After the Flood; Engage Public for Future Mississippi River Management

Friday, May 18th, marks the one-year anniversary of the Mississippi River’s high water mark in Vicksburg during the Flood of 2011. While people in Vicksburg are still recovering, the anniversary reminds us of the River’s force and determination to flow where it wants.

It wasn’t just Vicksburg that got hit last year. River experts cite the 2011 Mississippi River floods as the most auspicious since 1927. While they prompted questions about flood plain management and river engineering, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is on track to put back the pieces exactly where they were, funding permitting. The usual Mississippi River Commission meetings in four river locations have been held to take public input. And other public comment events are planned. But, the Corps takes the force of the River and its potential for flooding into account from an engineering perspective. Where does the complexity that is the Mississippi River – its natural ebbs and flows, its interconnection between nature and society, its impacts on farmlands and forests, country sides, cities and confluences – fit into the Corps’ mathematical and scientific engineering process?

Ultimately, the drama that is the Mississippi River is a human drama as well as a natural one. Just ask the folks in Vicksburg.  Data from all the various human realms – culture, community and commerce – need to be incorporated along with science and engineering. But how can the decision-makers take all these forces into account in an integrated way and not get bogged down by the sheer enormity of it all?

America’s great waterway needs a whole-river perspective and a data-gathering capability now available through software used in other complex planning challenges. A whole-river perspective would allow specialists and place-based decision-makers to leave their “turf” and “comfort zones” behind and apply their expertise in a more future-focused, whole-watershed way. The integration of data is achievable today if old ways of gathering public input – such as place-based public hearings – are set aside in favor of technological tools that allow more people to have more input in an accountable way. The tools are available, but who has the mandate to put them in play on behalf of a whole watershed system the size of the Mississippi River?

Since the Mississippi River’s impact on the country’s drinking water, food supply and economy is nearly unfathomable, it would seem the American public should play a prominent role in deciding the River’s future management. The Mississippi provides drinking water for more than 50 U.S. cities, and its watershed produces the majority of corn, soybeans, sorghum, grain, cotton, livestock and poultry grown in the country. Then there’s its impact on the Louisiana-Texas Gulf –one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are dependent in some way on the River, including manufacturing, shipping and tourism, as well as fishing and farming.

So instead of scientists gathering with scientists and engineers gathering with engineers to research and issue policy papers and blue prints for the future of the River, why not take advantage of some of the public participation methods already being used for other planning purposes and in other countries? Why not truly seek public input that’s representative of all the stakeholders on the Mississippi River and use the technology and internet-based tools to enable citizens to have a voice in the River’s future in a productive way?

As this anniversary passes and we go back to life on the River as usual – until the next great flood – those wrestling to find solutions for the Mississippi River Watershed would do well to look beyond the place-based approaches of the past. No one denies the need for public input. But the ways to gain the public’s support and understanding have improved. The public’s expectation for its involvement in solutions that affect them has expanded… exponentially. Now is the time to take these changes into account and make use of them for greater public participation in planning for the Mississippi River’s future. America and its great waterway will be better off for it.

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What is Political Reality for the Mississippi River?

Today, Iowa Caucus Day, two articles on political reality collided in my inbox.

The first article was from Summing it up, the author, Paul Quinlan, bemoans what he calls the political reality of decision making for the Mississippi River.

Washed away in the political deluge: a plan promoted by ecologists to not rebuild the levees. That option, they say, would be initially more expensive because it would require buying out landowners, but it would save taxpayers’ money in the long run by avoiding payments for future flood-related property damage.

Levees and other flood-control and navigation projects along the Mississippi River have opened vast tracts for farming and development and created a superhighway for shipping. Lost in the bargain, environmentalists say, are natural flood basins that safely absorbed periodic floods and provided pollution control and wildlife habitat.

Without the floodplains, ecologists say, the river is more prone to more frequent and intense floods. It is time, they say, to let the river flow, and there is no better place to try that than the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

Quinlan speculates political reality won over ecological considerations, as if the two were mutually exclusive.

The second article, from the New York Times was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek explanation of Iowa’s precinct caucuses by David Schoenbaum. While the columnist suggests Iowa’s precinct caucuses are strange and somewhat out-dated, he does a good job describing their history and place in the political landscape.

