University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

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

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

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

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.

Amid Crowded, Confusing Agenda, What might President’s Infrastructure Plan Hold for Inland Rivers?

January 31, 2017Patrick NunnallyRivers0

Among the many many plans and priorities offered by the incoming Presidential administration, it’s been easy to overlook the promise for a massive infrastructure program that would create jobs and facilitate economic growth. This post won’t enter into speculation about what structure of investment the President has in mind, such as tax credits for private investment or direct public spending.  Nor will it engage in the tempting but pernicious process of guessing what the President really means by his various communications.  Instead the post reports on two recent news stories, and invites readers to pursue the matter further if they so desire.

One of several industry trade publications pertaining to commercial shipping, navigation, and the management of ports reports that at least some investment in the Mississippi River is part of the administration’s plan.  Port Technology reports that dredging on the Mississippi River in and around the Port of South Louisiana ranks #7 on the list of 50 critical projects. The Port of South Louisiana is a 54-mile port district on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that ranks among the busiest ports in the world.  The river has not been fully dredged to the depth of 50 feet required for full access of all oceangoing vessels, despite that depth having been authorized decades ago.

The DC office of McClatchy news service offers a broader look at the full list of 50 critical projects.  A quick scan of the list shows that almost 40% of those listed–18 of the 50 on the list–directly involve water management.  Ports get a lot of attention, as already noted in the case of the Port of South Louisiana, but lock and dam refurbishment is also in line for major investment, should this plan become reality.  Of particular note in the Mississippi River basin are plans for locks/dams on the Illinois, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers, as well as Locks and Dams 20-25 on the Mississippi’s main stem.

The Upper Mississippi River, that stretch from St. Paul, MN to St. Louis, MO, has been declared by federal law to be a nationally significant ecosystem as well as a nationally significant transportation system.  Here’s hoping that in the planning for transportation improvements, the ecosystem part of the balance is not left short.

#TBT: “River Therapy”

We’ve maybe all heard of “retail therapy,” where a good shopping trip helps take your mind off your troubles.  As Tuesday’s post described, our current times are full of uncertainty, with lots of things that were formerly thought of as settled, now a bit up in the air.  As an antidote, I offer you this cyanotype image of the Upper Mississippi, made by Henry Bosse roughly 130 years ago:

The image shows wingdams jutting into the river, early efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to manage the river’s depth and facilitate commercial navigation.  The location, near the short-lived town of Nininger, MN, is in Dakota County, between St. Paul and Hastings, MN.

A restful image, indeed.


River Life: Place, Water, Community

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Over the past few months, River Life has found its focus shifting a bit. Since 2005, we have worked to raise the visibility of the Mississippi River, particularly on the campus of the University of Minnesota, which is bisected by the river in Minneapolis. We have written about the river, essentially, as a physical spatial phenomenon, raising and exploring issues arising from its “materiality” as our scholarly colleagues put it. People, programs, projects; if they were about the Mississippi, we included them.

More recently, we have found ourselves concentrating on matters affecting the river’s future, particularly how that future can be driven by more sustainable and inclusive planning. Examples that our community partners could learn from are all over the country; our role is to bring those to light and make them available to our collaborators, who are too busy doing their primary jobs to have time for this kind of broad-field research. We want to contribute perspectives and news that our partners haven’t got time or space for.

Our program hasn’t got resource management responsibilities, nor are we charged with public programming. Instead, we work with people in organizations such as the National Park ServiceMinneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the Minnesota Humanities Center, and Minnesota Historical Society, who do have statutory responsibilities for public space and public programs. Together with community-based partners such as Works Progress, the Healing Place Collaborative, and the Mississippi River Network, we provide new ideas, access to innovative insights, and perspectives that are grounded in the immediate and also reach forward into the possible. We want our readers and participants to come away from our work thinking “I had not thought of that before. Will have to consider that more.”

Our job got a lot harder Friday.

