River Talk

Recently in U.S. Rivers Category

Of the 14 American Heritage Rivers, the Hanalei, in Hawaii, is undoubtedly the shortest (16 miles) with the least population (478 in the 2000 census).  But the Hanalei Watershed Hui, formed in response to the 1998 designation as an American Heritage River, has something to tell all of us about community vision, integrated thinking, and perseverance.


Ahu pua'a is a traditional Hawaiian term for the concept of integrated watershed management.  It is sometimes expressed as "ridges to reefs," "white water to blue water," or "summit to sea," all of which clearly and vividly express the connections between rivers and oceans, and the intersections among the diverse smaller streams that come together to form a river. 


Like all American Heritage Rivers, the Hanalei Watershed Hui was matched with a federal agency partner for the first five years of the program.  For the Hanalei, the U.S. Forest Service was the official Federal partner, but the Environmental Protection Agency also provided support for scientific research.  This research, conducted by community members, staff from the University of Hawaii, and the agencies, was driven by community-based concepts that a healthy ecosystem provides necessary resilience in the face of storms and other threats.  One of the community members refers to Hanalei, on the north shore of the island of Kaua'i, as "a very small rock in a very big ocean." 


Community partnership is a hallmark of all American Heritage Rivers, and of all successful river stewardship in general.  But this concept is particularly strong on the Hanalei, where the Hanalei Watershed Hui's home page lists that its work is "guided by Hawaiian and other principles of sustainability and stewardship, integrity and balance, cooperation and aloha, cultural equity and mutual respect."  These core values, especially the inclusion of cultural equity and mutual respect, are essential if communities are to move as a whole toward sustainability on their rivers.


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!

Fish Passage on an Urban River

Too often, it seems, when humans establish urban habitat for themselves, there's no room for any of the other creatures that used to live there.  In parts of the Twin Cities Mississippi River, legend has it that a survey found three fish at one point in the 20th century (that's 3 individuals in a 10+ mile stretch of river, not three species!)


The Clean Water Act has been invaluable in providing a structure for agencies and advocates to work toward restoring water quality to a point where waters are (as a goal) fishable and swimmable.   All over the country, people are working on understanding what Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of certain substances will allow for meeting clean water goals.


But more is needed.  The Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council has been engaged in reviving the urban river in Providence RI for over a decade.  Formed after the Blackstone-Woonasquatucket was named an American Heritage River,  the WRWC undertakes a host of scientific and community engagement projects that are restoring this waterway.


One of the more complex issues the WRWC has tacked involved removing obstacles to fish passage posed by dams on the river.  The WRWC is working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and other agencies to build fish ladders and in some cases actually remove dams.  See more here.


There's a good deal of interest in dam removal on rivers across the country.  Each case and site is dramatically different, and warrants extensive analysis to ensure that the removal doesn't release toxins downstream or cause other impacts that are themselves harmful to the goal of a healthy river.  Relatively small dams in an urban context like the Woonasquatucket in Providence offer a lot of opportunities for substantial benefits from relatively small projects.  Larger scale research, addressing more variables on larger structures, has been conducted at the University of Minnesota's St. Anthony Falls Laboratory.


The return of shad and herring to the Woonasquatucket marks a good sign for potential urban river restoration across the country.

Endangered Rivers

Among the bewildering array of public and private organizations devoted to protecting rivers in the United States, American Rivers has consistently argued for the connections between healthy rivers and healthy communities.  Over nearly four decades, American Rivers has focused on restoring and protecting rivers, and on safeguarding water supply and water quality in rivers.  More recently, the group has added a program area focusing on climate change and rivers.


Many preservation organizations of all stripes publish a "Ten (or 11 or 12) Most Endangered" list, and American Rivers is no exception.  While the publicity from the list causes my "Google Alert" to light up for a few days, and, in some cases, starts up a smaller thread that lasts for a while, a big part of the value of this list is how the material American Rivers generates in support of its list summarizes and focuses important complex patterns.


