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by Mary Winstead
"The University's urban location upstream on the Mississippi gives us an enormous responsibility to ensure high water quality, both locally and downstream," says Deb Swackhamer, professor of environmental health sciences and interim director of the U's Institute on the Environment.
Swackhamer and an interdisciplinary team of U of M experts work closely with municipal water treatment plants: monitoring water quality, assessing changes in the water's chemistry, and identifying the impact of those changes on fish and other aquatic life. They use their findings to recommend improvements in water treatment.
For 70 years against the constant hum of the falls in Minneapolis, internationally acclaimed researchers have come to the U's St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL) to study the Mississippi River. The natural setting enables hands-on exploration into the impact of climate change and urbanization on rivers and streams, aquatic wildlife, and vegetation.
"Nearly 45 percent of the world's rivers and streams are so degraded they no longer support life. The goal is to restore them to an environmentally and ecologically sustainable state," explains Fotis Sotiropoulos, professor of civil engineering and SAFL director. "So the lab has expanded its original engineering focus to include biologists, hydrologists, geologists, and other researchers who study water resources and energy in relationship to life and the environment."
SAFL is currently raising funds for the Outdoor StreamLab-a large field-scale riverbed-that will more accurately test water phenomena in aquatic environments. "Our strategic location is ideal for conducting research at scales that most closely resemble river conditions," Sotiropoulos adds. "To restore our rivers and streams, we will unlock nature's complex secrets right here."
For centuries, Mississippi River legends have passed down through Native American oral tradition. Continuing this tradition is River Life, an innovative University of Minnesota program that emphasizes the importance of the Mississippi to the University's academic and cultural identity.
River Life aims to return the river to its central role in community life and revitalize its human history. In the aftermath of the I-35W Bridge collapse, for example, an undergraduate course and public lecture series opened up an intellectual dialogue about the river from the point of view of scientists, geographers, architects, urban planners, artists, and engineers.
Another component, Telling River Stories, is recovering a people's history of the river in hopes that it sparks personal commitments to sustain it. Through an interactive Web site (www.riverstories.umn.edu) and installations constructed along the river itself, communities and individuals are telling their Mississippi River stories.
"We want to examine the impact of human activity on the Mississippi," says program director Patrick Nunnally. "We're collaborating with off-campus institutions looking to us for river-related leadership. And when students realize they're attending a great school on one of the world's great rivers, we want them to ask, 'What can we learn from each other?'"
Through private giving, donors are helping protect the Mississippi River and other vital freshwater resources. Funds like the Butler and Jessen Water Resource Science Fellowship and the Malcolm Moos Freshwater Society advance the University's commitment to water resources research, education, and public information.
Graduate students are critical to these efforts, and private support, such as the Edward Silberman Fellowship, helps attract top talent. And thanks in part to private funding, River Stories is creating a community at the U and beyond that will emphasize the importance of the Mighty Mississippi for generations to come.
This story originally appeared in the summer 2008 issue of Legacy, a quarterly magazine for U of M donors and friends published by the University of Minnesota Foundation.