Unless you have just returned from Mars or some place, you know that the United States has a new President, one who seemingly is focused on undoing much of the work of the previous Administration. Together with our community partners and campus collaborators, we work on matters of water, place, and community, with an emphasis on efforts that increase inclusion, equity, and sustainability. The inauguration marks a clear change for all of us, particularly our federal colleagues. We will have to address this change, respond to it, but make our comments as little about partisanship and individual people as possible. Here are our thoughts, offered as a series of comments, each of which merits further research and elaboration, beyond the limits of this one post.

We are concerned by the new administration’s celebration of the private sphere over the public, seemingly in all areas of our society. The infrastructures of water—everything from drinking water pipes to inland waterway navigation structures, to sewer systems and everything else we have engineered to move water—is aging rapidly and nearing the end of its functional life in many respects. The new administration touts plans for infrastructure investment; we must be vigilant that these plans do not rely on private investment only, and the handing over of control and pricing of water to the highest private sector bidder. Privatization of urban water systems is still relatively rare in this country; further moves in this direction are to be viewed with caution.

The administration’s potential to erode the public sphere of our society shows itself also in immediate threats to programs such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. These programs in particular, which don’t cost much as federal programs go, provide an essential function of “jump starting” new ideas and innovations, the fruits of which come to light in succeeding years and decades.

As our friends at the Penn Environmental Humanities Lab have demonstrated so dramatically, the new administration poses a direct threat to the importance of science in the public sphere. “Data rescue” operations are vital, but the ongoing de-emphasis of science in agencies such as the EPA, NOAA, and the National Park Service poses a broad-based threat to our ability to combat climate change, develop responses to water pollution, or devise innovative ways to increase agricultural yields.

Our work at River Life is grounded in a conviction that public space has to be public for all, and that the right of all of the people to peaceably assemble and address their grievances (to use Constitution-era language for “gather and protest”) is fundamental. Many of our iconic public spaces, in the Twin Cities and beyond, are associated with water; think of the Mississippi Riverfront and the pathways around the various lakes and creeks in the cities. Now imagine those spaces privatized, sold to the highest bidder and restricted to public use, or on days when the public can use them, seeing restricted uses. The new “park” around the Vikings stadium in Minneapolis already points in this direction, of “privatized public space.” We fear that more of this is coming.  We are further concerned that discussions about the importance of the river, or parks, lakes and creeks, just involve the “usual suspects,” namely, generally affluent, readily self-identified “environmentalists.”  Public spaces are often fraught for communities of color and Indigenous people, and the “meaning” of water has many dimensions that go beyond our usual reckoning.  These concepts must be part of our ongoing considerations.

Our work on questions at the nexus of place, water, and community means we will continue to attend to issues and matters that may not appear directly to be associated with the Mississippi River. The river, though, is a system that reflects our human systems in many ways, some of which are less evident than others. We know that the Mississippi is a “river of history,” and a “river of nature.” Shall it be seen as a “river of money”? A “river of colonization”? Other people have addressed these complexities; we need to find them and learn from their experiences.

Mississippi River, looking downstream from St. Paul, Minnesota. Image circa 1870’s.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Finally, the recent administrative changes at both the federal and state levels (Minnesota’s legislature saw partisan rearrangements as a result of November’s election as well) emphasize our roles and responsibilities as a public educational institution. To put matters simply: our “.edu” digital environment imposes on us the responsibility to “get it right,” to produce and share knowledge that is reliable and verifiable. Knowledge, we all know, is becoming increasingly contested. We owe our partners, and ourselves, our best efforts to share knowledge that solves problems, addresses community needs, and shapes the future that we envision.

Network diagram of the Healing Place Collaborative, courtesy of Mona Smith.

#TBT: 2016, when we could no longer see water problems as “just” science or engineering

It is arguable that water issues have never been “just” a matter for science and engineering, but 2016 certainly marks a turning point: the biggest water stories in the past year cannot be fully understood without broad understanding of the political, social, economic, indeed, cultural, dimensions that they raise.

