River Talk

Recently in Lower Mississippi River Category

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!


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


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!

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.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is easily the best-known Mississippi River journey, but it is by no means the only account of life on and along the Great River. Even before Twain's book appeared in the 1880s, travel narratives of journeys along the river were staples of European and American literature. Since that point, hundreds of would-be authors have taken all manner of boats (well, some hardly qualify as "boat") down the Mississippi, wanting to write about their experiences.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is perhaps the most recent entrant in this veritable library of travel narratives, and its "virtual trip" is certainly one of the best. TNC's Great Rivers partnership "is an ambitious effort to conserve and restore the world's great river systems for the benefit of the people and species that depend upon them for life."
In January, a virtual 13 day journey was posted allowing visitors to the site to become acquainted with some of the variety of human and animal life along the river.

The journey is well worth a visit, for both "newbie" and "river rat" alike. Slide shows and occasional short video segments offer users a sampling of river voices. Sidebars, maps, and "fact sheets" create just a glimmer of how complex and enormous the river really is.

The Mississippi's stories are as old as the world and bigger than any of us can imagine. The World Wide Web and proliferating ways of conveying digital information through video, photographs, maps, narration, and simple data, all offer ways of storytelling that match the complexity of the river itself.

Arcola Bridge on the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and MinnesotaEarlier we posted on climate change and rivers and mentioned the Statewide Water Management Plan being coordinated by the University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center. Serendipitously, a message from that study, reproduced below, came out earlier this week. We urge everyone with an interest in the future of Minnesota's water to click on the link and complete the survey

Minnesota lies at the head of the Mississippi River main stem and is home to some of the defining watersheds in the entire 31 state Mississippi River watershed. The Minnesota River contributes a very high percentage of the nutrients that create the "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are the first major metropolitan area along the full length of the great river.

Clearly, what happens here is important to the much broader watershed. The study being undertaken is not only important in its own right, but could serve as a model for other studies, at varying scales, the will contribute enormously to wise decisions that will allow a 200 year sustainability vision for the watershed.

We'll continue to track and report on this study and urge you to participate in the survey.

Make Sure Your Voice Is Heard!

The University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center (WRC) is developing a Water Sustainability Framework for the next 25 years to protect and improve Minnesota's precious water resources. Because the state's surface and ground waters belong to the people, we are gathering public opinion via surveys and listening sessions on a range of water issues.

Use this link and complete an online survey to make sure your opinions are heard. It's anonymous, quick, and easy. Responses will be incorporated into the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework that will be presented to the State Legislature January 2011.

While you're on the WRC web site, you can sign up for regular email updates on the progress of the Framework and find out more about when and where Listening Sessions will be held around the state.

If you're unable to access the survey online, call 612-624-9282 and we'll send you a written copy.

Image of Arcola High Bridge on the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota, used courtesy of the Metropolitan Design Center, College of Design, University of Minnesota.  Image accession number in the collection is dc003229, and can be found in the Metropolitan Design Center collection in the Digital Content Library.
Gaumuk Glacier, The Source of the Ganges RiverBy now, most readers of this blog probably know that world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen to try to develop international accords on what to do regarding climate change. Certainly important work, but what's it got to do with those of us who spend our time working toward a sustainable Mississippi River and its watershed? 

Well, a lot, actually, but I'll only focus on three of the many threads of this discussion today. In the Time magazine dated December 7,  there is a report about glaciers melting in the Himalayas, a region sometimes referred to as the world's "third pole." These glaciers feed some of the most significant rivers of the world, including the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the Yellow, the Yangtze. All in all, the glaciers of the Himilayas and the Tibetan Plateau serve the water needs of billions of people: "the water tower of Asia."

But the water tower is not refilling as it once did. precise measurements are difficult to obtain owing to the difficult and contested terrain, but anecdotal and observational evidence indicates that the glaciers are shrinking. If they recede to the point where the water supply of these great river systems becomes unreliable, present stresses on water supply and distribution may grow to the point of catastrophe.

But we may not be able to look to the Copenhagen discussions for help on this particular concern. Writing in the op-ed section of the Los Angeles Times James G. Workman argues that Copenhagen delegates have essentially "dehydrated" the discussions by removing water from a central point in the negotiations. Quite honestly, I don't know enough detail about the Copenhagen agenda to support or question Workman's argument (and welcome comment from people more versed than I) but the issue bears further consideration.

Fortunately, that consideration is happening in Minnesota. Working with a grant from the Legislative-Citizens' Commission on Minnesota Resources, the University's Water Resources Center and its co-director Professor Deborah Swackhamer are coordinating the development of a 25 year plan to manage Minnesota's water resources. We usually think of Minnesota, the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" and the intersection of three continental watersheds (the Mississippi, the Great lakes, and the Red River/Hudson's Bay system) as having plenty of water. Maybe we do, maybe we don't; no one really knows for sure. Nor do we know precisely where state policies are in conflict or leave gaps in directing the management of state surface and groundwater.

In 2008, voters passed the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment, which raises millions of dollars every year for water conservation, habitat and natural area preservation, and programs that protect the state's historic and cultural resources. The kind of detailed inventory and analysis that Swackhamer and her team are undertaking will go a long way in directing lawmakers how to use those funds wisely so that, we hope, we aren't facing the drying up of our own "water tower of North America," the Mississippi River.

Image is of Gaumuk Glacier, the source of the Ganges River in the Himalayas.
Image Courtesy of Hug Cirici, used under a Creative Commons License

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