River Talk

Recently in River Science Category

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. 

What's On Your iPod?

I hear that this is something people ask each other these days, when getting acquainted, and that sometimes celebrities are asked about this in interviews.


I won't bore you with what's on my iPod, but I do want to tie this general question to a larger problem in learning about rivers by suggesting a new question for river geeks:


What's on your iGoogle?


iGoogle is this thing (there has to be a more technical term) that allows me to call up a web page that contains links to pages that I want to track regularly.  I'm sure there are lots of ways to do this, but this is the one that I've learned. 


So what's on my iGoogle, pertaining to rivers?  For a sampler:


Hanalei Watershed Hui                                 


Confluence Greenway                                 


Freshwater Society                                      


Circle of Blue                                                     


River Sphere                                                      


Green City, Blue Lake                                    




International Rivers                                       


the urban planner, Gordon Price                                                   


(I know, it's a terrible faux pas to give these to you without links, but I have a plane to catch and I'm not real adept at the whole "making links live" thing yet.  Mea culpa.)


I have recently written about Allies: media/art, Northeast-Midwest Institute, the Great Rivers Partnership, and American Rivers, so won't go into them again, even though they are on my  iGoogle.


Of course, there are other sites, programs, and projects that I track, including those of our program's key partners, both on and off campus.  But this gives you an idea of how diverse the sources of knowledge for river sustainability are.


So what?  Who cares what web sites I look at regularly?  If you can bear with me and accept that I'm someone who thinks about river management and sustainability a lot, and tries to do so somewhat systematically, here's the argument that I would make:


Future river managers are going to need to know something about a river-related scientific field such as fluvial ecology, geomorphology, and the like.  But I think they will also need to know something about river-oriented policy, planning, and/or design, because all the scientific knowledge in the world isn't any good if laws, planning/design frameworks, and management aren't in alignment with scientific insights.  Finally, if you can't convince the public, or at least some segment of it, of the importance of your cause, you'll not have much impact.  So river managers are going to need to know something of programming, education, history, the myths and narratives that connect us to rivers.


We all know that it's hard enough to learn one field, much less be conversant in all of the areas outlined above.  The professional practices and academic disciplines encompassed by "river studies" stretch across all parts of a university and engage many professions, agencies, and non-profit groups.  It would be easiest to keep up only with the ones we know best.


It would be easiest, but it would not be sufficient for a competent 21st century river manager and leader.  If we all need to know everything, then a first step on that (impossible) task is to make certain web sites, full of key information and cutting-edge knowledge and practice, readily available.  Hence my iGoogle.


I will elaborate more on some of the sites and programs listed above in the coming days and weeks.  In the meantime, send me your candidates, what you read and who you keep up with on a regular basis, even (especially) if the work is not directly focused on the Mississippi.  One of the precepts of the "wired world," after all, is that we're all in the web together!

The 1986 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) declared that the Mississippi River is a nationally significant navigation waterway and a nationally significant ecosystem.  Since that time, some of the best minds in the business have been trying to come up with, in the phrase of Dan McGuiness, "a river that works and a working river."


Too often, those two tendencies--a river that works as it would in a healthy hydrological cycle if people weren't interfering with it, and a "working river" that carries our transportation--are seen as oppositions.  We don't see how we can manage for both, or, if we try, which side will "win" if there have to be compromises.


There are several studies currently under way at points in the Upper Mississippi, experimenting with tactics such as seasonal drawdowns to mimic the natural seasonal "bounce" the river makes.  At the national level, the Sustainable Rivers Project offers much to be hopeful about.  At 36 dam sites on eight river basins, The Nature Conservancy and the Army Corps of Engineers are conducting science-based investigations on the effects of altering dam operations to more closely mimic natural river flow patterns.  Early indications are encouraging, and if the program can be expanded nationally, it may be applied to the more than 600 dams operated by the Corps around the country.  The Corps is the largest water manager and hydropower producer in the country, so a national program with their involvement would be a hugely valuable step to restoring river health.


As promising as the Sustainable Rivers Project is, it would be even greater if it took into account the needs and contributions of local people, especially people indigenous to the lands being studied.  Hydrology, geomorphology and engineering are central practices to the understanding of healthy flows of rivers; when we add human dimensions and the restoration of poetry to moving water, then we have truly completed a restoration cycle between rivers, people, and communities.

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!

There is a (too) common trope in many discussions of restoration ecology that posits some kind of desired "pre-contact" ecological system that would serve, then, as a desirable future condition. "If only we could get back to the North American landscape before Columbus," these arguments seem to imply, "we'd be able to live happily and sustainably on the planet."

There are many problems with this supposition, of course, among the most obvious being that it completely disregards the indigenous people as agents of change both before and after the appearance of Europeans. 

