River Talk

May 2011 Archives

If you've been paying more than casual attention to this season's flooding on the Mississippi River, then you know that there has been discussion of how much it costs the US economy to shut down the river's transportation system for even a day. (Some estimates are, as much as $300 million.)  Other commentators have talked about the economic losses from flooded farm fields, a delayed crop, and other ongoing impacts of the flooding.

But what is the floodplain worth, as a floodplain?  What is it worth to us to have the "safety valve" of the floodplain, so that future floods may be an inconvenience but not a catastrophe?

Gretchen Daily, an economist at Stanford and with the Natural Capital Project, has been working on questions such as these.  Daily will deliver a free public lecture on her work at 5:00 on Monday June 13, in the St. Paul Student Center of the University of Minnesota.

Her talk is jointly sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the College of Biological Sciences.

A full press release, with additional details, follows:

Media Contact:
Patrick Sweeney
Freshwater Society

"Harmonizing People and Nature: A New Business Model"

Gretchen C. Daily, Stanford University ecologist and co-founder of the Natural Capital Project, to speak on valuing and pricing environmental benefits

Fifth lecture in the Moos Family speaker series sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the University of Minnesota
What is a wetland worth? Is it only the price a buyer might pay for the land at the moment? Or does the wetland's value include the future flood damage or water pollution it may prevent? How do you put a value on any individual natural site's contribution to keeping plant and animal species from going extinct decades into the future?
Those are the kinds of questions Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily has devoted her career to asking and answering.
Daily, a global leader in efforts to protect the environment by attaching monetary value to all the services that natural systems provide to humans, will deliver a free public lecture in St. Paul on Monday, June 13. 
Her talk - titled "Harmonizing People and Nature: A New Business Model -- will be the fifth lecture in the Moos Family Speaker Series co-sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. She will present the lecture at 5 p.m. in the theater of the St. Paul Student Center on the university's St. Paul Campus.  For information and to register to attend the lecture, go to www.freshwater.org.
The St. Paul Student Center is located at 2017 Buford St., near Cleveland Avenue, on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. 
Daily, a professor in Stanford's Department of Biology, was the author with journalist Katherine Ellison of a 2002 book, The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable.
She also is co-founder of the Natural Capital Project, an interdisciplinary project that combines ecology and economics in an effort to put prices on the benefits that ecosystems provide.  The three founding partners in the Natural Capital Project were Stanford, the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.  Last year, the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment joined the partnership.
The Natural Capital Project has developed a new software system - Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs, or InVEST - under the leadership of University of Minnesota environmental economist Steve Polasky to model future costs and benefits of landscape changes.  Within the next couple of years, InVEST will be available on Google's new Earth Engine platform to assist decision makers in visualizing and quantifying the implications of alternative scenarios or policies.
"Around the world, leaders are increasingly recognizing ecosystems as natural capital assets that supply life-support services of tremendous value - and foremost among these are water-related services," Daily said. "The challenge is to turn this recognition into incentives and institutions that will guide wise investments."
The Moos Family Speaker Series honors the late Malcolm Moos, a former University of Minnesota president.
Recent speakers in the series have been: Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor and author of two books on water sustainability; Hedrick Smith, producer of "Poisoned Waters," a PBS Frontline documentary on water pollution; Louis J. Guillette Jr., a reproductive biologist at the Medical University of South Carolina who has researched animal  birth defects linked to water pollution; and Craig A. Cox, a senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group who works on agricultural pollution and erosion.
About the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences
The College of Biological Sciences provides education and conducts research in all areas of biology, from molecules to ecosystems, supporting applications in medicine, renewable energy, ecosystem management, agriculture and biotechnology. For more information about research and degree programs, go to www.cbs.umn.edu/
About the Freshwater Society
The Freshwater Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and inspiring people to value, conserve and protect water resources. Located in Excelsior, Minn., adjacent to Lake Minnetonka, it has a long history of association with the University of Minnesota. For more information, go to www.freshwater.org.

