River Talk

September 2010 Archives

A Call for Ideas and Innovative Format

Last April, President Obama asked key federal agencies to take the lead in developing a national dialogue on the importance of the conservation and reconnecting Americans to the outdoors, whether close to home or at one of the magnificent "crown jewels" that have led our national park system to be referred to as "America's best idea."

Throughout the summer and into the fall, administration leaders have toured the country, listening to the voices from communities.  They have particularly sought to hear from young people, and, if the meeting in early August in Minneapolis was any indication, they got an earful.

The deadline for commenting and contributing to the dialogue is coming up soon--this Thursday as a matter of fact.  The web site to collect commentary is innovative, to my mind anyway, and promises much in terms of gathering the many divergent viewpoints on the challenges and opportunities for conservation in the 21st century.

Go to the web site--log in--say your piece, and stay tuned.  The report is due to be made public in November.
Last week, I made the notation that clear, precise thinking about the relationships between agriculture, rivers, the food we eat (and the price we pay) and the ways we talk about these things is hard to come by.  Instead, and not surprisingly in this day and age of hyper-partisanship and coarse public debate, we tend to create cartoon versions of the views we oppose and throw rocks at them. 

So I was pleasantly surprised on Saturday to read three columns on the Op-Ed page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, all of which sought more nuanced ground in the debate about the University of Minnesota's decision earlier this month not to show a new film by producers at the University's Bell Museum.  The film, "Troubled Waters," allegedly (I say "allegedly" because only a very few have actually seen it) takes a very tough stance on the connection between polluted runoff from conventional agricultural operations and declining water quality in the upper Mississippi River.  The University allegedly (again, as the saying goes, those who know aren't talking and those who are talking don't know) the University committed this "censorship" because of its ties to Big Ag.

Incidentally, the University announced last Thursday that the film's premiere would go on as originally scheduled on Sunday October 3.  There will be two screenings, followed by a discussion.  Contact the Bell Museum to inquire about tickets.

Back to the Star Tribune Op-Ed pages.  George Boody of the Land Stewardship Project points out that the University has historically collaborated with farmers seeking innovations in agricultural practices, including those who are trying to farm with fewer chemical "inputs."  To Boody, this collaboration provides "public goods" that meet the state's needs for affordable food and clean water.  He is, understandably I think, dismayed at what the controversy about the film may mean as a harbinger of changed priorities at the University, toward closer alignment with those who have bigger pocketbooks.

Whitney Clark, of Friends of the Mississippi River, writes that, whatever else the controversy shows, it demonstrates that water quality in the Mississippi River is a topic that people in the state care about.  Clark presents three truths about water quality in the Mississippi:  it's cleaner than it has been historically; most of the contamination is from agriculture; polluted urban stormwater is a not insignificant contributor to "impairments" in the Mississippi.  Clark argues that recent developments in urban stormwater management are a start down the long, complicated road to a cleaner Mississippi.

Bonnie Blodgett, who lists herself as a St. Paul writer, sees a bigger picture.  She argues that the pressure to grow more food, and to produce that food as cheaply as feasible, is part of the industrialization of agriculture that is inextricably tied to growing population, an increasing disconnect between food producers and consumers, and our society's reluctance to face the consequences of our food and energy policies.

All of these writers make good points, and I particularly appreciate Blodgett's bringing up the flooding last week that caused such damage across much of southern Minnesota.  Such heavy, unseasonable, rains are one of the indicators of a changing climate, according to some analysts.  I was struck by a more prosaic point though:  while there was so much energy invested in debate over the Troubled Waters film, real "troubled waters" were raging through many of our river communities.  We must apply the same level of passion and analysis to the water on the ground as we do to the water on the screen.
A number of cities across the country have taken advantage of the current slump to engage in farsighted planning and design exercises so they'll be ready when development rebounds and the waterfronts again become a hub of interest.  Four communities in particular have competitions either under way or recently closed, all of which means that there will be exciting planning and design news emerging for some months yet.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but for starters:

St. Louis announced on Tuesday that a team led by Michael Van Valkenburgh has been selected for the planning phase of the "The City + The Arch + The River-2015" effort.

Cristina Bump, winner of an AIA Travel Scholarship and a designer with Mithun in Seattle, reports that the City of Seattle has selected james corner field operation as the lead designer for the Seattle waterfront.