Here, political reality is more than what ‘s seen in the eye of the beholder. Political reality is a bi-annual process of applying pressure where the political process is most responsive – where voters get involved. The great thing about a democracy like ours is that anyone gets to apply that pressure. The bad thing about our current political situation is that very little organizing goes on at the grass roots level anymore, except in precinct caucuses. This brings me back to the Mississippi River.

The National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway, in essence, is a precinct caucus process for the whole Mississippi River. Just like Schoenbaum describes in his piece, the National Dialogue is neighborhood, River-based meetings on issues that escalate and coalesce to form positions for the whole River. Today, with the use of AmericaSpeaks technology, the process can be collapsed so it can take place in one day.

You see political reality belongs to those who understand and take part in the political process. Coming up with plans and then hoping doesn’t cut it. Showing up and participating are keys to achieving goals through the political process. So is keeping the pressure on. 

This may sound Tea Party-ish, and I assure you it is. But it’s not something complicated or  corrosive. It’s the most basic of democratic principles – the people most affected by policy outcomes have a vehicle to express their political reality as well as their political power. It’s called participating in the political decision-making from the grass roots — or river banks — all the way to the halls of congress.

Right now those who show up are usually those with more resources to do so. It’s why we created the National Dialogue: to provide a way for Mississippi River citizens from ALL walks of life to come together to discuss and vote on what seems best for the future of the River. Precinct caucuses for the future of the Mississippi River also result in more committed grass roots advocacy, yet another necessary political reality. Won’t you join us?


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Racing Ahead for the Mississippi River

A Wall Street Journal article headline caught my attention last Saturday. The New Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share. The sub head was even more timely: From cancer to cosmology, researchers could race ahead by working together – online and in the open.


Could this be true for river management, too?


The WSJ article would support the America’s Waterway approach to decision making for the Mississippi River – online and in the open. It also addressed the need to move away from institutional cultural constraints that reward performance based on technologies of the past in favor of the new tools the internet provides.


The article uses a math experiment by Tim Gowers at Cambridge University as an example. He posted a difficult math problem in his blog and the online discussion that followed resulted in a solution in six weeks, apparently a record time, as complex math problems go.


But the insightful part of the article focused on obstacles to this quantum leap in research and problem solving. Laboratories have no systematic methods for sharing. In fact, the biggest determiner of success is papers published in scientific journals. “Even if scientists believe in the value of contributing, they know that writing a single mediocre paper will do more for their careers,” the author writes. “In the years ahead,” he adds, “… we must choose to create a scientific culture that embraces open sharing of knowledge.”


Could it be that systemic cultures within Mississippi River governing bodies are at the root of blocked sharing? Would moving collaboration on line be all that’s needed to overcome these barriers for the sake of America’s Great Waterway? I don’t think it’s as simple as that, but engaging the available tools for problem solving and doing away with some old ones might help.


The subject came up recently at the Horinko Water Resources Summit. Water Governance Panelist Alexandra Dunn of the Association of Clean Water Administrators cited the persistent problem for water as the players’ sense that it’s a shared responsibility and nobody has responsibility outside their specific realm of water, infrastructure, transportation and so on. “It’s not just science,” she said. “It’s politics, economics and [other human areas]. Our solutions must be much more elegant.” Could moving the discussion out into the open better pinpoint the nuances that would result in more elegant solutions?


On the same panel, Ann Mills, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment in the Department of Agriculture said, “Regulation alone is not going to get us to the finish line. We need greater innovation.” She called for more public input in a 21st Century Conservation framework. Could civic engagement that’s webcast for a day of dialogue result in more innovation?


And, Mike Shapiro, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water at EPA commented, while elaborating on successes of the Chesapeake Bay, “…collaboration has come together over time as people have gotten involved.” Another plug for public involvement, although I don’t think he was thinking online when he said it.


So how do we get to the elegant, innovative and collaborative solutions for the future of the Mississippi River? The answer, I believe, lies within our grasp and within easy access. We just haven’t quite gotten over the last of the institutional cultural barriers to embrace the new ways of engaging our colleagues and the public to race ahead for the Mississippi River.


Please join us in this race and on our Facebook page. The time is now to start this conversation and collaboration, and move this race to the starting line.


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Memphis Commercial Appeal Editorial Stresses Fresh Approach to Water

On August 11, Mark Davis, Director of the Institute for Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University Law School, was published in the Memphis, TN Commercial Appeal. His message has relevance for the Mississippi River and those of us working toward a unified vision of approaches for America’s Waterway.

