River Talk

July 2010 Archives

University of Minnesota Landscape Architecture professor Rebecca Krinke has created a new, collaborative art work Unseen/Seen:  The Mapping of Joy and Pain that offers the public a chance to mark, on a wooden tabletop map of the Twin Cities, places where they have experienced joy and where they have experienced pain.

Not surprisingly to a river guy like me, the first installation of the project last Friday in Minneapolis showed the Mississippi River heavily in the "joy" camp.

A more complete description, along with photographs and a blog, can be found here.

To me, the project raises interesting policy and programming questions:

How can the joyful experiences people have with the river be made part of programming and funding considerations?  If this (admittedly unscientific0 survey shows that the river has such strongly positive associations, shouldn't that count for something?

What other possibilities can be derived to explore the connections between people and the river?  Krinke's project features a videographer capturing some peoples' thoughts as they mark the map; are there ways those reflections can be made more widespread?

Can riverfront agencies such as the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the Minneapolis Riverfront Corporation, the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, or the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation work with artists such as Krinke in further engaging the public and giving public voices to river issues, here and elsewhere?

To be fair, the Minneapolis Park Board has strongly supported Krinke's work by making available park space at several parks along the Mississippi for the installations.

Krinke has ambitious expansion plans, but in the short term, Twin Cities residents can participate in two additional installations this summer:

Saturday, July 31: Gluek Riverfront Park: 3-7 PM

Friday, August 6: Minnehaha Falls: 3-7 PM

Additional parks/dates are in the planning stage. See http://www.rebeccakrinke.com/ for updates.

In eastern Iowa, Lake Delhi, a nine-mile long impoundment in the Maquoketa River, disappeared this weekend after heavy rains caused a dam to burst.

Read the story and view video and photographs from the Des Moines Register here.

Make no mistake, this is a sad story, and the loss of property will add more economic hardship to flooding damages that eastern Iowa has suffered over the past three years.

But it seems to me that there are several threads to this story that warrant attention, and that raise policy questions for our future lives on and near rivers.

For one thing, the Governor is quoted as saying that he'll marshal all the resources he can manage to restore the lake and help people get back on their feet.  He is expected to say such things; if you read farther into the story, you see similar views expressed by other elected officials.  But the staff of water management agencies add a more nuanced tone, as they talk about building a new dam to higher standards, and perhaps about including hydroelectric generating capacity in a new facility.

Another important theme to the story is not addressed in the newspaper at all:  potential for floods comparable to this one to recur in the future.  Northeastern Iowa received heavy rainfall over the weekend, adding to already-saturated soils and swollen rivers and streams.  Maybe this was just another case of a freak storm, and "act of God" that can't be predicted.

But close observers of climate changes indicate that these storms may not be so freakish at all, and that increased "severe weather events" may be part of a pattern associated with a changing climate.  University of Minnesota professor and state climatologist Mark Seeley has studied data over six decades and reports a pronounced increase in heavier rainstorms which seem to occur later in the year than they had in the past. (Note:  I am reporting Prof. Seeley's conclusions from my memory of a talk he gave last January; please check thoroughly the link above for more detail.)

Meanwhile, researchers in engineering at the University of Iowa's Iowa Flood Center are working to monitor and predict river flow more precisely.  Their hope, as expressed by Dr. Larry Weber, is to be able to map the hydrology of storms precisely, combining detailed knowledge of land use, land cover, and the prevalence of drain tile in farm fields to get a better idea of how much, and how quickly, rain water moves off the agricultural landscape. 

Finally, the wall of water that Lake Delhi became as it swept downstream is headed straight for the Mississippi River and communities downstream such as the Quad Cities are bracing for a sudden flood.  This flood will be later than the usual spring flood season, and there is very little warning time for cities to get their defenses in place.

Maybe this is just the kind of thing that we all have to get used to.  But the incidence of large floods is increasing, and all the indicators point to continued increases. 

I've posted before about the innovative programming that connects artistic expression by indigenous people to the Mississippi River in Minneapolis' Central Riverfront District.  The great programming continues this summer with the series "Indigenous Music and Movies," Thursdays through August 12.  The events are held in Hennepin Bluffs Park, on the east side of the Mississippi, near the Stone Arch Bridge and the Pillsbury A Mill.  Concerts begin at 7; movies at dusk.

This series is an outstanding way to connect the vibrancy of the American Indian arts community to a nice public space along the urban river.  Sponsors of the series include the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Migizi Communications, and the First Nations Composers Initiative.

This collaboration between indigenous organizations and city agencies to bring the arts to river locations is unique to my knowledge.  But I would love to be proved wrong:  please send me a note at pdn@umn.edu or post a comment to this blog to let me know about comparable projects taking place elsewhere.

So after writing yesterday about the NOAA Recovery web site and its wealth of information concerning habitat restoration projects at the mouth of the Mississippi, I want to switch gears here and talk briefly about one of the controversies near the headwaters of one of the Mississippi's important tributaries.

I am referring to the growing controversy concerning "Asian carp" (a term that is often used to lump together two distinct species) and the threat they pose to the Great lakes system.

Articles on the Asian carp threat are easy to find, so I won't trace through a lot of them here.  A recent blog from Chicago, though, points out how the question of "re-reversing" the Chicago River, and breaking the water link between the Mississippi River watershed and the Great Lakes that was artificially established a century ago, is emerging as a hot issue in Illinois' Senate race.  Good new personal insights in the piece, and worth a look.