In St. Paul, the Great River Park master planning process officially got underway last month.  Wenk Associates is the lead firm on that process.

And in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, along with the Minneapolis Parks Foundation and creative partners at the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota's College of Design has just announced "The Next Generation of Parks" design competition for the Upper River district.

Stay tuned--there's bound to be a LOT of interesting work coming up!
I guess this post marks my full entry into the blogosphere:  I'm writing about something I have no first hand knowledge about, without talking to the principals involved or reviewing the materials directly.  All I've done is read other news accounts.
For the newspaper reporter, and later scholar, in my professional background, this is difficult.  But here goes...
The University of Minnesota announced last week that it is delaying the release of a documentary film "Troubled Waters," produced by the Bell Museum of Natural History.  The film, which addresses issues of agricultural pollution in the Mississippi River, was sponsored in part by the state's Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources and the McKnight Foundation, both of which have longstanding commitment to the Mississippi River.
Perhaps not surprisingly in this polarized era, reaction was deeply suspicious of the University's motives in delaying the film.  The Minneapolis StarTribune's front page story on September 17 could not have made University officials happy.  Over the weekend, reporters for the student-run Minnesota Daily dug for more and published a more detailed account today.
As I said, I haven't seen the film and I haven't talked to any of the people involved.  But the issue highlights for me some of the challenges we face in thinking clearly about the relations between agriculture and water quality, specifically in the Mississippi River.  For instance:
  • We know that conventional agriculture contributes substantially to pollution of the Mississippi River and to the hypoxic "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.  Scientific studies are unanimous that sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus, largely if not completely derived from agricultural fields throughout the middle section of the country, are the primary pollutants on the river.
  • We also know, through long experience in the policy debates, that changing farming practices to reduce the runoff of sediment and farm chemicals has been met with resistance from various groups associated with farming, whether growers associations, other industry groups, or industries strongly associated with agriculture, such as the barge transportation industry.  These debates have gone on, literally, for decades.  In some cases, there is work toward solutions that achieve a workable balance of agricultural practice and water quality, and in some instances the sides are continuing to war with each other.
  • The Mississippi River system has many nationally significant values beyond its role as a transportation corridor.  It supplies drinking water for tens of millions of people.  Ecological systems along the river and its main tributaries provide habitat for a huge percentage of the continent's migratory birds, which in turn support thousands of hunters, bird watchers, anglers, and other recreational users, who, collectively, constitute a multi-billion dollar industry.  In fact, beginning with the 1986 Water Resource Development Act, it has been national policy that the Mississippi River is both a nationally significant ecosystem and a nationally significant transportation system.
So where does this leave us?  Maybe I shouldn't say this (that caveat that bloggers probably ought to use more often) but I don't think we've thought hard enough about this problem yet.  The issues are too easily polarized as slogans:  "Big Ag Has to Change" or "Our Farmers Have to Feed the World."  I suspect this difficulty is partly at work in the "Troubled Waters" controversy, as some people see the film as "unbalanced" and others think of it as just fine.  Is debate over the connection between agriculture and the Mississippi becoming like the climate change debate, with a strong consensus among most experts being cast into doubt by economic interests who are threatened by the fundamental changes that face us?  I don't think it much of an exaggeration to say that achieving a "fishable and swimmable" Mississippi, to use the language of the federal Clean Water Act, will require far-reaching changes in our lives.  How do we go about instituting the policies and practices to achieve those changes?
There are many people and organizations working on the problem of how to achieve the necessary changes in agricultural practice that will feed people and not damage the Mississippi River.  This work involves the detail of agricultural production:  how much chemical to apply, and when, to minimize polluted runoff.  But it also involves big questions of agricultural and food policy:  if a cleaner Mississippi imposes more costs on production, where will those costs be borne?  How much is the public willing to pay, through higher prices at the grocery store, for a cleaner Mississippi?  Specialists in these areas will, I am sure, tell me that even these questions are too broadly posed, that the issues are yet more complex.
But that complexity, finally, draws me back to the "Troubled Waters" film.  The University of Minnesota has a responsibility to "get it right," to be "trusted information brokers" as one recent conference speaker I heard put it.  To me, that means we have to continue to try to negotiate the difficult ground that connects research to policy and practice, that takes the best available knowledge and puts it into a format that reaches and informs nonspecialists without becoming polarizing or alarmist. 