He began the article with a quote from Mark Twain, attributable to “Life on the Mississippi”.

“But the basin of the Mississippi is the BODY OF THE NATION.”

For several months this spring the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers flexed their muscles and reminded us of their power. The images of the Mississippi and Missouri running high and strong brought at least momentary attention to those rivers and helped put normally obscure names like Morganza, Bonnet Carre, and Birds Point into the headlines as focal points of the flood fight of 2011. Though the waters and the potential for greater catastrophe may have receded, we cannot afford to forget how close we came to disaster or to be complacent about how we manage our nation’s rivers.

It is scarcely possible for most Americans today to comprehend the role that rivers played in building our cities, the development of our industries, the movement of goods, and the provision of cheap, reliable power. Similarly off the radar is how rivers — rivers like the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Colorado, the Columbia, the Sacramento and the Hudson — sculpted the landscape, creating the flood plains, canyons, estuaries and deltas that underpin much of our nation’s natural bounty.

It has not always been that way. Not so long ago rivers and river management dominated much of America’s public works and natural resource management agenda. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries flood control levees and navigational improvements were state and federal priorities bordering on obsession. The need for dependable water supplies and electric power added additional demands in the last century. The result was an awe-inspiring commitment of public will in the form of programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Mississippi River and Tributaries Authority, and the Boulder Canyon Project and the Colorado River Compact. It was the legacy of that era of bold works that was tested on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers this year.

By and large the flood management system worked as it was supposed to, for which we should be thankful, but the simple fact is that this year’s floods revealed as much about the limits of our current approach to river management as they measured its success. The system of reservoirs, dams, levees and diversions was designed for a different time and for a far narrower set of values and uses than should be the case today. No one should call a flood protection system a success that protects against occasional river flooding but that ensures the permanent flooding of thousands of square miles of land. But that is precisely what is happening in the lower delta of the Mississippi River due in large measure to levees that have divorced Louisiana’s vast coastal wetland plain from the river that built it, resulting in the inundation of roughly 2 million acres of land since 1900. And no one can seriously claim that rivers play the same role in commercial transportation as was envisioned when the management objectives of the Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee rivers were set years ago. Times change and our understanding and approach to managing rivers needs to change with them.

We urgently need a fresh appreciation of the nature and value of our nation’s rivers. The days when we could view them in narrow utilitarian terms, or as adversaries to be tamed, are long gone. Similarly, we need to recognize that we are entering a new era in which water will play a decisive role in energy development and regional water supply. This will necessitate revisiting the wide array of state and federal laws that currently govern water management. Finally, as we enter this new era we need to develop a “water ethic” akin to ecologist Aldo Leopold’s landmark land ethic of an earlier generation to guide our understanding and uses of water in general and rivers in particular. These things won’t make conflicts over water go away, but they will help to ensure that we resolve conflicts wisely and that we do not sacrifice long-term sustainability at the altar of short-term expedience.

America’s rivers are on the brink. The question is: On the brink of what? On one hand is the possibility that we will stand pat with a system of levees, dams and dredging that is not sustainable economically, ecologically or culturally.

On the other hand is the possibility that we wake up to the fact that we can be served well by our rivers and water resources only if we serve them better and treat them as things with intrinsic, comprehensive value. This choice will require a significant investment of financial and political capital assets, and yes, it will demand governmental action. But this is not a choice between big government and small government, but rather about choosing good stewardship and good public service.

In a rational world this would unquestionably be the course we take, but the tone of recent political debate and the uninspiring responses to the floods of 2011 and the ongoing collapse of the Mississippi River’s delta in south Louisiana, the Everglades and other river-driven treasures suggests that we can take nothing for granted. When it comes to America’s rivers we have to do better and we need to start now. After all, it is only the body of the nation that is at stake.

A National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway — using civic engagement and AmericaSpeaks touchpads and dialogue — is a fresh, but proven, way to address the “Body of the Nation”. Leave a comment and give us your ideas for a fresh approach to America’s rivers. Or join us on Facebook.

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Top 10 Reasons to use Civic Engagement for the Mississippi River

As I talk with people about America’s Waterway, there’s some confusion about the words, “civic engagement”.

