Big River Magazine
Mississippi River stories and news

From November-December 2008 Big River
River News

EPA Nixes Yazoo Pump

— In an unusual move, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vetoed an Army Corps of Engineers flood-control project on the Lower Mississippi in early September. The project, called the Yazoo Pump, was authorized by Congress in 1941, as part of an attempt to keep Mississippi River floodwater from backing up into the Yazoo River basin and thereby protect soybean and cotton fields nearby.

The 1 million-acre Yazoo Backwater Area, 200 miles upstream from New Orleans, is one of the few large, frequently flooded wetland habitats left on the lower river. Not only does it operate as a shock absorber for floods, it’s also important habitat for migratory birds, river fish and other wildlife.

The $220 million project was widely thought to be wasteful, but proponents have been pushing it forward for many years. In February 2008, Time magazine asserted the widespread view that the project was, “arguably the most ecologically destructive Army Corps boondoggle on the books today, which is saying something.”

The EPA, which claimed that the project would damage the wetlands, has only vetoed 12 projects under the Clean Water Act.

Plan for a New Plan

— The Minnesota River is a major source of both sediment and excess nutrients in the Mississippi, and a big contributor to the “dead zone” at the mouth of the river in the Gulf of Mexico. Several Minnesota governors have launched initiatives to clean up the river, to little effect. Plans for a new plan for managing aquatic ecosystems, water quality and restoration in the Minnesota River watershed were launched at the end of September, when the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (MEQB) signed an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Minnesota River watershed stretches out over 16,770 square miles, most of it farmland. Countless streams, tributaries, ditches and tile fields drain water from the farms and fields to the Minnesota, which joins the Mississippi River at St. Paul.

First, the Army Corps will work with the MEQB to collect information, work with locals and develop models of the river. The resulting management plan will include a system that examines existing conditions, forecasts future conditions and simulates alternatives. It will look at restoration of both small and major tributaries, according to a press release from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Fewer Boats, More Sunglasses

Sales of new boats by dealers dropped 26.4 percent in the first seven months of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007. Dealers also reported a drop in revenue from marina, service, parts and accessories, and finance and insurance activities. Net profits reported by dealers also declined, from 4.9 percent to 2.5 percent, according to Spader Business Management, a private company that helps businesses improve productivity and profit.

Meanwhile, the Outdoor Industry Association reports that its retailers saw a 10 percent increase in sales in the month of July 2008 over July 2007. Camping gear drove the increase, with tents, sleeping bags, packs and climbing gear up 14 percent. Best-selling categories included camp accessories, hands-on hydration, instruments and sunglasses.

Paddle product sales (canoes, kayaks, equipment, accessories and apparel) in July were reported to be about the same as July last year. Boats were down slightly, but apparel was up.

More Power

. — Xcel Energy is proposing to expand its Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant, positioned on the banks of the Mississippi upstream from Red Wing in Pool 3. According to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, the proposed project consists of two parts: a 164-megawatt increase in the electrical generating capacity of the plant, and a 35-cask expansion of the existing spent-fuel (nuclear waste) storage installation at Prairie Island. The project would increase the plant’s capacity from 1,100 megawatts to 1,264 megawatts. The company is also asking for a 20-year extension of the licenses for the plant’s two reactors, now set to expire in 2013 and 2014.

A public meeting held in Red Wing in early September brought out 30 town residents who opposed the expansion for safety reasons, even though “the plant has operated without a major problem since it started in 1973,” according to a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (9-15-08).

Friendly Invasions

What do honeybees, goldenrain trees, house sparrows and Asian long-horned beetles have in common?

Answer: they have thrived in North America after coming here from somewhere else.

Although they are widely seen as causing extinctions and environmental havoc, these and other “invasive species” are not all bad, according to a group of scientists who published a controversial paper in the August 2008 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some take on valuable work, like honeybees. They also can stimulate natural selection and adaptation, like in Florida, where native soapberry bugs are now developing smaller mouthparts so they can more easily munch seeds of the goldenrain tree, which was imported from Asia in the 1950s.

