River Talk

Recently in World Rivers Category

I guess there may be subjects as varied as the plethora of particularities that come under the heading "rivers," but I don't know of one.  (But then, I don't know about much of anything except rivers, so that probably isn't a very profound statement.  But enough of that...)


I've written recently about rivers and urban planning, about urban rivers and creativity, but there's a completely different scale and set of issues associated with the large dams that alter river flows and people's lives across so much of the world, particularly in the developing world.  Those subjects are the focus of International Rivers.


This is an incredibly rich and powerful web site, full of video and audio testimony concerning the power of dams and their destructive consequences.  The connections between rivers, water access/water security, and the basic human rights of individuals and small communities are very powerfully drawn here.


I won't say any more right now, but will encourage you to go and explore the site.  Give yourself time though; there's a lot to learn here.  Of particular note are documents pertaining to the World Commission on Dams and upcoming efforts to assess its impact 10 years later.


Speaking more locally, we will be part of a group putting on a conference in Minneapolis in November "Experiments on Rivers:  the Consequences of Dams," which will explore some issues that International Rivers has worked so hard on.  Stay tuned for more on that event as the time draws closer.

There seems to be a growing groundswell of interest in what might be called the "human dimension" of river management.  A recent article in the Corps of Engineers' publication "Open Channels" quoted General Michael Walsh telling a group of St. Louis youth "I wish someone would have helped me understand the importance of the Hudson River when I was growing up."  Helping people understand the importance of rivers is partly a matter of communicating their value in terms of health, both to us and to the broader environment.  Tried-and-true methods of persuasion can and are employed to bring the public's attention to their rivers.


But there's another, perhaps more complex, dimension at work also.  Artistic expressions, those compositions of words, images, built form, music, singly or in combination, that show us how things might be, are continuing to be a source of inspiration and reflection for water efforts generally and river efforts more specifically.  In St. Paul and the East Metro area in Minnesota, two watershed districts have hired an artist in residence to work for a year, developing programs that inspire people to see their watershed differently, and perhaps to act differently in it.  Work in landscape architecture, public art, and related fields is tying innovations in visualizing relationships to place with actions to preserve or sustain the systems that keep the place alive.


River//Cities is a European-based collaborative that works to strengthen these connections, concentrating on cultural, educational, social, and economic connections between cities and rivers.  As their Welcome page says,


can rivers make us more creative?
can we bring our creativity back to the rivers?
we believe we can

Want your river to be an exciting, inspiring, and unique experience? Well, that's not necessarily easy, but possible.
You can change your river and let it change you.


The work shown on the site is interesting and exciting (although you will want to watch the video in "View on YouTube mode" for a smoother transmission.


What would it take to form a similar collaborative effort along the Mississippi?  Across other urban riverfronts?  Anyone else deliberately bringing creativity, in whatever form, to riverfronts?  Let us know!

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!

Women and Water Rights

By Guest Blogger Anna Metcalfe

...the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.[1]

We live in a world where we are perpetually being reminded of all of the things around us that leave so much room for improvement. This is oftentimes overwhelming. Where do we begin? How do we move forward? Are science's statistics the best language to use to convince our world that changes must be made? Are policies made by our politicians the ultimate means for making changes in our society? How do we choose which battles to fight, especially when such basic necessities exist in our world: clean water, healthy food, education?

I teach art at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and one of the first things that I tell my students at the beginning of the semester is that whether or not they knew it when they signed up to take my class, they have actually signed up to learn a new language. I like using this metaphor because while there are some people who use language more affectively than others, we all speak some sort of language, and most likely we use it to communicate with the people around us. I believe that art is one of the many "languages" we use to communicate our thoughts, ideas and emotions, and I believe that everyone is capable of learning that language. Not only that, but it is the sort of language that can garner the attention of hugely diverse audiences and can even say different things to different people - at the same time.

"Women and Water Rights: Rivers of Regeneration" is an art show that is up through the 24th of March in the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota. Focused on Water Rights as a topic, all of the works in the show are made by women and some about women. All works have something to say about water, and though each piece has a different message, meandering through the gallery reveals a microcosm of conversations about our world's most important resource. Some of the works in the show are thoughtful reminders of our interconnectedness with water, while others insight viewers to action. Still others, like Christine Baeumler's moveable rain garden model are art works that are "ways of living and models of action within the existing real" (Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics). Artworks such as these not only provide a model for action, but cause real, concrete improvement in the world's water systems.

"Women and Water Rights: Rivers of Regeneration" is a beautiful example of artists harnessing their language to speak out in the name of social change. It calls each of us to find our voice - in whatever language we speak - and to say something.