Governing urban riverfronts is hard.  There are always conflicting interests and uses, and segments of the community who have different visions.  Add to that the cases where a riverfront is shared by different communities, and local land use authorities, and there's a real recipe for chaos.

in the 1970s, the state of Minnesota faced this situation with the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities region.  Local land use authority--and in the US, land use authority starts at the local level--was threatening to "chip away" at the scenic, scientific, cultural and natural resources that made the Mississippi a regional (or national) asset.  The state's response was to establish a Critical Area Act, which required local units of government to enact a special zoning district within a boundary along the river.  In 1988, these boundaries became the boundaries for a new unit of the National Park Service, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA).

Over the past few years, sentiment has grown to take a new look at Critical Area planning and the rules that govern the urban river corridor.  Part of the sentiment has been that the area has changed, in some ways dramatically, over the past three decades; regulations should be adjusted to reflect the new reality on the ground.  And there has also been concern that communities enforce Critical Area standards with varying degrees of intensity; a project that might be granted permission in one town is stopped in another.  The state Department of Natural Resources, which has overall implementation authority of the Critical Area Act, undertook an extensive public "rule-making process" beginning in 2009.  The DNR maintains an extensive web site with background and updates on Critical Area planning, as well as pertinent boundaries and legal history

As might be expected, a number of positions have emerged during this process.

Friends of the Mississippi River is one of the most prominent advocacy groups addressing Mississippi River issues in the Twin Cities.  It has been a regular participant in the rule-making process, and has recently been urging river advocates to attend public meetings and speak out for strong protection rules governing land use along the corridor. 

Some local officials and residents, however, see more stringent rules as usurping local land use authority.  As reported in a local newspaper this summer, some local citizens have begun organizing to stay on top of the issue and to make sure their voices are heard.

Our interest is bringing good urban design to the river, and having flexibility to build well, as if the river matters.  Finding the right mix of local oversight and awareness that the Mississippi River is an asset to a much broader community is a tricky business and will, quite frankly, be very difficult to pull off in this hyper-politicized climate.  Yet it is the necessary work that we face, and all sources of expertise and honest perspectives need to be heard.

The existing arrangement is by no means perfect--DNR hydrologists are not always particularly expert on urban design--but it's a sufficient framework for starting to make good decisions.

off we go!.JPGClasses started this week at the University of Minnesota, as they did at colleges and universities across the country.

But not every incoming first year student had the privilege of being welcomed to a "world class university on a world class river, in a national park."  A handful of the over 5,000 new students at the University of Minnesota, in the Twin Cities, paddled a canoe and took a hike along the Mississippi last Saturday, all while learning how they could be ongoing stewards of their campus, the river, and the Mississippi National Park and Recreation Area (MNRRA).

Ranger-led hike Welcome Week.JPGThis program for 120 first year students was made possible by the collaboration of MNRRA, Wilderness Inquiry, the University's River Life Partnership, and the Office of International Programs, which has been featuring water-themed grants and programming for the past year and a half.  The University's Welcome Week Program for entering students organized the student participation.

In addition to learning the history and natural history of this stretch of the river, and how to paddle a 10 passenger voyageur canoe, students learned how they can make the Mighty Mississippi part of their college experience, no matter which major or field of study they choose.

The university's River Rangers program will offer students opportunities to learn about, explore, and care for the Mississippi in a number of ways, through
  • classes that address river-oriented subjects,
  • special learning opportunities such as senior capstones or graduate thesis projects,
  • career development internships or practicum experiences
  • service projects, whether they involve habitat renewal, helping community youth enjoy the river, or some other means
  • or just plain fun along the river, hiking, biking, or just getting away from the hustle and bustle of campus.
The Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota is bisected by the river; every day thousands of students walk, bike, or take a connector bus from the West Bank to the East Bank and back again.

For at least 120 of those students, as they cross the bridge high over the river, the knowledge of what it feels like to be on the river skimming over its waters will be a permanent part of their college experience.

Saturday was a beautiful early fall day; check out these photos of the event.

Des Moines Register on Lake Delhi

A few weeks ago, I posted about Lake Delhi in Iowa, where high rains caused an earthen dam to wash out, turning the former lake into another stretch of the Makoqueta River.

A friend in Iowa just sent me this editorial from the Des Moines Register, which seems to be a good start toward the kind of analysis and consideration that we need to see in public forums such as editorial pages.

