River Talk

June 2010 Archives

If you're serious about river sustainability, you need to have access to current information on water protection, management, and conservation policy.  While the US Environmental Protection Agency isn't the only Federal agency concerned with water, it is unquestionably one of the most important; at a certain level, you just have to know what these folks are doing.


Fortunately, the EPA Office of Water makes that keeping up a little easier by sending out a weekly "Water Headlines" online publication.  This often contains links to other agency information sources, grant announcements, and opportunities to comment on agency developments.  For example, this week's email included the following:


3) EPA Seeks Public Comment on Strategic Plan to Move Forward on Agency Priorities: Draft plan will help advance Administrator Jackson's seven priorities

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking public comment on its draft FY 2011-2015 strategic plan, which helps advance Administrator Lisa P. Jackson's priorities and the mission to protect human health and the environment. Administrator Jackson's seven priorities are: taking action on climate change, improving air quality, protecting America's waters, cleaning up our communities, assuring the safety of chemicals, expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice, and building strong state and tribal partnerships.


The draft plan identifies the measurable environmental and human health benefits the public can expect over the next five years and describes how EPA intends to achieve those results. The draft plan proposes five strategic goals and five cross-cutting fundamental strategies that aim to foster a renewed commitment to accountability, transparency and inclusion. The plan is prepared in accordance with the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993.


The public comment period begins June 18 and closes July 30. EPA will use stakeholder feedback to prepare the final strategic plan, which will be released by September 30. Comments on the draft strategic plan may be submitted through http://www.regulations.gov. The Docket ID number is EPA-HQ-OA-0486.


For the first time, EPA is using a discussion forum to solicit ideas and feedback on the cross-cutting fundamental strategies, a new element of EPA's strategic plan. The agency will use the feedback provided through https://blog.epa.gov/strategicplan as it implements the cross-cutting fundamental strategies and takes actions to change the way EPA does its work. 


Information about the draft plan: http://www.epa.gov/ocfo/plan/plan.htm    


Hey, I'll take advantage of an opportunity to comment on an agency's priorities!  Don't know who'll read it, or what will happen to my comments, but you won't find out if you don't make the effort.


Water Headlines does not have a web link that I know of, but if you want to subscribe to the list, follow these instructions,


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It's appropriate that Minnesota should be the home of the Freshwater Society.  Lots of people know of Minnesota's "Land of 10,000 Lakes" slogan.  Fewer know that Minnesota has over 93,000 miles of streams and rivers.  Lakes and rivers are key to the self-image of many people in the state.  And those lakes and rivers will be here forever, unimpaired for enjoyment of future generations.


Or will they?  It's quite true that Minnesota is well-watered at the present, but there's a growing awareness that without remedial action and increased stewardship, this fortunate circumstance will not last for long.


A key research and advocacy voice for freshwater in the state and around the world, the Freshwater Society was formed in 1968.  Through rich programs and publications, the Freshwater Society promotes the "conservation, protection, and restoration of all freshwater resources."  It is working with other regional organizations to raise awareness of freshwater issues through a series of "2010--the Year of Water Projects."


The 1970s bioregional adage "think globally, act locally" applies to the Freshwater Society's work on both fronts.  The local programming and partnerships it offers are balanced by a weekly blog digest of important news from a regional, national, and international perspective.  This is a great link to some of the most important large-scale practices, policies and programmatic developments in water conservation. 


One word of warning, though:  if you get to the blog from the Freshwater Society main page, it is easy to navigate back.  But you are set to get the blog from an RSS feed, like I do, then you can't get to the Society's web platform.  Just one of those little tricks as we all learn better to navigate the cyber world!

Of the 14 American Heritage Rivers, the Hanalei, in Hawaii, is undoubtedly the shortest (16 miles) with the least population (478 in the 2000 census).  But the Hanalei Watershed Hui, formed in response to the 1998 designation as an American Heritage River, has something to tell all of us about community vision, integrated thinking, and perseverance.