In their paper, Dov Sax and Steven D. Gaines assert that attitudes about exotic species are over-simplistic. Some invasions are devastating, but they don’t usually cause extinctions. In fact, as ecosystems take on exotic species, the total diversity may increase, as seen in freshwater fish of Hawaii, where 40 new species keep company with five natives; and plants in New Zealand, where 2,069 exotic imports have naturalized among 2,065 plants found nowhere else on earth.

“I hate the ‘exotics are evil’ bit, because it’s so unscientific,” said Sax in a story in the New York Times (9-9-08).

That idea is cold comfort to researchers and observers who’ve watched the exotic quagga mussel take over territory from the better-known zebra mussel, another invader. The quagga, about the size of a fingernail, is a huge problem in the Colorado River, Lake Havasu, Lake Mead and the Great Lakes. It clogs pipes, clusters on plants and travels easily on boats. With its voracious appetite, it filters so many nutrients and microorganisms from the water that fish go hungry. Lake Michigan fish populations have dropped precipitously because of quaggas, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It disrupts in other ways, too, when the clear water encourages algae blooms and explosive weed growth, which turn to dead zones when the plants die and decompose.

Botulism bacteria thrive in such dead zones. When affected quagga mussels are eaten by fish that are then eaten by birds, the result is a die-off of birds.

Fish can’t help being a source of bacteria, if their environment is polluted. That’s what’s happened in the Duluth-Superior Harbor, where scientists at the University of Minnesota have found E. coli in several species of wild fish. Researchers emphasized that the bacteria was found in the fish’s intestines, not in the meat, and that the fish flesh was safe to eat. Just wash your hands.

Corny Movies

– Iowa has its corn, and Hollywood knows it. How many corn-related (not to be confused with corny) movies have you seen that were filmed in the Hawkeye state?

For starters, the horror film, “Children of the Corn,” was filmed in 1983 near Sioux City. “Field of Dreams” was shot near Dyersville. Now, a remake of Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn,” filmed in Iowa locations around the Quad Cities, will be shown on the Sci-Fi Channel.

The 10-foot-high corn rows of Tim and Kellie Carter’s farm, just south of the Wapsipinicon River near Princeton, provided the habitat of the murderous children. Olde St. Anne’s Church, part of Walnut Grove Pioneer Village in Scott County, will appear in the remake as well as locations in Charlotte, in rural Clinton County, and Lost Nation, in Jackson County. (Quad-City Times, 9-9-08; Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, 9-15-08)

The Carters are no newcomers to the film industry — their cornfields have been used for several movies and documentaries.

PFC Leak Trial Date Set

— One of the largest environmental trials ever in Minnesota will begin May 4, 2009, in Washington County District Court. More than 1,000 plaintiffs have joined a lawsuit against the 3M Company, claiming that chemicals made by the company leached into their drinking water. Small amounts of the chemicals were discovered in groundwater in Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Lake Elmo and Hastings, Minn.

Perfluoronated compounds (PFCs), synthetic chemicals designed to repel grease and water, were used for decades with very little government oversight. They have been linked to cancer, liver disease, endocrine disruption and immune problems in animals, although their effect on humans is still in dispute.

Buffer the Bottoms

— This fall the Natural Land Institute, a land trust based in Rockford, Ill., purchased 93 acres of river bottom wetlands and forest lands in an area called the Milan Bottoms, to protect it and act as a buffer against encroaching development.

The 3,450-acre Milan Bottoms area includes one of the largest intact floodplain hardwood forests on the Upper Mississippi. It’s a refuge for river otters, bobcats and cerulean warblers. Half the land is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages it for wildlife. The rest is privately owned and the Rock Island City Council encourages development. It probably won’t take long. The new Jumer’s Rock Island Casino, at the intersection of I-280 and Illinois Highway 92, is scheduled to open in December 2008.

Fish in Danger

Nearly 40 percent of all fish species in U.S. streams, rivers and lakes are either endangered, threatened or vulnerable, according to a recent survey sponsored by the American Fisheries Society, in coordination with the U.S. Geological Survey. This figure represents a 92 percent increase over the number of fish listed in a similar study done in 1989. Twenty-six species were removed since that study.

