Monday, October 19, 2009


I saw a couple of headlines this morning that made me think: a truly amazing impact being that it was a Monday morning and I was only half way through my first cup of coffee. The first headline said, "Investment in oil sands will boost U.S. economy - study." The second pronounced, "Senator calls for increased investment in domestic oil drilling." Now, neither article contained earth-shaking news or unusual content. The calls to increase oil sand development in Canada and domestic oil drilling are nothing we haven't heard before. What did catch my eye, though, was the common use of the term "investment." Because, as I understand the word, investment implies the active redirection of resources from those being consumed today, to those creating benefits in some future time. This definition of investment begs, I think, a critical question: In what future benefits are we investing, and for whom?

If the combustion of hyrdocarbons is fueling the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (a given); if the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide is contributing to a not-so-gradual shift in the world's climate (also a fact); and if that shift will dramatically alter the social, ecological and economic fabric of the world as we know it (a somewhat well-founded hypothesis), then why on earth would we call increased reliance on oil (or tar) sands and domestic oil an "investment?" The incongruous use of the term boggles the mind - even a mind only half awake on a Monday morning and running on just one-half cup of caffeine!

Interestingly, the use of the word "investment" in such a context pays ironic homage to the word's roots. "Invest" finds its meaning in the Latin word investire, which means to "clothe" or "surround." And doubtless, burning more fossil fuels will generate more carbon dioxide that will "clothe" or "surround" the earth with an atmospheric shroud of heat-trapping carbon dioxide: a shroud and resulting climate change that will eventually render our past reliance upon the world's natural resources totally unpredictable.

If we are investing in anything by increasing our future reliance upon hyrdocarbon based fuels, it is a future of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and resultant climatic change. If we are to have any chance of avoiding that chaos, today's investment should be in alternative sources of energy; not one founded upon vesting the earth in a thickening blanket of climate-altering gases.

Friday, July 24, 2009

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To Be or Not

As I was walking to the bus stop this morning and passing through a park area near our house, I could smell the newness of the plants and soil refreshed by last night's heavy rains in the Washington, DC area. It had been very dry in the area recently before yesterday's rains. The ground was hard and parched. Many plants - grasses, shrubs and trees - were starting to reach their wilting points. And the typical urban response of turning on the sprinklers at night was not putting a dent into an emerging water deficit. Yesterday's half-inch, plus, rainfall will help.

We are fortunate in the eastern states to have abundant water. So, I'm not too concerned of the prospects of a long-term drought in the DC area. And I know elsewhere in the Northeast and Midwest, fresh water supplies are fortunately very abundant. Pennsylvania, my home state, has more stream miles than any other state besides Alaska. The Great Lakes hold about one-fifth of the world's fresh water supply. And the Mississippi River discharges roughly somewhere between 200 and 700 thousand cubic feet of fresh water each second.

The abundance of water that we enjoy is not matched everywhere. Dozens of countries obtain most of their water from sources outside their own borders. Water withdrawals from rivers bordering multiple jurisdictions are contentious (i.e., various Indian states, U.S. and Mexico, the Middle East). And as glaciers continue to melt worldwide, those countries and regions dependent on glacial melt (China and India) and snowpack melt (Western U.S.) for freshwater supplies are likely to see less reliable or diminishing supplies. Three news reports from just this past week highlight a growing incidence of water shortages worldwide, in places like the U.S. Southwest, Middle East and India.

Some who take note of these growing trends and who have abundant water resources available within their regions have taken the initiative to protect those water supplies from outside exploitation. A prime, recent example would be the governors from the eight Great Lakes states. On October 3, 2008 President Bush signed a joint resolution of Congress consenting to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact (The U.S. and Canadian governments have entered into a similar agreement.). The signature marked the final step in a Compact negotiation and approval process reaching back into the 1980s, and enabling the protection of Great Lakes water for future generations to enjoy and utilize-individuals, businesses, industries. And the ongoing protection of the lakes' waters will help secure the rich natural heritage of fish, birds, mammals and other wildlife for which the Great Lakes region is renowned.

Not only are the volumes of Great Lakes water being protected, but the quality of those waters is being maintained and restored through the collective, organized and concerted efforts of the Great Lakes government, business, conservation and grassroots communities. For more than a century now, individuals, governmental bodies, companies, agencies and organizations have joined together to protect and revitalize the international treasure that is the Great Lakes. The results of those collective efforts can be most recently seen in the $400-plus billion Great Lakes restoration appropriation making it way presently through the U.S. House and Senate.