A definition is in order: civic engagement engenders collective action to identify and address issues of public concern. And, perhaps most relevant to America’s Waterway and the civic engagement we are planning: it instills a personal sense of responsibility to uphold obligations to a community.

So it goes beyond consensus-building and collaboration. It goes beyond outreach. It’s a community-building endeavor meant to last beyond a single decision-making step.

In the interest of clarity, here are 10 reasons civic engagement for the Mississippi River makes sense. In true Jay Leno fashion, we’ll start with number 10:

#10. Civic engagement relies on a knowledge base of facts, science and agreed-upon values. Where this knowledge base is incomplete, civic engagement requires that it be created and shared by all participants. It makes sure scientific, demographic and economic information is fresh, accurate and included. The internet and site-based technology enable this.

#9. Civic engagement relies on a trusted environment where participants feel safe and secure in expressing their opinions. This usually means those who conduct the civic engagement process are outsiders and professionals. That’s why we’ve partnered with AmericaSpeaks, the national leader in deliberative democracy, to conduct the National Dialogue. For Mississippi River residents, this means the agenda isn’t prescribed by special interests, and it minimizes turf issues.

#8. Civic engagement is purposely designed to address complex, multi-party issues that can’t be reached by one single agent. This is why it’s particularly appropriate for the Mississippi River. By definition the River is a complex ecosystem, important for habitat, economic prosperity, healthy communities, cultural heritage…. you name it. And, all these interests play a part in the process.

#7. Civic engagement, while deliberately addressing large and complex issues, relies on local participation and ownership. This sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s achievable. It’s critical to arriving at a shared sense of responsibility for the whole Mississippi River. By now, you can tell this isn’t your average public outreach campaign.

#6. When there’s civic engagement, participants work on future issues rather than revisiting historical differences of opinion or reacting to proposed policies. By holding simultaneous small group discussions, participants work together to find common ground. This is something Americans excel at – solving problems together. So why not tap this national tradition for the country’s largest and most significant river?

#5. Civic engagement can accomplish goals faster and more measurably. How is this possible? First, face-to-face meetings are managed by experienced facilitators. But most important, information and systems technology is maximized to collect and prioritize citizen ideas and responses. Decisions about whole-River approaches can be made, can move forward, and reach goals within set time frames.

#4. True civic engagement ensures that all affected parties are in the process. When we hold hearings or do public outreach, research tells us only the people with the strongest voices get heard and only those who are already receptive hear the information. By adopting a civic engagement platform and using a proven process to reach all sectors of the Mississippi River – as is our commitment – we insure water quality advocates, commerce advocates, habitat restoration advocates, recreational advocates, and so on – are in the room and collaboration is authentic.

#3. Civic engagement is practical for today’s public decision-making environment. The public expects to be involved in the decisions that affect their lives. There is no going back to believing that because the River is different along its course, that people are willing to have authorities in another section of the River make decisions that affect their livelihoods and futures where they live. Technology and mapping research can aid us in sharing our visual understanding of the whole Mississippi River.

#2. Civic engagement’s goal is sustained engagement, not just attendance. The new approaches created through The National Dialogue will need support. Civic engagement relies on active involvement and that builds active support.

#1. In the hands of skilled facilitators, civic engagement fosters exploration of joint gains and integrated solutions. This is the main reason America’s Waterway has asked AmericaSpeaks to conduct A National Dialogue on behalf of the Mississippi River. We know civic engagement results in better, more comprehensive and integrated solutions. And, that’s what we all want for America’s Great Waterway, the Mississippi River.

Let us know what you think about civic engagement for the Mississippi River. Comment here, “like us” on our Facebook page, or email us at

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Who’s Going to Call the Meeting?

Last week, as the picture of rising water was coming into focus, the Washington Post took an in-depth look at the question of river management systems in light of the Mississippi River floods. As the waters continue to rise, there has been more written on flood plain management in mainstream media and in public internet spaces than in a month’s worth of technical journals. The articles collectively bemoan the quandary of existing plans, while suggesting there should be other approaches. And, they sight U.S. cities and European countries where new approaches are being adopted, suggesting we should consider them for the future of the Mississippi River.


This kind of talk always accompanies crisis. But when the flood waters recede, – which is going to be slow this time – who will be available to do the hard work of examining and prioritizing the options for a better future plan for Mississippi River flooding? The question is even larger. “Who should make such decisions for the future of the Mississippi River?”