Danger comes from a whole catalog of human-caused environmental changes, from sedimentation to disease to pollution to invasive species. Catfish and suckers throughout the continent are among those at greatest risk. From 17 to 23 species in the Mississippi eco-region are in danger, including: lake sturgeon, pallid sturgeon, paddlefish, alligator gar, Alabama shad, redside dace, western silvery minnow, pallid shiner, sturgeon chub, sicklefin chub, pugnose shiner, ironcolor shiner, Topeka shiner, eastern slim minnow, blue sucker, harelip sucker, greater redhorse, spring cavefish, grotto sculpin and the western sand darter.

“Fish are not the only aquatic organisms undergoing precipitous declines,” said USGS researcher Noel Burkhead, lead author of the report. “Freshwater crayfishes, snails and mussels are exhibiting similar or even greater levels of decline and extinction.”

The report was based on biological information provided by scientists tracking the status of imperiled fishes and aquatic invertebrates in North America since 1972. The PDF report, titled “Conservation Status of Imperiled North American Freshwater and Diadromous Fishes,” is available at the American Fisheries Society website.

Diamond Jo Moves

— The new Diamond Jo, a 188,000 square-foot land-based entertainment center that will replace the old riverboat casino, is scheduled to open in Dubuque in early December. The old Diamond Jo was built in the style of a 19th century paddlewheeler. New laws recently made off-river gambling legal in Iowa. At 36,000 square feet, the new casino is larger than the old one. It will have 1,000 slot machines and 20 gaming tables, including poker tables.

“We’re converting our primary business from casino gambling,” said Todd Moyer, General Manager. “This is going to be much more than gaming.”

The new Diamond Jo will also have a three-level, 800-seat concert venue named the Mississippi Moon Bar. Moyer said the concert hall will hire headline entertainment, such as the Doobie Brothers, who are slated to play in early 2009. The casino has three restaurants, two bars and a 30-lane, state-of-the-art bowling alley.

The facility, designed in a style the company’s website describes as “inspired by the prairie architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright,” will cost about $80 million, according to Moyer.

In coordination with the city of Dubuque, the company is also building a 1,100-space parking ramp near the new Diamond Jo, which is on the Riverwalk in the Port of Dubuque, not far from where the old Diamond Jo is moored. The company is donating the old building and boat to the nearby National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

Wet Guy to Dry Out

— In late August, bystanders in St. Cloud saw a man floundering in the middle of the Mississippi River and called the police. Two police officers swam out, saved him and brought him to shore, where the fire department loaded him into an ambulance bound for a hospital.

Somewhere along the way they not only realized the man was extremely intoxicated, he was also wanted on one outstanding felony warrant and two misdemeanor warrants. By the time he got to the hospital, police were waiting again — this time to arrest him.

Plastic Voyages

— Aboard a raft cobbled together from 15,000 plastic bottles, a dozen sailboat masts and a Cessna airplane fuselage, two men voyaged 2,600 miles from Long Beach, Calif., to Hawaii this summer to protest and educate people about the increasing mass of plastic junk polluting the world’s oceans. The pair planned to make the trip in six weeks, but the raft could only move downwind, so it took them 12 weeks. They publicized their cause and progress via online blogs.

One day they caught a big fish, but when they cut it open they found its stomach was full of plastic confetti, tiny bits of degraded plastic from larger plastic objects.

En route, they met another adventurer, a woman crossing the Pacific solo in a high tech rowboat, who also hoped to raise awareness of plastic pollution in the ocean. She shared her food with them, since theirs was dwindling faster than expected. They gave her a spare distiller for turning saltwater to freshwater, since hers was failing.

All three are campaigning to ban “single-use plastics,” such as disposable water bottles, razors and pens.

The largest mass of plastic in the Pacific is a gyre twice the size of Texas. The area is traditionally called the “horse latitudes,” but is now called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In it plastic of all kinds floats from the surface to several feet below the surface, degrading slowly in the sun and breaking down into bits so small even the tiniest fish can eat it.