The Mississippi River Basin, like the Great Lakes, is an internationally renowned and treasured natural resource. And like the Great Lakes, people in the region and around the country care for and value the waters of the Mississippi River. But the waters of the basin are not protected from those who might want to export them for outside use. There is no "Mississippi River Water Resources Compact." And no concerted effort to protect and restore the quality of the River waters from the source to the Gulf of Mexico exists. None to the scale and degree of cooperation so evident in the Great Lakes basin. None remotely as effective as the collaborative that has succeeded in those lakes to the north and east.

That model for success is there for all to see, draw from and apply toward the effective protection and restoration of great water bodies world wide; for the protection and restoration of the Mississippi basin waters.

As the world's population booms; as demands for fresh, clean water soar; and as available supplies of that resource dwindle, those of us with abundant fresh water within our communities can choose to assure its presence for our and future generations. Or not. We can choose to use the models of connection, engagement, cooperation and collaboration - models like that employed to such great success in the Great Lakes. Or not.

The choice is ours to make. And the time to make the choice is now. Because in the end, without enough fresh water, the question will no longer be whether to cooperate or not. It will be whether to be . . . or not. - Mark Gorman

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Redrawing Boundaries

A Christian Science Monitor article caught my eye this morning: "Climate change could redraw national borders." The article mentions, by way of example, that as the ridge crests defined by the glaciers in the southern Alps shift due to glacial melting, the border between Italy and Switzerland, defined by treaty as those ridge crests, has likewise shifted - northward by hundreds of feet. Melting glaciers may also play a role in redefining the boundaries in already-disputed sections of India’s borders with Pakistan and China; a somewhat chilling scenario, if you'll pardon the reverse pun. And as lowland and coastal countries become more and more submerged by rising seas, those coastal boundaries, too, will change.

Sometimes boundary changes are forced upon us, as in the cases above. At other times, if we are prescient enough, we can shift our personal, political and positional boundaries - our perspectives if you will - voluntarily. Impending changes in our climate, along with all of the attendant changes in economy, ecology, lifestyle, health, natural and human built resources, hold the power to force a change in perspective upon us - a change in the boundaries that we may be very comfortable living within at the present. But forced change is rarely the preferred, efficient, agreeable and enjoyable path forward. And unlike the shifting ridge crests, our perspectives are not physically or legally defined. We can choose, ahead of time, voluntarily, to listen to others, to find common ground and to follow shared interests.

Before those changes are forced upon us.

Before the foundations of our relationships literally shift beneath us, as assuredly as the glaciers are melting and the boundaries shifting in the Alps and Himalayas. - Mark Gorman

Monday, July 13, 2009

Climatic Convergence

Two bits of climate news converged in ironic fashion over the past several days, as seemingly random bits of news tend to do now and again.

The first was Senator Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) announcement last week that the committee she chairs, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, will wait until after the August Congressional recess to take up consideration of climate change legislation. With several other pressing topics up for Senate consideration before the recess (i.e., Supreme Court nominee confirmation, health care, appropriations), the EPW Committee would have been hard pressed to give the complex and important climate legislation its due attention before hand. Even beyond that relatively short Committee delay, full Senate passage of climate change legislation this year is less than certain, portending even further delays.

I noticed the second news headline yesterday (Sunday) in The Observer article entitled: "Wild weather in the year ahead, scientists predict," in which scientists predict that along with "droughts, floods and other extreme events, the next few years are also likely to be the hottest on record." All the result of an evolving "global "El Niño" phenomenon exacerbat(ing) the impact of global warming."

Now I wouldn't want to wish droughts, flooding, heat waves or other "extreme events" on anyone, particularly the world's poor, who often seem to be at most risk from such events. And the Upper Mississippi River basin certainly has seen more than its fair share of flooding over the years. However, in light of the human tendency to react under crisis with more urgency and certainty that when not in crisis mode, a decision to delay serious consideration of climate legislation in the short term may result in more serious consideration of climate legislation in the long term, if that short term gives us a glimpse into what a climate-changed future might hold.

What that future might hold for the Upper Midwest was outlined in a June report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which “summarizes the science of climate change and the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.” Specifically, for the Midwestern U.S., the authors predict "an increase in precipitation in winter and spring, more heavy downpours, and greater evaporation in summer, leading to more periods of both floods and water deficits." More "droughts, floods and other extreme events," in other words.