Maybe the comments, which I have not yet read, will make me less sanguine, but to me at least, the public consideration that maybe a river should be allowed to be a river is a hopeful sign.
The Freshwater Society is one of Minnesota's important policy analysis and research groups addressing water.  On Tuesday, September 14, the Freshwater Society and the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences will present a lecture on the St. Paul campus of the University.  From the Freshwater Society blog:

Less than one week remains to register to attend a free, public lecture in St. Paul by Louis J. Guillette Jr., an internationally recognized reproductive biologist.  Guillette's lecture - at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 14, on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota - is sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the university's College of Biological Sciences.

Guillette, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical University of South Carolina, spent 25 years studying sexually stunted alligators living in polluted lakes in Florida.

His lecture, titled "Contaminants, Water and Our Health: New Lessons from Wildlife," will deal with links between water pollution and birth defects - in animals and in humans. For information, and to register,  go to www.freshwater.org. To read an interview with Guillette, published in the Freshwater Society's September newsletter, click here.

The farther any of us explore water issues, the more we realize how connected the issues, and the consequences, are.  Water resource leadership in the 21st century will increasingly be a matter of identifying and analyzing connections:  between water and health, between water health and community health, between land use and water quality, and so on.  These analyses, and the insights to make the best recommendations to policy makers, will only be possible through strong grounding in the sciences, in policy, planning, design practices, and through deep engagement with community.

Tuesday's lecture promises to be important; don't miss it!

On August 29, 2005--five years ago last Sunday--hurricane Katrina made landfall just east of New Orleans.  The storm caused thousands of deaths, billions of dollars in property damage, uprooted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and, very likely, forever changed the ways we think about government's responsibilities and responses to disaster.


The immediate aftermath of the storm shocked many across the country and around the world.  Administrative and policy responses continue to this day, as the region continues the long term task of rebuilding itself.


As might be expected the fifth anniversary of the storm has been the occasion for a great deal of reflection and analysis, of uneven quality and decidedly mixed perspective.  Some focus on human dramas, some on ecological impact, while others see the future of the American city, for better or for worse, in what happens in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.


Some of the best of these analyses are:


·         an editorial from the Merced (CA) Sun-Star that correctly points out that cities in flood-prone areas such as New Orleans and Sacramento must reduce their urban footprint and revise their land use policies in order to even hope for sustainability;

·         a PBS NewsHour segment analyzing the new flood protection system being created for southeast Louisiana;

·         a section on Our Amazing Planet highlighting the connection between Mississippi River management and coastal erosion

·         a piece published by Reuters and written by a Tulane water law expert connecting the future of the city to the future of the coastline

·         a summary of five key issues still facing the region (includes comments from readers which are themselves illustrative of the issue's complexity)

·         a personal account that reminds us of the human impacts that are, and must remain, an important part of our considerations



Each of these links offers important insights, and they are by no means the only good analyses available.  Frankly, they are included here as a slightly random list, culled from a "Google Alerts" string compiled over the past week.  Serious, systematic study of the "lessons from Katrina" is a major undertaking worthy of inclusion in a number of academic courses and professional practices ranging from civil engineering, to public policy, to art and literature.


I feel that the questions of sustainable communities and rivers that are being worked out in New Orleans make that region the  "canary in the coal mine" for a host of centrally important issues:  urban vitality; ecosystem restoration; the relationships between a continental river system and the ocean into which it flows; the development of multifunctional landscapes that can meet several needs simultaneously--energy development and ecosystem services for example; the appropriate understanding of "natural" and "human" systems, with parallel analysis of what constitutes a "natural disaster" versus the role of human culpability.  All of these are "wicked problems" that require new ways of thinking, new administrative structures, and new forms of cooperation in order for successful responses to emerge.


"The new normal" is a phrase that gets bandied about a lot.  Variously it refers to scenarios of climate change, to the difficulties of achieving public goals in a shrinking (or at least not expanding rapidly) economy, to the difficulties of even defining public goals in a polarized, toxic political atmosphere.


 I would argue--and will argue in postings at various times in the future--that the future intersections of rivers, landscapes, and communities are being enacted in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, and that if we want to act sustainably in the "new normal," many of the most important lessons are taking place there.  The world has a lot to learn from New Orleans, and a lot to teach, as well.

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