Take this year's nomination of the Cedar River in Iowa for example.  The fact sheet and short video posted on the web site are simply excellent primers on the threats posed by outdated flood management and floodplain protection.  Not everyone remembers the devastation of the floods that hit Iowa in summer 2008, but footage here brings those scenes back all too vividly.  The accompanying analysis of physical conditions on the land, both in agricultural areas and in cities along the rivers, makes the nature of the problem abundantly clear.  Moreover, proposed policy solutions are offered and, on the fact sheet, contact information provided for the people "on the ground" who are engaged in the front lines of protecting this river.


Taken together, the case studies of the Ten Most Endangered rivers offer a rich foundational base to understanding the threats facing American rivers currently.  And, as they say on late night television "Wait, wait, there's more!"  For river geeks like me, the analysis of successes and updates from the program's first 25 years offers lots to think about and analyze.  How have the threats changed?  How do urban issues come into play, both short term and over the long perspective?  Are there any categories of threat that have largely ended?


For the teacher in me, all I can say to my future students is "Watch out--here's where your next assignments are going to come from!"

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.

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
Kayaks on the Mississippi River
One of the threads that's beginning to run through a lot of the river advocacy and riverfront community development work that is taking place is the need to get people on the water in order to know a river well.  Sure your can look at it from a bike path, walking trail, or parkway, but, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, the difference between looking at a river and canoeing or kayaking on it is like the difference between kissing someone and marrying them!

These notes have already mentioned the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure, a subject that we will undoubtedly return to.  This time, I want to post a brief note indicating how broadly the notion of canoe trails has reached.  A friend in Washington just sent me a note highlighting the interview with the new director of Paddle Canada. Seems he's interested in developing paddle routes that involve international partnerships.  One possibility might be the Detroit American Heritage River (AHR), which forms part of the border between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.  The American Heritage River Initiative (also previously mentioned in these notes; for further information, look here) also has an international "blue trail" possibility on the Rio Grande.  Not surprisingly, many of the AHR rivers have active Blue Trail programs already up and running.  See, for example, the New River Blueway, and the Willamette River Water Trail.

On the Mississippi, we like to think that we're second to none, but in this case, some smaller rivers may have gotten the jump on us.  Of course, our work is pretty complex, but the problems are getting sorted out and the goal of getting 10,000 paddlers on the Mississippi in the Twin Cities in 2010 looks reachable.

Been on the river up here?  Let us know your thoughts, or, better yet, send us some photos of your experience!

Image courtesy of Jim Brekke, used under a Creative Commons License

It's a truism that our future is bound up in children, in young people, or, at a University, in our students.  Lots and lots of river folks, of course, engage young people, as our post of last week on the Story Boat project demonstrated.

But what if we could really get the "student power" of the University of Minnesota oriented toward the Mississippi River?  As the only comprehensive university located largely within the boundaries of a National Park Service unit, it would seem to be our mission to find out.

"River Futures" is the name we have given to our efforts to get the university in the DNA of the river and park and to get the river/park in the DNA of the university.  River Futures has two components:  Gopher Rangers, which is a way to improve access for students into the work of the Park Service at their Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) unit, and River Studies, which is an effort to systematically connect teaching, co-curricular research opportunities, and other programs to the park's work.   Let's look at these quickly.

Most of our students don't know that they go to school in a National Park.  Yet for many of them, the opportunity to engage in habitat restoration, a canoeing program for school children, or to lead an interpretive program would be a tremendously valuable adjunct to their major fields of study.  Student lives are busy, though, and they don't know how to get started, to connect up with the park, or what to do.  The Gopher Ranger program provides information and announces upcoming programs to interested students so they can have access to opportunities to extend their learning and contribute to the Park's work.

River Studies gets at the same goals but in a slightly different manner.  So far, we're working on a pilot basis with faculty in the College of Design and the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences to collect information on courses and student project opportunities that might mutually benefit the park and the students in the course.  Suppose that an urban design course has a service learning component requiring a community partner and is focused on urban natural systems.  If the faculty member gets in touch with park staff, there may be a potential collaboration that serves a park need as well as fulfilling the course goals.  The same could happen with a course on urban forestry, on tourism behavior, or literally dozens of other ideas.