El Niño means "the child" in Spanish. Perhaps it will be a child who brings clarity to the climate change debate. - Mark Gorman

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Speed of Light

A couple of days back I sent an email to Greg, an intern and fellow worker here at our F Street office at the Institute. It was an invitation to an agriculture coalition meeting that I thought he would find interesting and contribute to, as well. A minute or two later I was walking past Greg's desk and mentioned the invitation. He hadn't gotten it yet. So, face-to-face this time, I explained what I had written in the email and then some. It seems I was faster that the electrons buzzing their way through the Internet ether!

But on a whole other level, my experience just goes to show you that oftentimes in coalition building and networking and communicating it's the face-to-face relationships that work better. That are the more efficient. That result in the stronger teams and longer-lasting results.

I'm not really faster than the speed of light. Or the speed of electrons parsing through the virtual world we have come to know and love and so heavily rely upon. But maybe my presence now and again in real meetings with actual people across solid tables can go far in achieving constructive conservation and restoration ends. That's my personal goal anyway. More real meetings. Fewer of the virtual.

Yours in Tweeting, Facebooking and Blogging - Mark Gorman

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Commonplace River

Samuel Clemens (a/k/a Mark Twain) begins his book "Life on the Mississippi" by noting, with Clemens' typical gift for understatement, that the Mississippi River is "not a commonplace river." While certainly true in many respects, I would beg to differ from one particular perspective. The River and its rich heritage of resources, both natural and cultural, are the very essence of commonplace - reflecting the very heart of America.

We’ve been extremely lucky in that heartland. In the valleys cut by the Mississippi, by its major tributaries, like the Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and others, and by the hundreds of smaller streams that ultimately feed the mighty waterway, we’ve been handed a unique treasure. Those streams in so many ways tie the central region of the Nation together into the diverse natural, historical and cultural quilt that is our common heritage. They are streams that have literally sustained the region's economy and ecology. The Native Americans who lived along these waters and the first Europeans to settle in these valleys understood that relationship – the connection of their lives to the land and the water . . . the connection of economy to ecology. And the today's rural neighbors in the basin's farm-filled valleys and its small towns largely understand those connections still.

The mode of conservation that works in this type of landscape has to similarly recognize and build upon those connections. It has to recognize that all things in a watershed are connected. The language that we use to solve problems and address issues together has to acknowledge that everything is connected. The paths toward conservation that we follow have to recognize that there are connections everywhere.

It’s ironic that the Native Americans and early settlers recognized those connections, and that today's rural communities live out those connections on a daily basis. Ironic because all too often discussions about ecology and economy boil down to a debate over choices and concessions, and over primacy and control of one perceived sphere of influence over the other, as if one or the other - the economy or conservation - has to predominate.

It’s especially odd since ecology and economy both at their core relate to the heart of our very existence. Both words arise from the same ancient Greek word for home - “oikos.” Ecology literally means to study or to know our home. And economy literally means to manage our home.

So, rather than being at conflict, what the Greeks knew intuitively when the words formed so naturally out of their daily lives over 3000 years ago is that ecology and economy are joined - one to the other. The Greeks understood - doubtless because they lived much closer to nature than most of us do today - is that we need to know our home in order to manage it wisely.

But over time as an increasingly urbanized America has separated itself from our natural roots, we’ve forgotten what the Greeks and Native peoples and early settlers tried to teach us in their words and actions. We’ve forgotten what rural America still knows - that our economy and ecology, rather than being opposed and at odds, are inescapably linked.

It is in the commonplace, in the farms and small villages and the back roads and pastures and woodlands and people in the great Mississippi valley where day-to-day life practically oozes the unspoken message of conservation – the message that these people connect with and hold the land dearly to their hearts, and that they want so much to be able to pass those lands and waters and natural areas and way of life on to their children and children's children. If we listen closely, we will hear that landscape and those people silently screaming out the message of connections . . . connections with the land and water, connections in this time and place with each other, and connections through time with both past and future generations.

Once upon a time, the story goes, a disciple asked the elder, “How am I to listen?” And the elder responded, “Become an ear that pays attention to every single thing the universe is saying. The moment you hear something you yourself are saying, stop.”