As most of you probably know, the crest of the Mississippi River flood moves inexorably south.  Water isn't filling the Morganza spillway as rapidly as expected/feared; the river is closed, then reopened depending on specific water conditions; we all wait for the crest to get to New Orleans (expected next week).

It seems that coverage of the flood is in a bit of a "lull" period, with increasing analyses of various aspects of the ongoing emergency.  So what can I recommend if you want to keep up with the situation, but don't have lots and lots of time?

Our web site's flood page will continue to be updated every week as new resources come to our attention.  The site is also a good portal to what we're posting on the River Life Facebook site under the name RiverLifeUMN.  If you "like" us, you can get direct notices of our updates, which will normally include reposts of some of the more thoughtful discussions from the day.

If you prefer to go to some of the better coverage of the flood, I recommend the following:

NOLA.com is the online arm of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  The Environment section has steady, good coverage.

The Wall Street Journal has been offering insightful views also, along with informative infographics and multimedia.  Some of the content is behind a pay wall, though.  Search "Mississippi River" from the home page.

The national edition of the Washington Post often has good coverage, most often under the "Energy and Environment" section on the home page.

I think we've reported already that a number of bloggers are finding the coverage from the New York Times sadly lacking in its scientific rigor and analysis.  So I won't link to that source.

Going forward, our blog posts will increasingly be confined to more analytical pieces on a specific aspect of the flood issue.  Of course, if there's a major change, we'll bring that to your attention, but for day to day "here's what's happening" the above sources are better than what we'd have.

The vexing problem of "controlling" thee Mississippi River and the ecological systems within the water is not limited just to the Delta.

As this story makes clear, river managers upstream continue to express concern about the potential spread of Asian carp.

Taken together, it looks like river managers are going to have to be part ecologist, part engineer, part community development specialist, part public information manager ("manage the story") and part magician.

With a good deal of luck thrown in, for good measure!

Plus the Mississippi itself gets a special mention because of the current flooding.

The American Rivers list got a lot of attention in the Twittersphere this week, which was part of the intent, of course.  And some astute observers noted that the list was more about politics than science.

Of course it is; American Rivers is a national advocacy group headquartered in Washington DC.  Politics is what they do.

The aftermath of the Mississippi Floods of 2011 will see a number of important and ongoing discussions, one of which will revolve around the respective roles of science and politics in managing the nation's rivers.

Stay tuned!  We'll be listening in and perhaps contributing to those conversations.

In the meantime, the list makes for interesting, though perhaps somewhat disheartening, reading.
Okay, I'm sorry, but I just had to do that.  School's finally over for the academic year, and the marathon that began at Labor Day is now nearly done.  A few more emails to send and I think we're there.

Our intrepid staff of Joanne Richardson (Digital Wizard) and Andrea Long (Graduate-student-wizard-in-training) have been holding the fort admirably.

The "links page," on our Flood Forum has just been updated with connections to many of the social media contributors who we have found to be most informative during the ongoing flooding emergency.  And, yes, we insist on telling you something about all these sources; pages of blue hotlinks are SO last century!

In the unlikely event that you'll still have time for more flood coverage, but with the hope that you'll be consumed with curiosity about where all these stories are taking place, we've updated the River Atlas with very substantial collections on "River Floods."  The multi-collection functionality works best in Google Earth, but if you lack the plug-in (or your agency "preventers of information technology" (thanks, Dilbert!) won't let you access Google Earth, click on the tab for "River Atlas in Google Maps."  Here all of the entries are displayed at once; go into the Mississippi Delta region to find what you're looking for.

Enjoy your learning!  And be sure to let us know what else we can add that would help you keep up with this epic event.
The Great Mississippi River Flood of 2011 crested at Memphis in the wee hours Monday night-Tuesday morning and has begun to recede.  Thousands of people are in shelters, and cleanup/restoration will likely take months.  A good single source of information from the local level can be found at MemphisFlood.com.

The next big question is whether or not the Corps of Engineers will open the Morganza Spillway. Located upstream from Baton Rouge, the Morganza gates, if opened (for only the second time ever) would relieve pressure on the Old River Control Structure as well as on Baton Rouge and New Orleans themselves.  See this story from NOLA.com on the anticipated impacts to New Orleans if Morganza is NOT opened.  NOLA.com is a good source for flood information as the crest moves south.