The University of Minnesota is by no means the only college or university on the Mississippi.  We know, and work with, people at Augustana College in Rock Island, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Tulane University in New Orleans.  As the River Futures program and comparable efforts along the river mature, a cadre of educated, bright,  and idealistic young people should be organized for future Mississippi River sustainability efforts!  Some of them will work at colleges and universities, and so the cycle of benefits continues.

The work of reconnecting communities to the Mississippi River has parallels across the country, indeed, around the world.  In the United States, a group of 14 rivers were designated "American Heritage Rivers" in 1998.   The Mississippi has two designations, for the Upper and the Lower, to go with other significant rivers such as the Hudson, the New, the Cuyahoga, and the St. Johns.  American Heritage Rivers vary widely in size from the largest river on the continent (the Mississippi) to one of the smallest in the country (the Hanalei, in Hawaii).

We'll have more to say in future posts about the American Heritage River program, but to start with the basics, each designated river proposed a work plan consisting of actions in three areas:  environmental protection, heritage preservation, and community development.  The river communities--for the program was about river communities, which often, but not always, meant local governments--worked with a federal official known as a "river navigator" to identify opportunities for funding and program support, assistance with planning, and opportunities to enhance local capacity to achieve the goals of the work plans. 

The American Heritage River program celebrated its tenth year last year, and is making every effort to solidify and expand on the success stories that have been written across the country.  The tricky part is combining community development, environmental protection, and heritage preservation into a package that truly enhances the community and the river that it depends on.  We haven't always seen things in this integrated manner, but if we're going to thrive on our rivers for the next century or more, we're going to have to.  From the Hanalei to the Hudson, American Heritage Rivers are showing the way forward.

Young people from disadvantaged communities within the Twin Cities have been involved in restoration of Mississippi River natural areas for years through programs of the Community Design Center of Minnesota.  The long-standing Green Team program in St. Paul brings together youth from the city's Hmong, Hispanic, African-American communities with gardeners and nonprofit restoration ecologists to clear invasive vegetation species and replant areas of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.  In 2008, the Green team concept expanded to Minneapolis, where youth worked with staff from the National Park Service Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization to begin ecological restoration work at the Father Hennepin Bluffs Park, located on the east side of St. Anthony Falls.

Ceramic artist Anna Metcalfe, a graduate student earning her MFA at the University of Minnesota, approached project coordinators in early summer with a new idea: why not ask the program's members to draw and write their "river story" on paper outlines of boat shapes, which Metcalfe would then fire into a series of "story boats," each illustrating an individual's expressive relationship to the Mississippi River?  The coordinators agreed that the expressive opportunity offered by the story boat project provided the students a chance to reflect in a different way about their evolving relationship with the river that they had been working with all summer.  Metcalfe held workshops for both the Minneapolis and St. Paul teams, collected their drawings and writings, and fired a series of clay boats, nearly 60 in all.

Toward the end of the summer, students had the opportunity to see their boats as artistic objects, co-created between themselves and Metcalfe.  Many of the drawings were exquisite, and the stories quite moving accounts of the students' ongoing emotional and personal attachment to the River. This is just one example of the transformative work that can take place when a bright student, active community partners, and engaged teens all work together.

Drawing River Stories

The process begins with the program's members drawing and writing their own personal "river story" on paper outlines of boat shapes.

Story Boats by Anna Metcalfe

Metcalfe then fired the stories into a series of "story boats".

Story Boats and the Stone Arch Bridge

Metcalfe held workshops for both Minneapolis and St. Paul teams, collected their drawings and writings, and fired a series of clay boats, nearly sixty in all.

The Story Boats in the River

Toward the end of the summer, in 2008, students had the opportunity to see their boats as artistic objects, co-created between themselves and Metcalfe.

Images courtesy of Anna Metcalfe.

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