Ahu pua'a is a traditional Hawaiian term for the concept of integrated watershed management.  It is sometimes expressed as "ridges to reefs," "white water to blue water," or "summit to sea," all of which clearly and vividly express the connections between rivers and oceans, and the intersections among the diverse smaller streams that come together to form a river. 


Like all American Heritage Rivers, the Hanalei Watershed Hui was matched with a federal agency partner for the first five years of the program.  For the Hanalei, the U.S. Forest Service was the official Federal partner, but the Environmental Protection Agency also provided support for scientific research.  This research, conducted by community members, staff from the University of Hawaii, and the agencies, was driven by community-based concepts that a healthy ecosystem provides necessary resilience in the face of storms and other threats.  One of the community members refers to Hanalei, on the north shore of the island of Kaua'i, as "a very small rock in a very big ocean." 


Community partnership is a hallmark of all American Heritage Rivers, and of all successful river stewardship in general.  But this concept is particularly strong on the Hanalei, where the Hanalei Watershed Hui's home page lists that its work is "guided by Hawaiian and other principles of sustainability and stewardship, integrity and balance, cooperation and aloha, cultural equity and mutual respect."  These core values, especially the inclusion of cultural equity and mutual respect, are essential if communities are to move as a whole toward sustainability on their rivers.


What's On Your iPod?

I hear that this is something people ask each other these days, when getting acquainted, and that sometimes celebrities are asked about this in interviews.


I won't bore you with what's on my iPod, but I do want to tie this general question to a larger problem in learning about rivers by suggesting a new question for river geeks:


What's on your iGoogle?


iGoogle is this thing (there has to be a more technical term) that allows me to call up a web page that contains links to pages that I want to track regularly.  I'm sure there are lots of ways to do this, but this is the one that I've learned. 


So what's on my iGoogle, pertaining to rivers?  For a sampler:


Hanalei Watershed Hui                                 


Confluence Greenway                                 


Freshwater Society                                      


Circle of Blue                                                     


River Sphere                                                      


Green City, Blue Lake                                    




International Rivers                                       


the urban planner, Gordon Price                                                   


(I know, it's a terrible faux pas to give these to you without links, but I have a plane to catch and I'm not real adept at the whole "making links live" thing yet.  Mea culpa.)


I have recently written about Allies: media/art, Northeast-Midwest Institute, the Great Rivers Partnership, and American Rivers, so won't go into them again, even though they are on my  iGoogle.


Of course, there are other sites, programs, and projects that I track, including those of our program's key partners, both on and off campus.  But this gives you an idea of how diverse the sources of knowledge for river sustainability are.


So what?  Who cares what web sites I look at regularly?  If you can bear with me and accept that I'm someone who thinks about river management and sustainability a lot, and tries to do so somewhat systematically, here's the argument that I would make:


Future river managers are going to need to know something about a river-related scientific field such as fluvial ecology, geomorphology, and the like.  But I think they will also need to know something about river-oriented policy, planning, and/or design, because all the scientific knowledge in the world isn't any good if laws, planning/design frameworks, and management aren't in alignment with scientific insights.  Finally, if you can't convince the public, or at least some segment of it, of the importance of your cause, you'll not have much impact.  So river managers are going to need to know something of programming, education, history, the myths and narratives that connect us to rivers.


We all know that it's hard enough to learn one field, much less be conversant in all of the areas outlined above.  The professional practices and academic disciplines encompassed by "river studies" stretch across all parts of a university and engage many professions, agencies, and non-profit groups.  It would be easiest to keep up only with the ones we know best.


It would be easiest, but it would not be sufficient for a competent 21st century river manager and leader.  If we all need to know everything, then a first step on that (impossible) task is to make certain web sites, full of key information and cutting-edge knowledge and practice, readily available.  Hence my iGoogle.


