River Talk

June 2011 Archives

If so, check out this Minnpost.com story on the Minnesota Idea Open challenge on water.

As the article says, Minnesota is commonly thought of as a state with abundant water (Land of 10,000 Lakes and all that).  But the recent Water Sustainability Framework produced by a team led by the U of M's Water Resource Center has found many and serious threats both to our future water quality and quantity.

If you want to share ideas, send 'em along!  I'll help for a very reasonable share of the prize!

Floods Continue to be Big News

I wrote last week about the flooding on the Missouri River, and some of the range of reactions that are emerging.

The less well-known Souris River is capturing headlines also, especially as it sets record levels in Minot.  ABC News story  covers the unfolding emergency.

Particularly striking to me:  the mayor of Burlington, just upstream from Minot, acknowledges "We're no longer able to save the city."  The town of about 1,000 residents is expected to lose a third of its 320 homes.

Also check out the always-informative and well-written Highly Allochthonous blog; this particular entry written by Anne Jefferson (on Twitter @highlyanne).

Living sustainably with rivers is obviously an issue that affects communities of every size, across the world.  Although the Mississippi is our "home river" here at River Life, you'll hear from us with stories, analysis, and resources drawn from examples from througout the entire Mississippi River basin, across the United States and around the world.

Let us know what you find particularly interesting, and what you'd like to see more of.

The flooding on the Missouri River is beginning to show a lot about how contemporary reactions to disaster are sorting out.  Five recent news articles and one agency announcement illustrate my point.

According to the headline of the Des Moines Register's article from June 17, "History shows:  Missouri River just flows where it will."  To a degree, the article bears this out, although other writers (see below) make the point more eloquently.  Still, this piece provides good historical summaries of the Pick-Sloan Act that created the six massive reservoirs on the Upper Missouri (all now overflowing) beginning in the 1940s.  Also valuable is the notation that upstream states (Montana and the Dakotas) have always had differing interests from downstream states (Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri). 

A June 20 article in the Rapid City Journal picks up on the theme of multiple uses for the river, noting that the Pick-Sloan Act and subsequent management manuals instruct the Corps of Engineers to manage the Missouri River for eight (!) different purposes:  flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, recreation, water supply, water quality, and fish and wildlife.  It will surprise no one that the Corps takes heat from all sides in trying to achieve this impossible task.  Moreover, legislation in 2009 authorized a reexamination of the 1944 Act in light of changed conditions; the study was not funded, in part, allegedly, because legislators from one part of the basin "like things the way they are."

Clay Jenkinson, writing on June 19 in the Bismarck Tribune, takes a slightly different approach.  He, wisely I think, argues that "Nature, not the Corps of Engineers, is driving the flood."  Well, yes.  The Corps is doing what it can to minimize damage, but a combination of record rainfall this spring and summer and a record snowpack from last winter has pushed the river to what has been described elsewhere as "a historical new data point" for water volume.  It is sad, though, that Jenkinson's point about nature (the river) calling the shots is decidedly the minority view.  You probably noticed that none of the 8 purposes for which the Corps manages the river include "allow it to act like a river."  So when it does--i.e. floods--we act all outraged.

"Outraged" certainly sums up the mood of lawmakers quoted by the New York Times in an article on June 17.  Once again, the Corps comes in for the bulk of the flack, as Senators, Representatives, and a Governor ask why this flood could not have been anticipated and prevented.  The argument is that more water could have been released from the reservoirs sooner, the mitigate the excessive flows coming out now (and which are predicted to keep the Missouri River at or above flood stage through August).  Great quote:  "We are not managing the river, the river is managing us"  

As my son used to say when he was younger "well, duh."  Other officials demand to hold hearings and to "be involved" in reviewing policies and procedures for flood control.  As the old quote used to go "Be afraid.  Be very afraid."

All is not gloom and doom, though.  In an article from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, the Corps, and several state agencies point out the unparalleled research opportunities afforded by this season's floods.  Among the important subjects to be raised:
  • How well did Corps procedures respond to the emergency?
  • What might be expected as long term economic impacts  from the disruptions in small communities from the flood?
  • How has the river itself behaved during high water, cutting new channel areas, deepening in some areas while depositing new sandbars in others?
  • Are the impacts on rare, threatened and endangered fish and wildlife discernible?  What about on the sport fishery, which is a multi-million dollar industry in just one of the reservoirs?
We can be hopeful that examinations such as these can be conducted, and that they can let the multiple agencies, as well as advocacy groups and members of the public, learn better what it means to live with the river as it "manages" us, rather than continuing to control it.

I'm afraid I have to end on a note of concern, though.  Today (June 22) the Corps announced the formation of a Flood Recovery Task Force.  We can be hopeful that broader impacts such as those described above can be addressed, but I'm afraid that the discussion will stop with an examination of how existing flood control structures worked and what is required to shore them up before the next flood season.

There has been a lot of talk, though, about letting rivers reoccupy the floodplain, and we'll be keeping track of those arguments.  Stay tuned!