Writing in Circle of Blue, Keith Schneider’s year-end summary illustrates a number of points that clarify how water issues have grown to encompass important new perspectives.  The two biggest water stories in the United States, the crises at Flint MI and Standing Rock ND, both illustrate failures of the old ways in which water has been managed as well as the emergence of new voices, coalitions, and social movements to seek broad-based structural change.  Related to these headline stories, Schneider sees patterns of changing investment in multi-billion dollar water infrastructure projects, “stranded assets” as global energy sources shift, and emerging civic opposition to mismanaged water projects as trends taking place across the globe.  Furthermore, he notes how drought has ravaged countries and economies on nearly every continent.  In the U.S., we tend to hear only about California’s drought; similar conditions in Zimbabwe, along the Mekong, and in India are equally dire.

Closer to home, Brett Walton writes that water affordability has become a “new Civil Rights movement in the United States.”  Again, Flint and Standing Rock have grabbed the headlines, but across much of the country water rates have risen much faster than other segments of the economy, putting stress on low income families particularly in the Midwest and New England.  With water infrastructure repair bills estimated in the trillions coming up in the next decade or so, the stage is set for ongoing debate.

Both of these stories really deserve to be read carefully, and the myriad links and references followed thoroughly.  Together, they set a stage for innovative research, education and policy development that is much more inclusive than we have previously seen.  Citizen involvement in water governance will have to grow and evolve, perhaps through traditional means such as public meetings and community activism, perhaps through forms not yet imagined.  Water is life, and if we are going to understand how and by whom it is managed, there is a sea change of awareness and action needed.


Bears don’t read boundary signs: environmental history in/of the north land

An interesting post on a blog of early Canadian history reminds us (again) of how recently we have put in place structures we now think of as “inevitable” or “permanent.”

In the 18th century, as Britain and France were figuring how how to deal with their colonial ambitions in the St. Lawrence River valley, reports of “bear years” and “squirrel years” complicated nationalist efforts to “fix” boundaries.  Periodically, large numbers of black bears moved south out of Quebec, reaching into Massachusetts territory, where they excited and alarmed settlers.  Other years, the migrants were thousands upon thousands of black squirrels.  In all cases, the shifting numbers of animals were accompanied by movements of indigenous hunters, which, of course, complicated efforts to figure out where these populations “belonged,” which crown, if any they were “subject” to, etc.

These reports are interesting and fun to read about in their own right (to me, at least) but they also remind us that our tenure on these lands and waters is relatively recent.  Underneath our territorial lines and roadways, our “property” boundaries, lies a still-living continent of land and water. We would do well to remember this.

#TBT: Headwaters Dams on the Mississippi River

In the dead of winter, the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities appears sluggish, barely moving under a thin sheet of ice or snow.  Water continues to course over St. Anthony Falls, certainly, and the patterns of ice and falling water provide beautiful studies for those hardy enough to go outside and study them closely.

Over a century ago, the river would often hardly flow at all in winter, with precipitation falling as snow that stayed put where it fell rather than running off into the river.  Low flows were a problem for millers at St. Anthony, of course, since the mills operated on a combination of hydropower and electricity generated through other means.  Beginning in the early 1880s, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed dams on several of the headwaters lakes on the Mississippi River, holding back water and releasing it during autumn and early winter to allow a steady supply of water at the Falls.

MNopedia, the online encyclopedia of Minnesota history developed by the Minnesota Historical Society, has an informative article on the headwaters dams.  The article mentions, but does not emphasize, the fact that the dams flooded villages and rice beds that had been inhabited and used by Ojibwe people, and that disputes over compensation and eventual relocation added to the whole long sordid history of treaty dealings between the United States and Indian nations.

The point of bringing these matters up is that we often have to understand developments far afield, and well in the past, to fully grasp what is going on immediately in front of us.  The water flowing over the concrete apron at St. Anthony today is the result of dozens, if not hundreds, of contingent, specific decisions made at remote times and places.  It’s a truism to historians, but a revelation to many others that “things didn’t have to turn out the way they did.”  By the same token, our future courses are not inevitable either.

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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.