I will elaborate more on some of the sites and programs listed above in the coming days and weeks.  In the meantime, send me your candidates, what you read and who you keep up with on a regular basis, even (especially) if the work is not directly focused on the Mississippi.  One of the precepts of the "wired world," after all, is that we're all in the web together!

T.S. Eliot, a son of St. Louis, once posed the question "At what point does the Mississippi River become what the Mississippi River means?"


His question, coming as part of the Introduction to a 1944 edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, resonates many ways.  But one of the most important points Eliot raises is that the Mississippi does mean something.  But what does it mean?  Or, to put the question the way it would be raised in a graduate seminar:  How is the meaning of e the Mississippi River created, through which texts and contexts, and by which agencies, (that is "agency" in the terms of an "agent" of change, not a bureaucracy).  Who speaks?  Who listens?  Who is heard?  Who is unheard?


Thankfully--for you readers more so than for me as the writer of these musings--this is not a graduate seminar.  But the point remains:  what does the Mississippi River mean, and how is that meaning carried forth?


We know a lot about the science of the river and the policy frameworks that help define it administratively.  Perhaps no river in the world has been studied more and has a more complex set of legislative, policy, and agency (in the more common meaning) mandates.


But I think we still don't know much about what the river means, to whom, and what, if anything, the meanings of the river have to do with the science that describes it so well and the policies that inform our relationship to it.


Last night, in a mixed media performance at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, we learned more about the river's meaning, its past, and some hopes for its future.  Dakota (Sisseton-Wahpeton) media artist Mona Smith  directed and produced "Presence," a video, spoken word art, and poetry presentation on the presence of the Mississippi River to Dakota people and the presence of Dakota people along the Mississippi River today.  Too many people still think of America's indigenous people as "past," and now removed and living on reservations.  In fact, indigenous people live all over the land that was once theirs, and their presence is an important part of understanding the meanings of places and of rivers.


Images of the river and shore in the Twin Cities flickered over the limestone walls of the Mill City Museum, formerly the Washburn-Crosby A Mill, as recorded voices spoke, in English and Dakota, of the healing and the pain associated with the river, the site of their genesis story but also of genocide after the Dakota War of 1862.  Clouds wisped overhead in the open courtyard as twilight deepened and the images became stronger throughout the 25 minute performance.  Spoken word artist Bobby Wilson closed by reminding us all that the river has been here with us always, and will be with us always.


We would do well to hear these voices and heed their visions.


"Presence" was supported by a grant from the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board.




Fish Passage on an Urban River

Too often, it seems, when humans establish urban habitat for themselves, there's no room for any of the other creatures that used to live there.  In parts of the Twin Cities Mississippi River, legend has it that a survey found three fish at one point in the 20th century (that's 3 individuals in a 10+ mile stretch of river, not three species!)


The Clean Water Act has been invaluable in providing a structure for agencies and advocates to work toward restoring water quality to a point where waters are (as a goal) fishable and swimmable.   All over the country, people are working on understanding what Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of certain substances will allow for meeting clean water goals.


But more is needed.  The Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council has been engaged in reviving the urban river in Providence RI for over a decade.  Formed after the Blackstone-Woonasquatucket was named an American Heritage River,  the WRWC undertakes a host of scientific and community engagement projects that are restoring this waterway.


One of the more complex issues the WRWC has tacked involved removing obstacles to fish passage posed by dams on the river.  The WRWC is working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and other agencies to build fish ladders and in some cases actually remove dams.  See more here.


There's a good deal of interest in dam removal on rivers across the country.  Each case and site is dramatically different, and warrants extensive analysis to ensure that the removal doesn't release toxins downstream or cause other impacts that are themselves harmful to the goal of a healthy river.  Relatively small dams in an urban context like the Woonasquatucket in Providence offer a lot of opportunities for substantial benefits from relatively small projects.  Larger scale research, addressing more variables on larger structures, has been conducted at the University of Minnesota's St. Anthony Falls Laboratory.