Everyone who knows me knows that I'm pretty much a "20th Century" guy, not an early adopter of all this blogging, Twittering, and social media-type stuff.  I've had to be led kicking (and sometimes screaming) into the modern day, and I still sometimes think of bloggers as folks sitting around ranting.

But blogs such as Anne Jefferson's "Levees and the illusion of flood control" are doing a lot to change my views.  This piece is so informative, and lyrically well written, that it stands on its own as a piece of writing, almost regardless of the content.

But the content is exemplary also, I believe.  For nearly a decade, I have taught a class "Making the Mississippi" to University of Minnesota students who aspire to be planners, landscape architects, architects, or just plain good citizens of their riverfront community.  I think I will (with Anne Jefferson's permission of course) start assigning this blog as one of the opening assignments.  The hydrology is sound, yet accessible, and the historical and land use contexts in which hydrologic science becomes "real" to a community are vividly presented.  And there are even good comments:  if you read the blog post, scroll down through the first few comments until you get to the longish discussion of how FEMA regulations may be interfering with innovative floodplain management.

This sort of work is increasingly how we learn:  a strong narrative/explanatory thread, liberally illustrated with relevant images, and linked out to important sidebars that provide information that richly supplements the material at hand.  Great stuff, and, to use the vernacular of my teaching practice, should be "required reading" for people in a host of river-related practices.

So I was glad to hear today that "Levees and the illusion of flood control" was one of the winners in the 3quarksdaily 2001 Science Prize Contest.  I am not a scientist, but I have been a writer for a long time, and I welcome the encouragement such a contest offers to science writers.  Judge Lisa Randall has contributed an extensive summary of the winning entries, in which she offers cogent musings on the value of blogs as scientific discourse.  Again, should be "required reading" for science faculty who actually (as opposed to just paying lip service) want to achieve broader impacts of their work.

Readers:  I'd love to hear about other incisive, accessible science writing on the several disciplines that pertain to rivers--send them along, and I'll respond as I am able!

Mark Gorman at the Northeast-Midwest Institute does a masterful job at gleaning the water resource news affecting the Mississippi River basin.  Since this is the third largest watershed in the world, there's a lot of news to cover!

Check in to Gorman's blog for regular summaries of the news for the week and an extensive gathering of links to what's been reported all week.  He covers a lot of the goings-on in Washington DC, as well as news reported from across the country.

Thanks, Mark--great work!
When Agriculture Secretary (and former Iowa Governor) Tom Vilsack toured flooded farm areas in the western part of Iowa yesterday, the federal deficit became an inevitable part of the conversation.

As this Des Moines Register article details, farmers stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars due to the flooding Missouri River, fed by record snowpack in the Rockies.

Only there's not likely to be any extra money to cover those losses coming from deficit-conscious Washington DC.

And for those who have been critical of the Corps of Engineers for its handling of the Missouri, Vilsack advised that they be very careful about describing "mistakes" or "bad planning."  Damages from "natural" floods qualify for federal disaster relief (what little there is) while "man-made" disasters may not. 

But how do we draw the distinction, in this Year of Floods between "natural" and "man-made"?

The 4th National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration (NCER) will be held August 1-5 in Baltimore.  As detailed in the conference web site, this year's version will draw over 1,000 practitioners from federal and state agencies, consulting firms, and nonprofit groups, all focusing on the newest ideas and best management practices for restoration of large ecosystems.

There will be a lot of attention, of course, on the Chesapeake Bay.  But sessions will also focus on the Great Lakes, Coastal Louisiana, the Missouri River, and the Everglades.  Sessions on urban ecosystem restoration, and on policy-science connections will draw on examples from across the country.

Primary federal agency sponsors include the USGS, Corps of Engineers, and the NRCS program of the Department of Agriculture.

Two years ago, I attended the NCER in Los Angeles.  It was, very simply, the best conference I have ever been to.  The program was extremely well organized, the speakers were informative, and there was plenty of good time for making contacts and networking.  Many of the ideas and contacts developed during that week are still central to River Life today.

If you can scrape together the funds and the time, this trip will be well worth it!

Guest Blog Entry by Alex Guerrieri

The recent work by the US Army Corps of Engineers to relieve some of the flooding on the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois brings up several interesting topics for debate, including the priorities of the Corps, the long-term effects of flooding on an agricultural area, and the political quagmire that can occur when two distinct municipalities -- in this case Illinois and Missouri -- have vastly different ideas on the proper methodology of flood control.

In case you weren't aware yet, on Monday (May 2), the US Army Corps intentionally detonated a section of river levee along the Missouri shore, activating the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway in an effort to limit the effects of flooding on Cairo, Ill., which is located across the river. An explosive slurry was piped into the levee and detonated Monday evening, allowing nearly 550,000 cubic-feet per second of Mississippi and Ohio River floodwaters to drain into the floodway.