The annual production of plastic resin in the United States has doubled in the past 20 years, from nearly 60 billion pounds in 1987 to an estimated 120 billion pounds in 2007, according to a study by the American Chemistry Council, which represents the nation’s largest plastic and chemical manufacturers.

Green Concrete

— The new I-35W bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis that opened in September, 2008, is two lanes wider than the bridge that collapsed in 2007, with 13-foot and 14-foot shoulders. But those aren’t the only differences:

Two 30-foot tall sculptures, shaped like vertical waves, now mark the points at which drivers start to cross the river.

The concrete used in the new I-35W bridge is stronger and denser than traditional concrete, which will help prevent water from seeping into the structure. Added strength comes from using fly ash in the concrete as a binder, instead of Portland cement. Portland cement is made by heating clay and crushed limestone into a brick and then grinding it up, but it creates a ton of greenhouse gases for every ton of cement produced. Fly ash is a by-product of burning coal. The fly ash for the bridge came from the Great River Energy coal-burning power plant in Maple Grove, N.D.

The bridge opened to drivers on Sept. 18 and “reached substantial completion” a week later on Sept. 25, making the Flatiron Manson construction team eligible for an $18 million bonus for speedy completion of the project.

Construction on the bridge started Nov. 1, 2007, just three months after the original bridge collapsed. The total cost for cleanup and construction is estimated to be around $400 million.

In Winona, Minn., the concrete sidewalk attached to the downstream side of the Mississippi River bridge has been replaced with a new sidewalk of wood planks. The sidewalk was closed on June 3 and re-opened on Oct. 3.

Bears in the Burbs

— Two good-sized black bears have been wandering around the hills behind La Crosse this summer and fall. Residents have seen them eating apples and acorns out of backyard trees regularly.

In August, as reporters from local WXOW-19 television station were out covering the reported bear sightings, a bear walked out of the woods, as though looking for publicity.

Bill Cerbin, who lives above Hixon Forest, snapped pictures of a bear crossing the road in front of his house (photo above) in the late afternoon.

“I had seen it in various locations previously, but it was a shock to see it so close to our house. It is a very large, healthy looking, imposing animal,” said Cerbin.

Cerbin and neighbors have become more cautious about walking and running in the woods.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, there are two bears. The Hixon Forest bear could weigh up to 500 pounds. The other, a smaller bear of only 150 to 200 pounds, was spotted in Arbor Hills, near Grandad Bluff, at the end of September. So far, neither bear has become a nuisance or a threat.

Donut Dump

— What do you get when you leave 1,200 tons of bakery waste sitting outside, close to the river, with no protective system in place?

A $30,000 fine.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency slapped the fine on Endres Processing LLC for not having a solid-waste permit to store the materials, and for collecting and transporting the waste in an unsatisfactory way. The company turns discarded foods, such as baked goods, snack foods, candy and dairy products, into animal feed. It’s located on a bluff above the Mississippi River, about eight miles upstream of Hastings, Minn. It paid the fine and agreed to set up better housekeeping practices.

Barge Wash Moves

— By 2011, the St. Paul Port Authority will vacate its two-acre Terminal 2 at the foot of St. Paul’s State Street, under the Lafayette Bridge, for the city to develop as park land. This makes prospective development nearby more attractive. But the move could raise overall river-transportation costs.

A business that leases space at Terminal 2 for cleaning and repairing barges and other vessels, Upper River Services LLC, will move three miles downstream to the Port Authority’s Southport terminal, below the St. Paul Downtown Airport.

“It means we’ve got to move,” said a circumspect Lee Nelson, president of the St. Paul-based business. Terminal 2 is the base for about 60 workers.

The Port Authority says consolidated operations at its Southport site will be more efficient. “It’s a better location for a barge-cleaning facility, because it’s off the channel area, with great access to the channel,” said Tom Collins, director of marketing and communications for the St. Paul Port Authority.