What can you continue to expect from us?  Regular updates on what we've gathered from Twitter, Google Alerts, and other sources will be posted to Facebook at www.facebook.com/RiverLifeUMN.  We will also, provide updates on key developments to this blog every couple of days, and will notify you about updates to our River Atlas that will allow you to pinpoint where all of the action is.  And, as I can find time, I'll pass along reflective analyses of some emerging trends in the flood discussion that are pointing us in longer term directions.

I think there's no question that this flood season, like the 1993 floods that devastated so much of the Midwest and middle sections of the Mississippi, will shape policy, planning, and research decisions for years to come.  Our suite of digital platforms, we hope, will allow you early "listens"to those discussions and the chance to join in.

The Price Tag of the River

Guest Blog Entry by Andrea Long.

Recently I've heard a growing public discussion on strategies that will change the way users are charged for public goods and services. As a graduate student in Urban/Regional Planning, I've long been exposed to the concept of Value Capture - trying to get a user to pay the full price for a service or infrastructure they use. The base argument for Value Capture is that users gain more benefit from public infrastructure or services (e.g. highway roads) than they pay in for them (revenue from gasoline tax, title/plate fees, etc.). Value Capture has long-stood in theory form, and now seems to be inching towards reality.

Academics embrace Value Capture (the U of M's Center for Transportation Studies has released increasing amounts of research since the early 2008), and now it appears that public sector entities- yes, those currently suffering from tightening and constrained budgets- are taking the bait.

In late April Minnesota Public Radio covered a metro area test that will measure the miles driven by 500 GPS-equipped vehicles. This test will compare potential revenue from a miles-based fee as opposed to the current gasoline tax structure; the test is an effort to hedge vehicle fuel efficiency innovations that threaten to reduce future gasoline tax revenue. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has long measured the value impact of parks access on adjacent properties, reporting a 20% value increase to properties proximate to parks over the past 10 years. Additionally, parks are cited as one of the great 'draw' features that attracts new residents the Twin Cities. Now the park board is looking to capitalize on the value that parks bring to the community. A bill that would excise a fee for new development within the city or a fee-per-employee is working its way through the Legislature; this bill is intended to provide more money to the park board for land acquisition and park improvements in the future. This is not direct value capture, but it is a direct move by the park board to capitalize on the benefit that their services and amenities provide to the larger region.

So what in the world do these value capture iterations have to do with a blog about rivers? Everything.

What does access to the river or a water body mean to you? If you do not own land or a business on or near a water feature, but visit it for leisure, recreation, etc., you are not paying for the value you derive from it. You are also not fully paying for the way your home, vehicle or lifestyle pollute it. Nor the wildlife you enjoy watching that inhabit a river's ecosystem or navigate its stretches. Nor most any of the other environmental, economic and social benefits that a river contributes to society.

I am not advocating the institution of a value capture-based feed to access aquatic amenities- but I am asking you to stop and think about the value that rivers, streams and lakes bring to your life.

If testing 'value capture' is a wave of the future, how does one even begin to put a price tag on a river?

Let's suppose you've been under a rock for the past week (or holed up in studio finishing those end-of-semester projects like my students have been!).

"What?"  You say, "the Mississippi is flooding?"  Wasn't that over weeks ago?

Maybe kinda sorta over up here, but where do you think all that water went?  And what do you think has happened when that flood from the Upper Miss hit an area of the country that has seen torrential rains all spring?

Short answer:  "epic" floods.  Possibly historic record floods.  Possibly catastrophic floods.

We're covering this unfolding story, which is putting the Big River in the news across the country and around the world, at www.facebook.com/RiverLifeUMN and @RiverLifeUMN on Twitter.

And if you're not a Facebooker or a tweeter, then here are three "starter articles" for you.  We'll have a lot more to offer in the days and weeks ahead, but if you want to catch up quickly, here are the "Cliff's Notes." (There--I've aged myself again--do they even have Cliff's Notes any more?  Someone write and let me know, ok?)