The Likely Suspects Will Be Too Busy

People will naturally turn to the Army of Corps of Engineers because they’re the ones seeing this event up close and personal. They’re also the ones charged with maintaining the navigability of the Mississippi River. But when the flooding is finished, they will be exhausted. And besides, they have their hands full just trying to get budget money for maintaining the current plans’ effectiveness.


The Mississippi River states can’t be the ones to call the meeting because each state has been impacted differently. And they’ll be trying to figure out how to help their residents recover and how to pay for the recovery.


The cities and counties will really have their hands full – probably for the rest of the year, and then some.


It doesn’t seem likely that insurance companies will summarily examine better ways for the future. They’re most likely to spend their time reexamining their underwriting guidelines, as perhaps they should.


So who should participate in a meeting to consider better flood management for the future of the Mississippi River?


Treating the Mississippi River as a Whole System

We think the people who live on the Mississippi River – yes those who have been impacted significantly by this year’s flooding – are the ones who need to consider this question carefully. This doesn’t just mean displaced homeowners or farmers. It means business owners, local office holders, local Army Corps of Engineers personnel, local educators, soil and water conservation personnel, EPA and Dept. of Natural Resources personnel, as well as recreation leaders, tourism officials and historic preservationists. The expertise needed to address this complex issue can be assembled from among those who live with and make their living from the Mississippi River.


You see River residents are the stakeholders who will be affected by the next Mississippi River floods. They have expertise, but they also have personal experience. They also have the most to gain and the most to lose if new plans are adopted. Therefore, they can be counted on to work the hardest to consider what a good overall plan for the future should look like.


Yes, There Is A Way

Fortunately, there’s a mechanism in place that can enable this to happen throughout the whole Mississippi River Valley and therefore address the River as a whole water system. AmericaSpeaks has a proven process for managing face-to-face meetings in multiple locations simultaneously and eliciting from participants the best and most agreed-upon solutions. They are partnered with America’s Waterway, a nonprofit organization designed for the purpose of hosting such a dialogue and then moving outcomes to the internet where concerned citizens can continue to work toward the achievement of a new plan or at least new goals for the future of the Mississippi River in flood times.


For many of us who’ve lived on the River for years, floods aren’t new. Yes this one is more destructive and is affecting more areas of the river than any floods in recent times. But this year’s floods have shone a light on a nagging problem that has been allowed to go unresolved because it didn’t have the whole River’s – and the nation’s attention.


With the events of this spring, let’s not lose the impetus to address the whole Mississippi River with plans and ideas for future flood management so we don’t find ourselves – or our children’s generation – experiencing this same disaster, only in worse proportion. More growth, unaddressed infrastructure and locally-based solutions for one river section at a time will only exacerbate future flooding. Let’s make sure the meeting gets called and that Mississippi River stakeholders have a say in the future plan soon, before the next flood season is upon us.


You Can Help

If you agree that a whole river approach to future flood plans is needed and you see the value of soliciting the input of experts from all walks of life on the Mississippi River, join us on our facebook page. More importantly, spread the word to public officials, funders and others along the Mississippi River by circulating this blog and raising the issue where you live on the River. And, send us your thoughts about how we move from section-by-section policy to a whole-River approach to the future of the Mississippi River.



Articles and blogs of interest:


Campbell Robertson in the New York Times captures the human response to a known plan.


G. Tracy Mehan points to the history of and need for collaboration in water planning in a Viewpoint piece for the Water Environment Federation.


Jeffrey Ball in the Wall Street Journal writes about runoff concerns for the Gulf.


Deak Klinkenberg chronicles the numerous floods of the Mississippi River.


Matt Garcia writes in his blog, Hydro Logic, and shows how old the idea of a whole-river approach is.


Mark Gorman’s remarks at the dedication of the Cong. Costello Field Station for the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center.


Brian Vastag writes in the Washington Post, featuring alternative models.


Ron Powers writes a CNN op-ed from his days growing up on the Mississippi.


Richard Lovett writes in Nature News why floods were expected.




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The Mississippi River as a Social Network

Consider how new tools to address complex issues can be right in front of us, and we don’t recognize them. Social Network, the movie, shows us how one young man’s knowledgeable application of technology to the age-old dilemma of meeting girls changed the way we now look at interacting with friends, community members and, yes, even our work colleagues.