For more information about the show and events in coordination with it, please visit: http://womenandwater.net/

[1] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (France: Les presses du réel, 1998, in English, 2002), 13

On the Necessity of Art

Well, I'm back, after 6 weeks or so off the blog task. One of the items that had my attention during this time was a proposal that was jointly developed with the Christine Baeumler at the University of Minnesota's Department of Art and collaborators at the University of the West of England. To quote the proposal's abstract: 
It has become a truism that the major conflicts of the 21st century are likely to be over water. What is much less certain is how to best facilitate exchanges between scientists, policy makers, expressive artists and the public, to shape future debates over water. These debates will be vital to finding the ways to "re-imagine" water in our cities (and the regions from which their water comes) to making wise decisions about our water future. This project, will explore, through a series of focused workshops, collaborations, and installations, ways in which we might learn to restore a broad understanding of water to our urban public and sense of place and to understand acts of artistic representation as bridging between differing public discourses, realms of practice, issues, concerns, and groups of people.
Project teams from the University of Minnesota, led by co-PIs Christine Baeumler and Patrick Nunnally, and the University of the West of England, led by co-PI Iain Biggs, will convene local collaborations of artists, scientists, and community leaders to explore the key issues facing the water environments of their respective cities (Twin Cities, Minnesota, and Bristol, UK). Anticipated results include both digital and physical artistic representations of water and water environments in the city, new programs, classes, and ongoing collaborations.

I guess I shouldn't assume that the abstract speaks for itself, so here are some of the links and related projects that we referenced: 

Lorna Jordan. Jordan's Waterworks Gardens is located at a water reclamation plant in Renton, Washington. 

Betsy Damon. Damon's Living Water Garden is along the edge of the Fu and Nan River in Chengdu, China. Both Jordan's and Damon's public art projects are an aesthetic, educational, and natural approach to treating storm water. 

Herbert Dreiseitl's Atelier Dreiseitl brings together art, urban hydrology and open space planning to create projects that are both beautiful and sustainable. 

These combinations--art, science, and community--are at the heart of our program, so look for more on these issues and projects in the future.
St Anthony Falls and Downtown Minneapolis
When you stand on the banks of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities, particularly in the spring with snowmelt swelling the stream, it looks like a big river.  At St. Anthony Falls, the river flow averages 12,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), or almost 90,000 gallons per second.  In New Orleans, by contrast, the river is 50 times as big, averaging some 600,000 cfs.  According to Wikipedia's article on the Mississippi River (forgive me, all of my research methods teachers!!) the outflow of the Mississippi is only around 9% that of the Amazon.
Now THAT's a lot of water!
But according to the most recent edition of the World Savvy Monitor rivers only make up 2% of the globe's fresh surface water, with lakes comprising the vast bulk of the rest.
So that means that Mississippi River cities such as Minneapolis, New Orleans, and all points in between have an adequate water supply, right?  Well, yes and no.
According to panelists at the community panel "Perspectives on Water in Our Changing World," the question of "adequate" water supply is complicated, and will only grow more complex over time.
The panel was put on by World Savvy, a national nonprofit that specializes in programs that encourage school-age children to "think beyond your borders" and become aware of their connection to global issues.  Water is their most recent focus; hence the community panel, co sponsored with the University of Minnesota's Water Resources CenterBreck School, the Freshwater Society, and Minnesota Public Radio.
So what are some lessons for the Mississippi that can be learned from an understanding of global water issues?  Space does not permit a full discussion of the very interesting and informative panel, but important points included these:

  • Mark Seeley, Minnesota's State Climatologist, expects that trends in climate change will continue to concentrate rainfall in heavier storms, which occur at seasons that are historically unusual.  That is, a thunderstorm that brings over 2 inches of rain to a town in the Mississippi valley will wash unusually heavy sediment loads into the river and its tributaries if the storm happens in the fall, when the ground has been cleared of crops.
  • According to Deb Swackhamer, connections are the key, between what happens to the land in terms of urbanization and changes in land use and their impact on streams and in terms of the connections, poorly understood in detail, between ground water and surface water.
  • Joan Nephew suggested that a primary need is a cultural shift, analogous to the growth of recycling.  Just as it has become second nature to separate bottles, cans, and paper from trash, and there are substantial industries devoted to recycling used materials into new uses, so we will need to begin thinking and practicing wide scale recycling of water, and reusing, for example, dishwater.
Rivers connect us to each other; we all live downstream of some people and upstream of others.  On the Mississippi, the fifth largest river in the world, our water is connected to all the other water on the planet.
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.