More recent and sophisticated understandings have suggested that instead of some kind of "turning back the clock" people interested in restoration might want to consider what the critical landscape functions and processes are, and work toward restoration of some of those key connections and dynamics.

I'm certainly no expert on the science of restoration ecology, but a recent project that has garnered a lot of press attention appears to have developed a subtle approach to the subject, as well as a dynamic interaction and communication/education program. The Mannahatta Project takes as its starting point the question of what Manhattan Island was like before the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609. The interactive map is really a cool way to show that Times Square formerly was an area where streams crossed (Crossroads of the World, on a different scale!) and the like.

But Eric Sanderson and the other scientists and staff at the Wildlife Conservation Society who have developed this project have a bigger goal in mind than just a cool web site and education materials. In a TED talk last summer, Sanderson posed the question of how Manhattan can still be habitat for 12 million people 400 years from now. What can be learned from the earlier biological and physical systems that will let the same number of people, say, live there, using a much smaller amount of space, and leaving the rest for growing food and managing clean water supplies.

I wish the project had more evidently talked to descendents of the Lenape people who inhabited the island when Hudson showed up, but that may still be in the works. In the meantime, the innovative use of technology to convey new scientific insights is only the most obvious reason to spend some time exploring this impressive effort to build a smarter future based on detailed knowledge of the past.

Urban Rivers as "system of systems"

All of us, I think, believe that urban rivers are pretty special places. All of us who have spent any time at all working or thinking about the preservation of urban rivers also know that the work of establishing sustainability on urban rivers is really challenging. "Challenging" here is the modern euphemism for "maybe too hard to do, and certainly involving more struggle and effort than I bargained for, but I have to try anyway."

Anyway, I want to suggest here a framework for thinking about the challenge of sustainability on urban rivers. We won't have the "answer' today, and may not have it for a while yet, but I think the terms and framework offered here can structure our thoughts moving forward.

I have found it helpful to think of the urban river as a system of systems. In brief, and with apologies for necessary distortion through brevity, these systems are:

  • ·   hydrologic systems, what's in and on the water, both chemically and biologically. This category also refers, in my mind at least, to the actual ways the water meets other surfaces, scouring the bed of the river, carrying sediments, and so forth.
  • ·   terrestrial ecosystems, the plant and animal communities that live along the river and depend upon it for their health and survival. In many respects, these systems function in ways best understood by specialists; what the public sees as a lush green forest is full of invasive plant species that don't support a diverse community as well as they should.
  • ·   human systems, the roads and streets, settlements, public spaces and all of the other physical space that we shape in order to live along the river. Too often, we see these systems only as intrusions upon the others, a point of view that may ultimately be self-defeating. Nevertheless, poorly designed and planned human systems can and do cause great harm to hydrologic and terrestrial systems.

It's pretty easy to say that all three of these need to be in balance. But what is that "balance," and who decides? Is it even possible to design a community of humans that doesn't damage the communities of plants, animals, and the river that supports us all? 

I believe that it is, and will be posting further ideas, research, projects and so forth over the weeks and months ahead. In doing so, I will be reporting as well as I can, as specifically as I can, about a whole range of topics in which the expertise is led by others. No single person can know all of the science, policy, design, and programming/engagement efforts that make up this subject. As always, I invite comments that contribute to the effort and look forward to hearing from you.
A week ago, over 90 people gathered on the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota to participate in a presentation and panel discussion that invited them to "re-imagine" the Mississippi River Gorge, that stretch of the Mississippi passing through the campus. The Gorge is the only true, geological, gorge on the entire Mississippi; it has long excited particular interest of landscape architects, painters, photographers, and the thousands of pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers who use the parkways on both sides. 

Lately, the Gorge has been the source of much public debate about its future. Locks and dams at both ends have changed the character of the water from the rushing rapids that 19th century explorers found to today's rather placid pool. "What if the dams were removed?" people have wondered. "Are there any ways to recapture some of the ecological functions of the past?"

There may be, but the actual ecological restoration is a number of years away, even in the most active scenarios. In the meantime, the combination of scientific description and analysis, community will and passion, and aesthetic imagination will point us in a direction where the future of the Gorge is more truly a broad-based community asset.

For video of much of the event, you can view them at the bottom of this post or go to the Web site of the Institute for Advanced Study, co-sponsor of the event as part of its "Thursdays at Four" series The Institute on the Environment also co-sponsored the event.

Introductory remarks by moderator, Pat Nunnally.

Presentation by biologist, Chris Lenhart.

Presentation by artist, Christine Baeumler.

Presentation by Park Board Member, Scott Vreeland.

Mona Smith, Chris Lenhart, Christine Baeumler, Scott Vreeland, and moderator Pat Nunnally answer questions about their presentations.
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.