The same can be said of applying technology and principles of civic engagement to rivers. Case in point: use technology with civic engagement to solve some of our most complex issues, like finding common approaches to the sustainability of the Mississippi River in the future. There’s no denying the issues are complex and the current regional approaches are ineffective. But could civic engagement, enhanced with any of new on-line community building tools, change the dynamic and future of the Mississippi River in much the same way Facebook has changed modern relationships? At America’s Waterway, we think so.


A Wall Street Journal article late last year made the case; Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, one of a number of on-line civic engagement organizations now changing the way we solve community problems, outlined some of the possibilities as they’ve taken shape in the public policy arena.


What’s needed is a new political synthesis akin to the “neutral point of view” balancing act that has enabled millions of people to contribute to Wikipedia despite their many differences. Call it “we government”: new forms of collaboration and service that use technology, open data and public participation to solve shared problems. This is not “e-government”, where the authorities use the Web to provide information and services, but rather an effort by citizens to refashion government as a platform connecting people around the issues and needs that matter most to them.



The world as we know it today is connected in ways we never dreamed possible – across whole continents and watersheds. And expectations are for much greater participation and transparency in decision making. We’ve just seen this in Egypt. Perhaps the most compelling attribute of on-line communities and the problems they seek to address is the reality that today’s problems defy old, well-worn solutions. Because of complexity and the multi-layered composition of today’s problems, we need solutions that haven’t been tried yet. And what better way to develop them than asking the people of the Mississippi River to come together for the good of the River, at first in a National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway. Then to build on that work by engaging with each other and tapping the combined energy and expertise of people who care about the River.


If Facebook can reinvent age-old courtship rituals by shifting interaction to the internet, it stands to reason we can find new solutions and a constituency to advocate for the Mississippi River the same way. Just as with romance, interpersonal activity is still important. But the hard part of sustaining a whole Mississippi River constituency – dedicated to support and action for the whole River and not just one section of it – can be realized.


We welcome your support and your thoughts here. Join the conversation on behalf of America’s Waterway, the Mississippi River.

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What We Might Learn From A Mapmaker


When the Army Corps of Engineers was formed in the early days of this nation, its primary role was exploration and mapmaking. Interestingly, in that role, the Corps used cultural tools – painting and photography – to help the federal government promote a habitable West for expansion and development.


After the Civil War, the country’s midsection grew along the Mississippi River, which had become a national highway for freight and people, increasing the importance of that region of the country. The Corps’ mission evolved to supporting navigation for commerce. Henry Bosse – a mapmaker in the service of the Corps of Engineers – played a role in that mission in the late 1800s.


Bosse shifted his mapmaking skills to those of a photographer. Photography was changing the “view” people had of structures and nature, and Bosse took up the new technology to see what it could do to help him do his job.  Recently those of us in the 21st century have increased our interest in those early days of photography. One reason is that we’re at a similar turning point with new technology causing us to see things differently. I see the Bosse adoption of photography to chronicle the River in the late 19th century – and that of the Corps – as similar to applying new social capital tools of civic engagement in the 21st century. Just as photography expanded the ability to “view” the Mississippi River, today’s internet connectedness and collaboration tools afford us the opportunity to create a more inclusive vision of America’s great waterway. Bosse’s photos testify to a precedent for tapping an art form – and civic engagement is art not science – to engage the public on behalf of the Mississippi River.


Bosse’s – and other photographers’ – photos were used to expand the public’s understanding of rivers and other natural wonders because written descriptions taxed the credulity of readers. And that was before television. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote at the time that outdoor photography was an agent of modernization, uniting a nation. The same has been said of social networking tools and the internet in recent times.


But the irony of Bosse’s photos is that while they were being produced, the importance of the Mississippi River for transportation was being eclipsed by railroad interests. Perhaps if Bosse had been able to overcome time and distance – as we have the opportunity to do today – the River’s importance to the nation might be altogether greater. It’s an interesting conundrum to consider.


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The Mississippi River Needs “Placeness”

According to Wallace Stegner, renowned American author and ecologist, there are two kinds of Americans: placed and unplaced.

Being “placed” means you know the earth where you are or have been. You know it physically and spiritually. You know it because you fish in it, work beside it, walk its river banks and, even, possibly, make your living on it.

But if you are “unplaced”, you’re part of the American adventurer psyche — the migrant families moving across the country for generations for better work, better weather or just because you can — you know only the barren structures of a place.

