River Talk

Recently in Upper Mississippi River 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. 

So after writing yesterday about the NOAA Recovery web site and its wealth of information concerning habitat restoration projects at the mouth of the Mississippi, I want to switch gears here and talk briefly about one of the controversies near the headwaters of one of the Mississippi's important tributaries.

I am referring to the growing controversy concerning "Asian carp" (a term that is often used to lump together two distinct species) and the threat they pose to the Great lakes system.

Articles on the Asian carp threat are easy to find, so I won't trace through a lot of them here.  A recent blog from Chicago, though, points out how the question of "re-reversing" the Chicago River, and breaking the water link between the Mississippi River watershed and the Great Lakes that was artificially established a century ago, is emerging as a hot issue in Illinois' Senate race.  Good new personal insights in the piece, and worth a look.

The blog also reminds us that important river-based information is found in many diverse places.  My "Google Alert" for "Mississippi River brings up dozens of hits every week.  Unfortunately, some refer to people losing their life in the river, and a lot are travel stories and coverage of fishing tournaments.  Still, I am continually surprised by the broad spectrum of writers addressing topics that relate to sustainability on the Great River.


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!

Many Voices at Bdote

Wherever you go, along any river on earth, the chances are great that people indigenous to that landscape knew that place, valued it, named it, depended on it.


In some places the past tense of the verb is appropriate, the indigenous people being so long gone, and their relations to that place obscured under such a thick palimpsest of subsequent cultures that their presence is barely discernible, if at all.


But for most places in the world, indigenous people remain connected, through stories, voices, presence.  Oh sure, it may be possible to be on a river such as the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Columbia, or the Mississippi, and to know something about those rivers, without knowing their indigenous histories and meanings.


It may be possible, but such knowledge, truncated without connection to old, enduring ways, is lacking.  It lacks a certain richness, depth, and connection. 


Knowledge of a river that begins when the most recent occupants came is necessarily foreshortened, both with regard to the past, but also with regard to the future.  For those of us Euro-Americans living along the Upper Mississippi River, if we only understand "history" as beginning with the fur trade in the late 17th century, and as only including dominant voices of those who wrote things down, we limit ourselves to only imagining a future of a couple hundred years, and with ourselves as the center of that future.


We must do better, if we are to sustain a relationship with our rivers.


Fortunately, web sites like the Bdote Memory Map can begin to show us some ways into understanding these old ways, and their continuations into the present.


Bdote is a Dakota term that means, roughly, "where two waters meet."  The bdote at the juncture of what are now called the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, in the heart of the present Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, is the spiritual and historical home to Dakota people.  It is also a place where 1700 women, children, and elders were imprisoned after the Dakota War of 1862, making it a place, as I have heard people say, "of our genesis and our genocide."


The Memory Map site, a collaboration between the Minnesota Humanities Center  and Allies: media/art  conveys a richly nuanced sense of this place.  The site contains audio and video clips from Dakota people explaining elements of their connections to this place; it contains photographs and text that show it in its many dimensions; it contains a mechanism for visitors to tell their stories.


This capacity, for people to listen to multiple and diverse stories, to learn through visual, aural, and text-based documents, and to speak back to the site, to engage in a conversation, is essential if our future with this place is to be sustained.  Explore the Bdote Memory Map, listen to the voices, and imagine how those voices and voices like them can be--must be--part of our future understandings of our rivers.


At the River Life Partnership, we work closely with Allies and with people and organizations that Allies connects us with in the indigenous community.  Quite honestly, we can't imagine doing our work without these partnerships, voices, and insights.

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.

Of course, speaking in strict geographical terms, Washington DC and the Mississippi do not meet; the District is outside the Mississippi River watershed.

But speaking in terms of policy and economics, they meet--do they ever!

The ongoing legislation affecting the Mississippi is huge; in addition to the Water Resource Development Act (WRDA), River policy comes about through the Farm Bill, the regular transportation authorization, as well, of course, as the appropriations bills governing the disparate agencies that have an impact on the River.

Speaking purely personally, I have spent a good part of my career wishing I didn't have to think about Washington DC's impact on the Mississippi, preferring to believe that the "real work" happens out in the watershed, where thousands of local people put their best thinking and action efforts to making the Mississippi a cleaner, more sustainable river .And it's certainly true that all of that work is centrally important.

But the DC doings matter also.

Fortunately, the Northeast-Midwest Institute exists and does a fine job of tracking the ins and outs of key federal legislation for the river. The NEMWI is a private, nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization based in Washington DC. Its staff tracks many issues in addition to those involving the Mississippi:farm and food policy, energy, manufacturing, brownfields, urban revitalization, trade and the environment, all focused on economic vitality, environmental quality, and regional equity for states in the Northeast and Midwest.

People who are substantially involved in Mississippi River issues know that many of those issues--farm policy, brownfields, and urban revitalization just to name three--are intimately tied to the future of a sustainable Mississippi River.Other issues, such as climate change and issues facing American Indians are also part of the watershed's future. But the NEMWI is a good place to start in keeping track of federal legislation affecting the Mississippi in profound ways.

Fortunately, we out here in the watershed don't have to burn up our long distance bills or click onto the web site every day to keep up with Mississippi River news from the NEMWI. Policy analyst Mark Gorman posts regularly to a blogwhich contains key ideas, insights, and reflections on the future of the Mississippi.Of all the noise and static in the blogosphere, this is one of the clear notes of reason and information pertinent to our work. Check it out, or, better yet, subscribe to the blog's feed.

The annual spring river watch has largely passed, here in Minnesota, with the Red River scheduled to go below flood stage in Fargo in the next day or so, and the Mississippi predicted to drop below flood stage in St. Paul by Friday. The floods didn't turn out to be as large as predicted/feared, but still, there were impressive water levels running in Minneapolis and St. Paul last week--I'll write more on that in a day or so.

For now, the question has come up: what do we mean by "flood stage," and the related term "floodplain"? "Flood stage" basically refers to that elevation at which lives or property are threatened. If a city is built right up to the banks of a river, flood stage is reached any time the river rises even a little bit. Here in the Twin Cities, much of the riverfront is in park land, so parks and trails are closed regularly for annual spring rises.

In times of flooding, the term "floodplain" usually is mentioned as part of a phrase such as "the 100 year floodplain." The 100 year floodplain is that area which has a 1% chance of flooding every year. In St. Paul, recent development along the Upper Landing was placed on thousands of truckloads of fill dirt to get the construction out of the historic 100 year floodplain.

Here's where things get interesting, though. As a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune story reports FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recently recalculated the 100 year floodplain in St. Paul, and established the new line as significantly elevated over the old one. This change could be due to any number of factors, but the most obvious one might be the increased development and river channeling upstream throughout the watershed. More roads, streets, and houses means rain and snowmelt run off into streams and rivers rather than soak into the ground. When that water hits the river, if the river is constrained by levees and floodwalls--such as the new floodwall at Holman Field airport in downtown St. Paul--then the water can't spread out, but is forced higher, raising the level at which it may rise on any given year.

The article goes into more detail on the consequences of altered floodplain levels, in terms of insurance costs and the like, and I encourage you to take a look at it. The fact remains, though: as long as we build as much as we do in the watershed, and pay as little attention as we do to how water is managed, then more, and higher, floods are inevitable.

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.