The blog also reminds us that important river-based information is found in many diverse places.  My "Google Alert" for "Mississippi River brings up dozens of hits every week.  Unfortunately, some refer to people losing their life in the river, and a lot are travel stories and coverage of fishing tournaments.  Still, I am continually surprised by the broad spectrum of writers addressing topics that relate to sustainability on the Great River.


All Rivers End Up Somewhere

Well, duh, right?

Of course, rivers end up either at a juncture with another river, at a lake, or at the ocean. 

The reason I bring up this obvious point is the appearance in my email this morning of the latest edition of the NOAA Restoration Atlas, a map of projects sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that are establishing and restoring habitat in significant coastal areas around the United States.

In many of these instances, of course, a river is a key component of the hydrologic regime that creates that particular ecosystem.  So all of us "river rats" should be checking atlases and web sites such as these to learn what else is going on to enhance sustainability along the full lengths of our rivers, even out to their connections with the ocean. We're particularly interested in the projects at/near the mouth of the Mississippi, in the Gulf of Mexico, but there are hundreds of other important projects included.

Besides just the array of work shown, there are likely partners, collaborators, and project ideas contained here.  The atlas is pretty user-friendly and captures issues of scale well through the zoom tool that allows users to move between global, regional, and highly specific perspectives.

As we work to get our River Atlas up and running this fall, there's a lot we can learn from this particular tool!


I guess there may be subjects as varied as the plethora of particularities that come under the heading "rivers," but I don't know of one.  (But then, I don't know about much of anything except rivers, so that probably isn't a very profound statement.  But enough of that...)


I've written recently about rivers and urban planning, about urban rivers and creativity, but there's a completely different scale and set of issues associated with the large dams that alter river flows and people's lives across so much of the world, particularly in the developing world.  Those subjects are the focus of International Rivers.


This is an incredibly rich and powerful web site, full of video and audio testimony concerning the power of dams and their destructive consequences.  The connections between rivers, water access/water security, and the basic human rights of individuals and small communities are very powerfully drawn here.


I won't say any more right now, but will encourage you to go and explore the site.  Give yourself time though; there's a lot to learn here.  Of particular note are documents pertaining to the World Commission on Dams and upcoming efforts to assess its impact 10 years later.


Speaking more locally, we will be part of a group putting on a conference in Minneapolis in November "Experiments on Rivers:  the Consequences of Dams," which will explore some issues that International Rivers has worked so hard on.  Stay tuned for more on that event as the time draws closer.

There seems to be a growing groundswell of interest in what might be called the "human dimension" of river management.  A recent article in the Corps of Engineers' publication "Open Channels" quoted General Michael Walsh telling a group of St. Louis youth "I wish someone would have helped me understand the importance of the Hudson River when I was growing up."  Helping people understand the importance of rivers is partly a matter of communicating their value in terms of health, both to us and to the broader environment.  Tried-and-true methods of persuasion can and are employed to bring the public's attention to their rivers.


But there's another, perhaps more complex, dimension at work also.  Artistic expressions, those compositions of words, images, built form, music, singly or in combination, that show us how things might be, are continuing to be a source of inspiration and reflection for water efforts generally and river efforts more specifically.  In St. Paul and the East Metro area in Minnesota, two watershed districts have hired an artist in residence to work for a year, developing programs that inspire people to see their watershed differently, and perhaps to act differently in it.  Work in landscape architecture, public art, and related fields is tying innovations in visualizing relationships to place with actions to preserve or sustain the systems that keep the place alive.


River//Cities is a European-based collaborative that works to strengthen these connections, concentrating on cultural, educational, social, and economic connections between cities and rivers.  As their Welcome page says,


can rivers make us more creative?
can we bring our creativity back to the rivers?
we believe we can

Want your river to be an exciting, inspiring, and unique experience? Well, that's not necessarily easy, but possible.
You can change your river and let it change you.


The work shown on the site is interesting and exciting (although you will want to watch the video in "View on YouTube mode" for a smoother transmission.


What would it take to form a similar collaborative effort along the Mississippi?  Across other urban riverfronts?  Anyone else deliberately bringing creativity, in whatever form, to riverfronts?  Let us know!

The link between healthy rivers and healthy cities is perhaps intuitive:  if a river is highly polluted, or inaccessible to the public, it is a liability to that city's efforts to promote healthy lives for its citizens.  Likewise we understand, or think we understand, that a healthy river, full of fish and other aquatic life and bordered by greenways, trails, and great public spaces, is an amenity that contributes to the health of a community and its citizens.


But I'm not sure we really know how this works, or how to go about achieving it.


To a large degree, this is a function of training and background:  no aquatic ecology course of study that I know of requires courses in urban planning and design.  And most urban planning and design classes really have only a superficial understanding of how biological and physical processes actually work.  I don't think anyone would seriously advocate that ecologists and geomorphologists become urban planners, and that urban planners become scientists.  It's quite good enough for specialists to recognize where their expertise ends and to know how to find the expertise of others.


Toward that end, I introduce you to Gordon Price, one of the best thinkers about waterfronts and cities that I have run across.  A former elected city official in Vancouver, Price now teaches and writes about urban issues.  His electronic magazine, Price Tags, offers excellent introductions and analysis on a variety of important "city building" subjects.  Don't miss it! 

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