Stegner says George Stewart’s book, Names on the Land, provides a good explanation. Stewart posits that Bear Run, Kentucky isn’t a certain spot just because Daniel Boone killed a bear there. Bear Run became a place when people  lived there, traveled through it and settled in it, raised families and built schools and swimming holes.  It was the sense of place that resulted from the collective understandings of a shared life that gave the town’s name, Bear Run,  meaning. “No place is a place,” Stegner goes on to say, “until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends or monuments. Fictions serve as well as facts.”

His points are well taken. They also support the argument that we’ve made about the National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway. We believe the best people to form a shared vision of the Mississippi River are the people with a sense of place about the Mississippi River: the grass roots community residents along the River. I’ve advocated a shared vision for the river can be developed using a deliberative, decision-making model augmented with technology, and relying on the people who live along the River.  It’s using civic engagement to build a unified constituency for the Mississippi River. Going grass roots doesn’t exclude people with expertise or authority. Rather it draws for local experts and authorities from all walks of life along the Mississippi. It’s the best way to ensure that the people who set the agenda for the Mississippi River are the people whose decisions are intertwined with their sense of place about the River.

What a sense of place does for the Mississippi River is ensure a more complex understanding and a more comprehensive vision. It ensures that a National Dialogue participant with  the expertise of a Fish and Wildlife researcher also kayaks on the River, watches sunsets and enjoys picnics on its banks. It ensures that a participant managing a River tourist destination,  also goes to meetings with barge company executives and Corps of Engineers administrators.  Ultimately, it ensures a greater openness to collaboration and ideas that go beyond single-issue solutions.

Wallace Stegner had it right. We need to give up our tradition of restlessness, and it’s probably time we, as a country, settle down. “History was part of the baggage we threw overboard when we launched ourselves in the New World. We threw it away because it recalled old tyrannies, old limitations…. Plunging into the future through a landscape that had no history, we did both the country and ourselves some harm along with some good. Neither the country nor the society we built out if it can be healthy until we [   ] learn to be quiet part of the time, and acquire the sense not of ownership but of belonging.  [   ] Only in the act of submission is the sense of place realized and a sustainable relationship between people and earth established.”

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Alton’s Vitality Shows Collaborating Works

Alton, Illinois’ Mayor Tom Hoechst pointed out the benefits his town is accruing from its inclusive community approach to the Mississippi River. America’s Waterway is the same kind of community collaboration — only on-line and on behalf of the whole River. 

“Coupled with Argosy, the marina’s success, Riverfront Park Improvements, the Ampitheater, the meeting of the Great River National Scenic Byway, and the new National Great Rivers Field Station, Alton is becoming a unique nautical communitywith strong ties to the iconic Mississippi River. Lewis and Clark Community College’s commitment to developing green job training opportunities, particularly the effort to train water treatment  plant operators for certification and Ilinois-American Water Co’s investment in Alton at the national call center and the state-of-the-art waterplant are helping to establish ourselves [Alton] as a major water-based employment center.

“Water is truly the  most valuable resource in the world. We have been given a natural asset and must cherish it from an ecological and economical standpoint.”

This all sounded familiar. It’s being repeated in River towns up and down the Mississippi River. While others may not have as much collaboration or success to date, together they make a case for America’s Waterway, the organization seeking to build an interactive constituency for the whole Missisippi River so that unified approaches to its character, condition and future can develop. Here’s how I put it in a follow-up op-ed to the Alton Telegraph.

“We applaud the work Alton and its Mississippi River neighbors have accomplished, and we encourage them to continue and celebrate what they’ve started. We hope you will share your experience with others so that River residents can learn and expand their opportunities and their relationship to the Mississippi River. Perhaps most importantly, efforts like Alton’s and ours are part of a growing public interest in rivers that offers the prospect of seeing the Mississippi River acknowledged and appreciated for what it really is, America’s Waterway.”

In September 2008, I wrote about the gradual decline in America’s appreciation for its natural resources. That process is beginning to reverse itself. But as is the case with many of our natural resources, we don’t have time to wait for the public to pick up on the need to protect and preserve them. In the northern regions of the Mississippi River, we are used to having to jump start cars. America’s Waterway and our planned National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway can be the “jump start” for the iconization of the Mississippi River. If you agree and would like to know more, please contact us or leave a comment.

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