The return of shad and herring to the Woonasquatucket marks a good sign for potential urban river restoration across the country.

On the River and the Gulf

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill and related stories promise to dominate environmentally-related journalism for weeks if not months.  This blog won't be the place for all of the up to date latest information because there are plenty of other people doing that.


When there is a particularly trenchant commentary or event relating to river management, though, I'll take note and pass it along.


Today, the BirdLife Community web site included a post from Audubon that included this comment from G. Paul Kemp, Audubon coastal scientist:

"Long-term recovery for the Gulf Coast region depends on Mississippi River management", says Kemp. "We have an opportunity right now to put the river to work for us, and these principles and lessons must be a part of our long-term response as well. We can't save the coast without the river.

"Any long-term plan for the region's health must include a new approach to river management - one that reconnects the river to its delta - as well as sustainable, science-based efforts to restore barrier islands and marshes."


I would only add that reconnecting the river to its agricultural and urban watershed as well as to its delta should be part of the long-term prognosis.

Read the whole post from Audubon here


Even though it is summer and the University has quieted down a lot, activity connected to rivers continues apace.


Look for entries in the next few weeks on:

  • "Experiments on Rivers:  the Consequences of Dams" a conference to be held in November 2010
  • continued research and outreach at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, located on Hennepin Island in the middle of the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis
  • further development in the "Gopher Ranger" program that connects University students with the Mississippi through recreational and volunteer activities, academic efforts, and career-development programs.  There will be a reception for an extremely successful Gopher Ranger program "Imagining the Mississippi," held in Mill City Museum on July 7.

More to follow--stay tuned!

Endangered Rivers

Among the bewildering array of public and private organizations devoted to protecting rivers in the United States, American Rivers has consistently argued for the connections between healthy rivers and healthy communities.  Over nearly four decades, American Rivers has focused on restoring and protecting rivers, and on safeguarding water supply and water quality in rivers.  More recently, the group has added a program area focusing on climate change and rivers.


Many preservation organizations of all stripes publish a "Ten (or 11 or 12) Most Endangered" list, and American Rivers is no exception.  While the publicity from the list causes my "Google Alert" to light up for a few days, and, in some cases, starts up a smaller thread that lasts for a while, a big part of the value of this list is how the material American Rivers generates in support of its list summarizes and focuses important complex patterns.


Take this year's nomination of the Cedar River in Iowa for example.  The fact sheet and short video posted on the web site are simply excellent primers on the threats posed by outdated flood management and floodplain protection.  Not everyone remembers the devastation of the floods that hit Iowa in summer 2008, but footage here brings those scenes back all too vividly.  The accompanying analysis of physical conditions on the land, both in agricultural areas and in cities along the rivers, makes the nature of the problem abundantly clear.  Moreover, proposed policy solutions are offered and, on the fact sheet, contact information provided for the people "on the ground" who are engaged in the front lines of protecting this river.


Taken together, the case studies of the Ten Most Endangered rivers offer a rich foundational base to understanding the threats facing American rivers currently.  And, as they say on late night television "Wait, wait, there's more!"  For river geeks like me, the analysis of successes and updates from the program's first 25 years offers lots to think about and analyze.  How have the threats changed?  How do urban issues come into play, both short term and over the long perspective?  Are there any categories of threat that have largely ended?


For the teacher in me, all I can say to my future students is "Watch out--here's where your next assignments are going to come from!"

The 1986 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) declared that the Mississippi River is a nationally significant navigation waterway and a nationally significant ecosystem.  Since that time, some of the best minds in the business have been trying to come up with, in the phrase of Dan McGuiness, "a river that works and a working river."


Too often, those two tendencies--a river that works as it would in a healthy hydrological cycle if people weren't interfering with it, and a "working river" that carries our transportation--are seen as oppositions.  We don't see how we can manage for both, or, if we try, which side will "win" if there have to be compromises.


