falls, which formerly fell untrammeled into the Mississippi River near Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. Finally, Monica McKay gives us hope for the continuation of partnerships like those covered in this issue. Her account of various programs in the University of Minnesota’s Center for Community-Engaged Learning indicates that collaboration can, perhaps, be taught.

It is appropriate in these times that we write intentionally about “hope” and teaching early career people about patterns of collaboration.  As I discuss more fully here these are challenging times for people committed to issues of water, sustainability, place, and equity.  I welcome your comments.

That is indeed a hopeful lesson for us all. Happy reading, everyone!

Follow this link for Open Rivers, Issue Five : Networks and Collaboration.

#TBT: On Communities of Color and National Parks

February 9, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on #TBT: On Communities of Color and National Parks

Beginning this month, Black History Month, but continuing far beyond it, this blog will be taking up issues of diversity, inclusion and equity as they pertain to water and “water landscapes.” By that last phrase, we mean the spaces, often public space and often intentionally designed, that are defined by their relation to water.  A surprising number of public lands, managed by federal, state, and local agencies, are focused around a feature such as a river, creek, lake, or seashore.  We feel that these places are where some of the most important systemic changes–in the ways we treat each other across communities, and in the ways we treat water–will be enacted.

Part of the Throwback Thursday focus on this post, then, looks back to a piece I wrote here a couple of years ago, exploring connections between the calls for justice in Black Lives Matter, and the questions of whether African-Americans feel connected to the outdoors, to parks, and to the “green movement.”  Short answer: not really, but people are beginning to work on it.

Lauret Savoy, a writer and professor of environmental studies, explores the roots of African-American connection (or disconnection) to national parks in an eloquent essay published last year, during the Centennial Celebration of the National Park Service.  She writes that as a child she realized that the national parks she loved attracted few people of color and that most of the stories told by park rangers were not about people like her, “…I began to wonder whose stories mattered and whose ‘public lands’ these were.”  Subsequent historical research into the histories of indigenous people across the western plains and the connections between their removal and the establishment of the parks showed her how fraught the stories of the national parks really are.  Furthermore, her research clearly showed the ongoing presence of “buffalo soldiers,” African-American troops in segregated units of the United States Army, in the formative efforts to maintain park resources.

These stories are certainly not lost on the present National Park Service, although it does take time to change the habits of an established bureaucracy.  Together with national programs such as Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors, the current management of the National Park Service is making an effort to promote the parks as places where diverse communities can go comfortably and partake of the contact with nature that brings so many benefits.  Furthermore, efforts are growing to create a more diverse work force in the parks, as well as other public lands, and to spread the word of the benefits of public lands, so that future generations of communities of color can be champions as well as participants in  these special places.

Minnesota’s Water Future: TBD

February 7, 2017Patrick NunnallyProgram & AnnouncementsComments Off on Minnesota’s Water Future: TBD

For all of its much-vaunted reputation as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and the “Land of Sky-Blue Waters,” the wide public discussion of Minnesota’s water future is a recent phenomenon.  But we are certainly making up for lost time!

Two weeks ago, state leaders hosted the second Minnesota Water Summit, in the western Minnesota town of Morris.  True to expectations, the non-metro location served well for a broad-ranging discussion of water and agriculture, as well as the particular problems facing small communities with aging water systems.  Unfortunately, most of the news coverage was from smaller newspapers, but people who really want to get a sense of the discussion can go to Twitter and follow the hashtag #MNWaterSummit.

Last week, the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus was the location for the Minnesota Environmental Congress, organized by the state’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB).  As befits the EQB’s broad range of concerns, the issues here were not just about water, but ranged across subjects as varied as pollinator protection and community engagement.  A thought-provoking panel on environmental justice closed the day.

The EQB event was notable, though, for the headlines it generated from Governor Mark Dayton’s remarks, which largely focused on water protection.  Continuing a theme that Dayton has made an important part of his work, the governor asserted that “Clean water is your right, and also your responsibility. And it’s mine, too.”  We’ll revisit this point in the future, I am sure.  The primary water headline from the day was Dayton’s call for the state to reduce water pollution levels by 25% by 2025.  All agreed that meeting that goal would be a “tough lift,” but that the hard work has to start with big goals.

Finally, our program is organizing a panel discussion for this coming Thursday, on “We Are Water: the University and Minnesota’s Water Future.”  The event, which is free and open to the public, will be held 3:30-5:00 in the Best Buy Theater, in Northrop Auditorium.  Northrop is on the University’s East Bank campus in Minneapolis.  More details are at the web site linked above.  Hope you can make it!


#TBT: The Mississippi River in African American Experience

February 2, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: The Mississippi River in African American Experience

The impact of the Mississippi River on the culture, history, and experience of African Americans is, like the river itself, long, deep, complex, and unlikely ever to be fully explored.  Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that it’s relatively easy to form a superficial opinion, for example about “Old Man River” as a song or the Mississippi as part of the Underground Railroad, that then interferes with greater understanding.

Today’s image comes from the Earl S. Miers River Photograph Collection of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.  The metadata places the image as having been made around 1900, at a point when the Mississippi Delta region was home to thousands, if not millions of African American farm workers.

The Miers Collection, in turn, was accessed through the search tools available at the Umbra Search  African American History web site.  Umbra Search is developed by the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries, with Penumbra Theater.  The name honors the Umbra Society, a group of writers in the 1960s who helped create the Black Arts Movement.  To date, the Umbra Search platform has over 500,000 digital items, gathered from over 1,000 holdings.

Projects like Umbra Search bring the history and experiences of African Americans to research on the contested meanings of water in the United States.  I found the image shown below by typing “Mississippi River” into the Umbra Search search bar and paging quickly through the nearly 1,000 results that popped up.  Given the breadth and scope of collections like those contained in Umbra Search, scholars and others who are serious about the ways water has been a part of American life have no excuses to tell monochromatic water stories any more.

Photo “Mississippi River People” from the Earl S. Miers River Photograph Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

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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.