The Birds Point New Madrid Floodway, designed by the Corps specifically for this purpose, was originally built after the disastrous 1927 flood. However, even with such a significant volume of water being diverted from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, "Corps hydrologists estimate it will take 45-60 days for water to recede from the floodway . . . and another 21-30 days for the land to dry out." (US Army Corps of Engineers)

See a map of the area: (Google Maps)

This link shows two images courtesy of NASA, the first from April 29th and the second from May 3rd, a day after the levee was destroyed: (Southeast Missourian)

The topic of politics arises due to the fact that the floodwaters are being directed on to agricultural land in Missouri, in order to spare commercial and residential land in Illinois. The Missouri Legislature even went so far as to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the demolition, but were denied.

For the farmers whose croplands are now underwater, this means the loss of millions of dollars: lost seed, lost planting time, and in many cases, lost topsoil. According to Rick Cruse, a professor of agronomy professor at Iowa State University and director of the university's Iowa Water Center, those with land near the levees will find that topsoil has been washed away, while those farther away will have to deal with debris that has washed onto their land. Additionally, "pollutants and chemicals in the water is another concern, but that threat is largely eased by the sheer volume of water that diluted those substances."

Given these circumstances -- a record amount of rainfall (portions of the Ohio River have seen more than 25 inches of rain in the month of April alone), a river system that has no concern for state boundaries or any law besides gravity, and the potential for significant flooding of Cairo, IL -- is there a better choice of action that the Corps could have taken? How does the Corps determine its priorities in regard to flood control? Should loss of livelihood trump potential loss of life, even though most of Cairo's 2800 residents had already been evacuated before the levee was detonated? What do you think?

A New York Times article published late last week raises important questions about the connections between farming in the Midwest, the nation's "cheap food" policy, flooding in the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia, or "dead zone."

And contrary to what a lot of advocacy and trade organizations say, the answers are not simple, or a simple case of "us vs. them."

Yes it is true that most of the contributing pollution from the Mississippi River that causes the Gulf hypoxia comes from Midwestern farms.

And yes it is true that the excessive floods of this spring and summer have pushed that water, often referred to as a "nasty chemical stew" into peoples' yards and houses, across their parks and cities.

So there's an immediate problem, and, true to our nature as human beings, we want to find someone to blame and a simple solution.

If farm chemicals are causing the problem, then farmers must be causing the problem, right?

Well, maybe.  But I think it's simplistic to think that farmers willfully put as much fertilizer as they want to wherever they want to.  That stuff is expensive, and most farmers don't have a very high profit margin.

So if farmers are careful, maybe even thrifty in their applications, then what's the problem?

There seem to be several issues, and they are systemic, embedded in the "way we do business" rather than perhaps subject to easy change.

Many Midwestern farms are underlain with systems of tile drainage, designed to get "excess" water off the land quickly.  These farms, which really are wetlands in camouflage, need to move water off land to stay productive, but at the same time are moving nutrients off too fast also.

Why don't the farmers accept that their farms will be under water some years?  We like to keep the prices of Corn Flakes, hamburger, and Coca Cola as low as possible, which means, in all three cases, keeping the price of corn down, which means producing a lot of corn.  Which means keeping farms in "full production" mode.

There are solutions to balancing the interests of agriculture, with the interests of clean water, and both with the broader "public interest," but those solutions are not simple, or cheap.

But back to the Times' article:  enough interested parties ("stakeholders") are quoted so that the complexity of the issue begins to emerge.  And that's what good journalists ought to be doing.
By now many of you know that the north side of Minneapolis suffered a direct hit from a tornado on the afternoon of Sunday, May 22.  Hundreds of homes were damaged, thousands of trees were uprooted, Wirth Park suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage, and a heron rookery on a Mississippi River island was destroyed.  Although there have been hundreds of volunteers pouring into the community to help, and the response from public and private emergency management and disaster relief organizations has been strong, this community will be decades recovering from that short storm interval.

RiverFirst, the design chosen last winter by the jury for the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition, has always had a very strong component that connected the North Side to the river.  Currently the North Side, which is among the lowest income sections of the city, is separated from the river by Interstate 94 and several miles of industrial waterfront land use.  RiverFirst's plan has been bold:  to create a land bridge with community gardens, paths, and other landscape amenities from Farview Park in Near North, to the river.

I would suggest that the recent disaster on the North Side should push the Farview Park proposal up the queue for consideration.  Currently, the RiverFirst team is developing a strategy about which are the highest priority places and systems within the 5.5 mile stretch of the riverfront that they are examining.  Certainly, not everything can be built at once.  The Riverfirst wisely recognizes this and has established four "Site Prioritization Criteria"
  • Community Benefits
  • Municipal Needs
  • Timing and Land Ownership
  •   Demonstration Capacity
Go here to see these criteria in more detail.  I have to note, though, that the blog link, and my own notes, are unclear on the distinction between "community benefits" and "municipal needs."

It may seem out of touch to recommend a "Big Design' solution to the North Side when so many people are still struggling for basic shelter.  But here's my thinking:  the Farview Park connection, as a system of open space, "urban agriculture," and trail connections that have a regional context, is a set of projects that won't probably be realized until 5-10 years from now.  Why not create the space for this, get this visionary thinking in people's minds now, and keep it there while more immediate needs are being met?

It wouldn't be the first time that a community has been "saved by its river."  Majora Carter's transformative work in the Bronx began with river clean ups.

It could happen here also.


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