There are several studies currently under way at points in the Upper Mississippi, experimenting with tactics such as seasonal drawdowns to mimic the natural seasonal "bounce" the river makes.  At the national level, the Sustainable Rivers Project offers much to be hopeful about.  At 36 dam sites on eight river basins, The Nature Conservancy and the Army Corps of Engineers are conducting science-based investigations on the effects of altering dam operations to more closely mimic natural river flow patterns.  Early indications are encouraging, and if the program can be expanded nationally, it may be applied to the more than 600 dams operated by the Corps around the country.  The Corps is the largest water manager and hydropower producer in the country, so a national program with their involvement would be a hugely valuable step to restoring river health.


As promising as the Sustainable Rivers Project is, it would be even greater if it took into account the needs and contributions of local people, especially people indigenous to the lands being studied.  Hydrology, geomorphology and engineering are central practices to the understanding of healthy flows of rivers; when we add human dimensions and the restoration of poetry to moving water, then we have truly completed a restoration cycle between rivers, people, and communities.

Greening the Urban Riverfront

Even casual scans of the web show that there is a lot of "greening" on urban riverfronts.  Across the developed world, obsolete industrial and transportation facilities along urban rivers are being redeveloped, whether primarily as a park or in developments that maintain some highlighted open spaces.  More recently, with "sustainability" gaining traction as a buzz-word, there appear to be stronger efforts to incorporate "green design" elements such as green roofs, permeable surfaces, and rain gardens, along with the more traditional parks and trails.


In Minneapolis, the Minnesota Historical Society's Mill City Museum is in some regards doing all of these efforts one better.  The Museum's Greening the Riverfront series offers programs that explore the nexus of history and nature.  Many of these programs explore new developments in food production and distribution, as befits a museum located in the heart of what was once the world's largest flour-producing complex.  But there are also important links to artistic expression and to indigenous perspectives here as well.


And this is where I think "Greening the Riverfront" really stands out.  Programmers know that events should have more than one dimension to really attract a crowd:  a family-oriented event that lets adults and kids work together to prepare their own food, for example, offers quality "family time" as well as "learning where food comes from" time.  But the incorporation of artworks, and the ways in which local indigenous people are involved in several of the events, highlight the idea that we all have to learn from each other, and to express ourselves in whatever way best suits, in order to bring about long term sustainability.  Dakota people have been spiritually connected to St. Anthony Falls since time immemorial; of course the rest of us should learn from them about how to live well with this place.  And artistic work can convey insights without argument, without smugness, without hectoring (and yes, I know that there is a lot of art that argues and is smug). 


All riverfronts can be green, and all have stories and histories.  Highlighting the "green history" of the riverfront, and using that perspective as a light for the future is a distinctive, and welcome, development.

Earlier this week, I posted about the connections between the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the long-term problem of the Gulf's "hypoxic zone," or area of low dissolved oxygen.


Yesterday I came upon a story in Minnpost.com that treated the subject with more detail, plus included interesting and valuable links to a host of related issues.


The Minnpost story is now a month old, which accounts for some of the hopeful tone in terms of controlling the spill.  Nevertheless, the insights from John Gulliver are quite valuable.


See the "comments" section for a range of opinions about the composition of "big agriculture" and the necessity of being precise when thinking about responsibility and change in addressing hypoxia.


Good story--worth a read!

Many Voices at Bdote

Wherever you go, along any river on earth, the chances are great that people indigenous to that landscape knew that place, valued it, named it, depended on it.


In some places the past tense of the verb is appropriate, the indigenous people being so long gone, and their relations to that place obscured under such a thick palimpsest of subsequent cultures that their presence is barely discernible, if at all.


But for most places in the world, indigenous people remain connected, through stories, voices, presence.  Oh sure, it may be possible to be on a river such as the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Columbia, or the Mississippi, and to know something about those rivers, without knowing their indigenous histories and meanings.