Anne Jefferson, a hydrologist at UNC-Charlotte writes a blog "Highly Allochthonous" on "News and Commentary from the World of Geology and Earth Science.  And no, I don't know what "allochthonous" means, although I did have someone tell me once.  Her post from May 8 is perhaps the best succinct series of links and explanations I've seen.  She points readers to other top-quality sources, plenty of visual explanations, and offers it all in clear, understandable language.  Great stuff and a wonderful starting point!

Graphic artist Michael Bay has crafted a clearly understandable vision of the Mississippi Delta and its major waterways, based on early project engineering and modelling developed by the Corps of Engineers half a century ago.  He also has excellent links and, perhaps not surprisingly, an eclectic set of comments.

In the coming weeks, we'll hear a lot about "Old River Control Structure" and how it serves (we hope) to keep the lower Mississippi in its present channel and not being captured by the Atchafalaya, which would have, then, most of the river's flow bypassing Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

That would be a catastrophic outcome to these floods, and a detailed explanation of how the Old River Control Structure works, how the hydrology in the region has changed over time, and why it's necessary today can be found on the web site of the America's Wetland Foundation.  Go here for good visual images and detailed explanation.

Three articles to get you started; more on our Facebook page, and lots more to follow.  By any measure, these are historic floods; stick with us as we try our best to bring you the clearest, most reliable information and analysis.

The murky waters flowing into Lake Pepin have generated more than their fair share of public comment and debate.  Last fall's controversy over the film "Troubled Waters" was not explicitly about Lake Pepin, but the issues it raises are perhaps most immediately felt there.

Quick summary:  Lake Pepin is a more or less "natural" (i.e. dating from centuries ago) widening of the Mississippi River south of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.  It is generally thought of as beginning around the city of Red Wing and extending pretty much as far as Wabasha.  Its wide open sweeping vistas are beloved by sailors, fishermen, and are an important part of local economies based on tourism and outdoor activities.

And the waters are filling in with sediment.

This filling in is the subject of an op-ed piece in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune, written by two retired officials with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.  The authors argue that the science of how the sediment is entering the lake, and its origins, is pretty well established, and that scientific research, underwritten by agricultural industry groups, is essentially, to use their words, a "misuse of academic freedom."

Hmmmm.  I'm not so sure about that.  I'm certainly not an expert on academic freedom, but my understanding is that the concept protects researchers' rights to follow their research wherever it may lead, regardless of the political overtones of the outcome.  I'm idealistic enough to hope that, even in these polarized times, the concept of academic freedom still has some currency.

I'm not an expert on Lake Pepin and the controversies around the origins of its sediment, either, so I'm not going to weigh in on who's right, whose research may or may not be influenced by its funding source, or what policy differences may arise from this controversy.

But I have thought a bit about the relations and obligations a University has to the public (s) that it serves, and I think the airing of "both sides of the argument" is one of our essential functions.  We must be recognized as a reasonably "honest broker" of diverse intellectually respectable viewpoints.  "Reasonably" because, of course, no one is "objective."

Where we fall down somewhat is conveying those debates, and their results, to the public.  I had a very good undergraduate Honors student this spring who looked into where the interested, educated public could go to find good credible scientific information on precisely this issue of sediment in the Mississippi River.  She couldn't find a source that was not either pretty completely biased by the advocacy nature of the source or that required advanced scientific training to understand.

So the call for the University to act as a forum for debate also carries with it an obligation to convey the results of those debates to the interested public.  Research carried out with inadequate methods, or reaching fallacious conclusions can then be understood as such, and discounted as such in the courts of policy and public opinion.  Of course, in the era where the non-issue called "Climategate" continues to hinder important policy movement, I have to say I am hopeful, not optimistic.

The University devotes considerable resources to conveying the results of researchers' investigations to the public.  What more do you think we should be doing?  How should we reach out to folks like the readers of this blog? 

