River Talk

March 2010 Archives

The annual spring river watch has largely passed, here in Minnesota, with the Red River scheduled to go below flood stage in Fargo in the next day or so, and the Mississippi predicted to drop below flood stage in St. Paul by Friday. The floods didn't turn out to be as large as predicted/feared, but still, there were impressive water levels running in Minneapolis and St. Paul last week--I'll write more on that in a day or so.

For now, the question has come up: what do we mean by "flood stage," and the related term "floodplain"? "Flood stage" basically refers to that elevation at which lives or property are threatened. If a city is built right up to the banks of a river, flood stage is reached any time the river rises even a little bit. Here in the Twin Cities, much of the riverfront is in park land, so parks and trails are closed regularly for annual spring rises.

In times of flooding, the term "floodplain" usually is mentioned as part of a phrase such as "the 100 year floodplain." The 100 year floodplain is that area which has a 1% chance of flooding every year. In St. Paul, recent development along the Upper Landing was placed on thousands of truckloads of fill dirt to get the construction out of the historic 100 year floodplain.

Here's where things get interesting, though. As a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune story reports FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recently recalculated the 100 year floodplain in St. Paul, and established the new line as significantly elevated over the old one. This change could be due to any number of factors, but the most obvious one might be the increased development and river channeling upstream throughout the watershed. More roads, streets, and houses means rain and snowmelt run off into streams and rivers rather than soak into the ground. When that water hits the river, if the river is constrained by levees and floodwalls--such as the new floodwall at Holman Field airport in downtown St. Paul--then the water can't spread out, but is forced higher, raising the level at which it may rise on any given year.

The article goes into more detail on the consequences of altered floodplain levels, in terms of insurance costs and the like, and I encourage you to take a look at it. The fact remains, though: as long as we build as much as we do in the watershed, and pay as little attention as we do to how water is managed, then more, and higher, floods are inevitable.

Women and Water Rights

By Guest Blogger Anna Metcalfe

...the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.[1]

We live in a world where we are perpetually being reminded of all of the things around us that leave so much room for improvement. This is oftentimes overwhelming. Where do we begin? How do we move forward? Are science's statistics the best language to use to convince our world that changes must be made? Are policies made by our politicians the ultimate means for making changes in our society? How do we choose which battles to fight, especially when such basic necessities exist in our world: clean water, healthy food, education?

I teach art at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and one of the first things that I tell my students at the beginning of the semester is that whether or not they knew it when they signed up to take my class, they have actually signed up to learn a new language. I like using this metaphor because while there are some people who use language more affectively than others, we all speak some sort of language, and most likely we use it to communicate with the people around us. I believe that art is one of the many "languages" we use to communicate our thoughts, ideas and emotions, and I believe that everyone is capable of learning that language. Not only that, but it is the sort of language that can garner the attention of hugely diverse audiences and can even say different things to different people - at the same time.

"Women and Water Rights: Rivers of Regeneration" is an art show that is up through the 24th of March in the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota. Focused on Water Rights as a topic, all of the works in the show are made by women and some about women. All works have something to say about water, and though each piece has a different message, meandering through the gallery reveals a microcosm of conversations about our world's most important resource. Some of the works in the show are thoughtful reminders of our interconnectedness with water, while others insight viewers to action. Still others, like Christine Baeumler's moveable rain garden model are art works that are "ways of living and models of action within the existing real" (Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics). Artworks such as these not only provide a model for action, but cause real, concrete improvement in the world's water systems.

"Women and Water Rights: Rivers of Regeneration" is a beautiful example of artists harnessing their language to speak out in the name of social change. It calls each of us to find our voice - in whatever language we speak - and to say something.

For more information about the show and events in coordination with it, please visit: http://womenandwater.net/

[1] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (France: Les presses du réel, 1998, in English, 2002), 13

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is easily the best-known Mississippi River journey, but it is by no means the only account of life on and along the Great River. Even before Twain's book appeared in the 1880s, travel narratives of journeys along the river were staples of European and American literature. Since that point, hundreds of would-be authors have taken all manner of boats (well, some hardly qualify as "boat") down the Mississippi, wanting to write about their experiences.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is perhaps the most recent entrant in this veritable library of travel narratives, and its "virtual trip" is certainly one of the best. TNC's Great Rivers partnership "is an ambitious effort to conserve and restore the world's great river systems for the benefit of the people and species that depend upon them for life."
In January, a virtual 13 day journey was posted allowing visitors to the site to become acquainted with some of the variety of human and animal life along the river.

The journey is well worth a visit, for both "newbie" and "river rat" alike. Slide shows and occasional short video segments offer users a sampling of river voices. Sidebars, maps, and "fact sheets" create just a glimmer of how complex and enormous the river really is.

The Mississippi's stories are as old as the world and bigger than any of us can imagine. The World Wide Web and proliferating ways of conveying digital information through video, photographs, maps, narration, and simple data, all offer ways of storytelling that match the complexity of the river itself.

On the Necessity of Art

Well, I'm back, after 6 weeks or so off the blog task. One of the items that had my attention during this time was a proposal that was jointly developed with the Christine Baeumler at the University of Minnesota's Department of Art and collaborators at the University of the West of England. To quote the proposal's abstract: 
It has become a truism that the major conflicts of the 21st century are likely to be over water. What is much less certain is how to best facilitate exchanges between scientists, policy makers, expressive artists and the public, to shape future debates over water. These debates will be vital to finding the ways to "re-imagine" water in our cities (and the regions from which their water comes) to making wise decisions about our water future. This project, will explore, through a series of focused workshops, collaborations, and installations, ways in which we might learn to restore a broad understanding of water to our urban public and sense of place and to understand acts of artistic representation as bridging between differing public discourses, realms of practice, issues, concerns, and groups of people.
Project teams from the University of Minnesota, led by co-PIs Christine Baeumler and Patrick Nunnally, and the University of the West of England, led by co-PI Iain Biggs, will convene local collaborations of artists, scientists, and community leaders to explore the key issues facing the water environments of their respective cities (Twin Cities, Minnesota, and Bristol, UK). Anticipated results include both digital and physical artistic representations of water and water environments in the city, new programs, classes, and ongoing collaborations.

I guess I shouldn't assume that the abstract speaks for itself, so here are some of the links and related projects that we referenced: 

Lorna Jordan. Jordan's Waterworks Gardens is located at a water reclamation plant in Renton, Washington. 

Betsy Damon. Damon's Living Water Garden is along the edge of the Fu and Nan River in Chengdu, China. Both Jordan's and Damon's public art projects are an aesthetic, educational, and natural approach to treating storm water. 

Herbert Dreiseitl's Atelier Dreiseitl brings together art, urban hydrology and open space planning to create projects that are both beautiful and sustainable. 

These combinations--art, science, and community--are at the heart of our program, so look for more on these issues and projects in the future.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.