It may be possible, but such knowledge, truncated without connection to old, enduring ways, is lacking.  It lacks a certain richness, depth, and connection. 


Knowledge of a river that begins when the most recent occupants came is necessarily foreshortened, both with regard to the past, but also with regard to the future.  For those of us Euro-Americans living along the Upper Mississippi River, if we only understand "history" as beginning with the fur trade in the late 17th century, and as only including dominant voices of those who wrote things down, we limit ourselves to only imagining a future of a couple hundred years, and with ourselves as the center of that future.


We must do better, if we are to sustain a relationship with our rivers.


Fortunately, web sites like the Bdote Memory Map can begin to show us some ways into understanding these old ways, and their continuations into the present.


Bdote is a Dakota term that means, roughly, "where two waters meet."  The bdote at the juncture of what are now called the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, in the heart of the present Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, is the spiritual and historical home to Dakota people.  It is also a place where 1700 women, children, and elders were imprisoned after the Dakota War of 1862, making it a place, as I have heard people say, "of our genesis and our genocide."


The Memory Map site, a collaboration between the Minnesota Humanities Center  and Allies: media/art  conveys a richly nuanced sense of this place.  The site contains audio and video clips from Dakota people explaining elements of their connections to this place; it contains photographs and text that show it in its many dimensions; it contains a mechanism for visitors to tell their stories.


This capacity, for people to listen to multiple and diverse stories, to learn through visual, aural, and text-based documents, and to speak back to the site, to engage in a conversation, is essential if our future with this place is to be sustained.  Explore the Bdote Memory Map, listen to the voices, and imagine how those voices and voices like them can be--must be--part of our future understandings of our rivers.


At the River Life Partnership, we work closely with Allies and with people and organizations that Allies connects us with in the indigenous community.  Quite honestly, we can't imagine doing our work without these partnerships, voices, and insights.

All of us, I am sure, have seen at least some of the coverage of the disastrous oil well blowout and spill in the Gulf of Mexico over the past six weeks.  The spill is a catastrophe in many dimensions, threatening commercial fishing and shrimping, marsh habitat, and numerous bird and marine species.


People knowledgeable about the Mississippi River know that there's been a similar assault on Gulf of Mexico water quality taking place annually for quite some time:  the periodic flareup of the hypoxic "dead zone."  Gulf hypoxia, caused when levels of dissolved oxygen fall below a point where marine life can be supported, is largely attributable to sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus washing into the Gulf from the 31 states in the Mississippi River watershed. 


The hydrological intersection of the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico is far more complex than can be related here.  The point I want to make is to hope that, as the oil spill disaster comes under control, whenever that may be, and programmatic efforts are pointed toward restoration of the Gulf and its ecosystems, that we not lose sight of the ongoing threat to Gulf water quality from the Mississippi.


There's a strong foundation from which to build.  Since 1997, five federal agencies and agencies from ten Mississippi River states have met as part of a Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force.  The Task Force web site  provides a valuable starting point for understanding the complex of issues involved.


The 2008 Action Plan is particularly commendable.  It clarifies three goals for the Task Force's work, which might be summarized thus:

  1. Reduce the hypoxic zone in the Gulf;
  2. Implement nutrient and sediment action plans that protect the waters of the Mississippi River basin;
  3. Improve the quality of life for communities whose identity and livelihoods are directly dependent on the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.


A key strength of these goals is their integrated nature:  they speak to human welfare as well as the welfare of biological and physical systems; they connect issues in coastal Louisiana with issues in the heartland; they make the connections, at least implicitly, between healthy communities, healthy water, and healthy economies.


Above all, they suggest that connectivity builds resilience, a quality that is badly needed as the Gulf region copes with yet another disaster.   We saw these connections and resilience after Katrina, and in the planning for coastal restoration that has been taking place over the past decade.


In the months ahead we will do well to remember that Gulf resilience and Mississippi River resilience are intimately connected, and that both involve the restoration of healthy habitat for humans, plants, and animals.

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