I hope you'll forgive me if this is repetitious, but after all, it's the end of the school year with all of the attendant student-oriented work, plus the flood stories are gaining momentum (much like the flood itself, as it rolls toward Memphis).

The River Life Program's Facebook and Twitter feeds, both accessible by searching for us at RiverLifeUMN are both sources of information that our scanning and web research has led us to and that we think has some enduring value and interest.  This blog is more reflective, more "authored" than the Facebook entries, which likely have just a link and a couple of sentences about why we think the link has value.  Twitter, of course, is even less mediated.  On the other hand, Twitter is much more "polyvocal;"  reading this afternoon's calls for volunteers to sandbag in Memphis (where they DON'T have to do this every year!) gave a real sense of immediacy to the emerging crisis in the Delta.

The floods this year are likely to be events talked about years, if not decades, hence.  It used to be said that newspapers (remember those?) were the "rough drafts of history."  There are certainly rough drafts of history being written hourly now; find them on Twitter by following us at @RiverLifeUMN, or search on Twitter (search.twitter.com" for items under topics such as #memflood or #msriver.

And, as always, share what you find!
As the flood crest for the lower Mississippi continues to roll south, and predictions emerge that this year's high water will be "a lot nastier" than the legendary 1927 flood, River Talk will post short pieces with links to some of the more thoughtful, informative, or extensive coverage.  Our analysis of these pieces will be short, trusting that our readers will read and discern for themselves what they're most interested in.

Coverage in Irish Weather Online includes good video capturing individuals' reactions to the flood and satellite imagery of the Birds Point/New Madrid Floodway before and after this week's intentional levee breach.

An article in Reuters.com focuses on the expected impact in Memphis, the next large city in the flood's path.

The potential impact of the flood on the Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone." is part of recent coverage by the Wall Street Journal online edition.  Of particular concern is the water that spilled across 130,000 acres of farmland after the Birds Point/New Madrid Floodway was activated earlier this week.

Up here at the northern end of the Mississippi River basin, our flooding stories have moved from the urgencies of inundated homes, closed roadways, and disrupted lives to questions of prevention, preparation, and policy and planning changes necessary to accommodate living with rivers.

Not so downstream.  In the middle and lower Mississippi, record-breaking rainfall combined with "our" floodwaters coming into their areas have led to one of the worst flood years in history.  Comparisons to the apocalyptic floods of 1927 and 1937 are beginning to be voiced.  The Corps of Engineers has dynamited a levee in Missouri and is indicating that more use of diversion floodways could follow.

Forbes.com has a very nice thorough summary of some of the key issues, and The Nature Conservancy's Cool Green Science blog has an article also worth your attention.  

And the River Life Facebook page is also regularly updated with materials that is both immediate and has what we see as lasting value.  Take a look.  And feel free to let us know what we're missing and/or what you'd like to see us address.
The TLS/KVA team of consultants began their work last week, inaugurating a six month process by which their winning proposal "RiverFirst" will be fleshed out, key projects identified, and a strategy for moving forward developed.  Brief recap:  last fall, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, with creative partnerships from the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota College of Design, held a Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition to gather visions for the future of 5.5 miles of riverfront above St. Anthony Falls.  The team of Tom Leader Studio and Kennedy & Violich Architecture won the competition; it is this work that began in earnest last week.

Design competitions are always rushed things of course, and it is extremely difficult to get a fully detailed, immersive look at the projects and visions.  But RiverFirst is one of those projects that is more and more impressive, the more you study it.  It sees the river as central to four critically important systems in this area:  water, mobility, health, and a green economy.  Too often, a river vision is clumsily grafted onto an existing urban and bio-physical matrix, plopped down as if it could be anywhere.  Not so with this one; in fact several of us who have worked with this corridor for a decade or more found our knowledge and experience of the place challenged by the depth and imagination brought by the RiverFirst team.

Stay tuned to this blog and to the Minneapolis Riverfront Development Initiative (after the "competition" is over, the effort needed a new name, right?) for updates, opportunities to contribute your thoughts, and to have your own conceptions challenged with regard to the possibilities for an urban riverfront.

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