All too often we miss the commonplace message from the nation's heartland that speaks so loudly of conservation and of connections, as we are busy writing and typing and speaking and instant messaging. Trying to explain ourselves. Not listening at all. It’s time, I would offer, that we stop to listen carefully to the echoes from the voices of our early ancestors and Native peoples, which speak of connections and responsibility and accountability. It’s time that we listen attentively to our rural neighbors whose lives convey a message of care for the common wealth. And it’s well beyond time that we attend to the whispers of those generations yet to come, which ask simply that their dreams may be fulfilled, their hopes realized and their opportunities achieved. Because if we do that - if we stop in our frenetic rush toward who knows where - to listen . . . we will hear those calls demanding that we have the vision to create a radically new and innovative way of doing things and solving problems and moving together into a very commonplace - yet very rich - future. - Mark Gorman

Thursday, July 2, 2009

It's Worse Than You Know

One of my favorite movies, Joss Whedon's "Serenity," has a little bit of dialogue that is quite appropriate to some climate change and Mississippi River news that came out this past week. The movie's villain and hero are having a conversation, and the villain says that the situation is "worse than you know." To which our hero replies, "It usually is."

Which is a bit like the cover story published in the July 1 edition of the NewScientist: "Sea level rise: It's worse than we thought." To quote the article, "The good news is that some of the scarier scenarios, such as a sudden collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, now appear less likely. The bad news is that there is a growing consensus that the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) estimates are wildly optimistic . . . The oceans are already rising. Global average sea level rose about 17 centimetres in the 20th century, and the rate of rise is increasing."

What does this have to do with the Mississippi River region you might ask. Well, beside the typical answer that "all things are connected," and that a crisis in one region will have repercussions in others, there is the article just published last Sunday in ScienceNews, the magazine for the Society of Science and the Public. That article, "Losing Louisiana," says that engineering attempts to save a sinking Louisiana delta by allowing sediment-laden Mississippi River water to overflow the River channel into the delta region will fail, because the River no longer carries enough sediment for those efforts to succeed. There are dams on the River now and farther upstream on many of its tributaries, too - each dam trapping tons of sediment that at one time reached the delta and replenished its wetlands.

The ScienceNews article cites an analysis by Michael Blum and Harry Roberts, published in the June 26 online issue of Nature Geoscience (free registration required), in which the authors estimate that between 2000 and 2100, the combined effects of subsidence and sea-level rise will swamp as much as 13,500 square kilometers — about 10 percent - of the area of Louisiana.

Blum and Roberts estimate that, compared to times when the Mississippi River was free-flowing, today only about half of the River sediments reach the delta region. Therefore, diverting sediment-laden Mississippi River water into wetlands at the head of the delta will only prevent about 900 square kilometers of land from sinking below sea level over the next 100 years.

The scientists conclude their article by saying, "Our calculations of sediment mass balance represent a conservative first-order assessment because we use modest subsidence rates, conservative sea-level rise estimates, optimistic sediment supplies and an optimistic timeline for implementation of large-scale diversions."

In other words, it may be "worse than you know." - Mark Gorman

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Beginnings (are there any other kind?)

The Upper Mississippi River has been flowing in about the same configuration as it does today, give or take a bit here and there, for the last 132,000 or so years, since the retreat of the Illinoian Glacier. Amazing how little yet how much have changed over such a long time.

And it was about 20 years ago (20 years ago March 13 to be exact), that Sir Timothy Berners-Lee invented this world-changing layer (the world wide web) on top of the Internet. Amazing how far it's come and what impact it's had in such a short time.

Now we bring the two elements together. The old Mississippi and a much younger medium will meet in this blog - mostly on and sometimes off - on a semi-routine, somewhat-regular basis, to muse on the happenings in the region and here in DC that might have an impact on that grand body of water and those who live, play and work on and nearby it.

This blog isn't the only place where you can find news from the Northeast-Midwest Institute on Upper Mississippi River Basin matters. There are our:
  • Old-fashioned website (
  • Facebook page (
  • Flickr photo site (
And you can follow our tweets on Twitter, where we are @NEMWIUpperMiss

You know the drill. You can visit the sites, themselves. We can show up on your mobile device. We can stream to you RSS reader. And if you are really old fashioned, you can email me, Mark Gorman, at and get on a emailing notification list for our monthly "Upper Mississippi River Basin Update." See! We can be quaint as well as innovative!

Social networking only works if you are involved in it from that end, as well. So comment on the blogs, become a Facebook fan, send us your photos to add to our Flickr site, and tweet back at us, as we build a real and virtual new community to help the grand old River that we all know and love. - Mark Gorman