Collins pointed out that Port Authority promotes both the working river and green space. The Port Authority received a $2.4 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to help pay for a new facility, which is expected to cost an estimated $4 million.

An opponent of the move counters that the existing site is in good repair and closer to where barges tie up along the river in downtown St. Paul. “We are moving the barge-service facility, but leaving the parking lot behind,” said Hokan Miller, a dispatcher with Upper River Services.

Miller, a 30-year veteran of river transportation, pointed out that a cleaning and repair dock moves barges in and out quickly and is best placed near barge staging areas. Access to the present facility is at a gentle angle, said Miller, but the proposed area requires barges to pivot 90 degrees to enter the slip.

Off-season cleaning will be a challenge as well. At the existing site on the Main Channel, the current keeps ice to a minimum. In the proposed area, with little or no current, ice will be thicker. Vessels will push broken ice under and over ice in place. Refreezing will form “ice gorges” — “difficult, dangerous, costly and time-consuming,” Miller said in a letter to city officials.

All told, Miller predicted, the move will raise costs. Opponents also argue that permanent improvements pending at Southport, including a new dock wall, will make it all but impossible to restore a wetland that is now filled with dredge spoils.

As for the barge cleaning process, the rinse or wash water that’s used on the barges is river water, which is metered when it is taken from the river. The dirty wash water is settled in a series of settling tanks and then introduced to the city sewer system. The sediment from the tanks goes to a landfill. The wash water that goes into the sewer system is tested by the Metropolitan Council, and the sewer charge is determined by a combination of the test results and the number of gallons on the wash pump meter.

The new facility will require a new lift station to pump water to the city sewer system.

For better or worse, the move is a done deal — and riverfront green space will benefit. The Port Authority will hand off 13 acres to St. Paul for parks, including the Upper River Services area; an acre near the Smith Avenue High Bridge and the entrance to Harriet Island, Cherokee and Lilydale Regional Parks; and 10 acres near Southport. The Authority says it will also restore 18 acres of wetlands at Southport.

Don’t Drink the Backflush

— A diminutive Minneapolis suburb decided to reuse water it would otherwise have flushed into the Mississippi.

Beginning in spring 2009, St. Anthony Village (pop 8,200), which is tucked into the northeast side of Minneapolis, will irrigate its city hall grounds and an adjacent park with water it once flushed into the river.

St. Anthony’s municipal water-treatment facility currently runs potable water through filters to remove iron and manganese, and discharges the resulting effluent to surface waters. Called backflush, it’s clean except for iron, manganese and soluble phosphorus, which can contribute to algae growth. (Phosphorus goes into drinking water in small amounts to protect the pipe networks from corrosion.)

Now St. Anthony will store stormwater runoff and its manganese-iron-phosphorus backflush in a 500,000-gallon underground storage facility, and use that water to irrigate 20 acres of a city park and adjacent city hall site.

The one-time cost of the transition is $1.5 million, with local watershed groups and Hennepin County helping cover costs. The reuse will cut demand for water within St. Anthony and reduce discharge by 4.6 million gallons per year — water that would eventually reach the Mississippi River with iron, manganese and pollutants from street and rooftop runoff.

St. Anthony decided to reuse the water partly because it anticipates changes in runoff standards from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency under the Federal Clean Water Act.

One tradeoff: The city must post signs warning against thirsty bypassers drinking the sprinkler water.

Warship Battles River

— The LST-325, which carried men and armored vehicles to beaches in Africa and Europe during World War II, did battle with a moody Mississippi River this summer.

The ship functions as a museum in Evanston, Ind., but during the latter part of August and most of September, it toured the Mississippi River between Hannibal, Mo., and Clinton. Because it is one of only two such transport ships that remain in the United States, it was an unusual sight on the river. According to the Waterloo Courier, the ship was large enough to carry 30 tanks and 1,000 prisoners of war.

In late August, as the LST-325 headed north from Hannibal, the river was at its lowest point of the summer. At Burlington, Iowa, where the river fell to 7.57 feet (the ship draws eight feet), the ship was trapped for a day. Part of the problem was silt and debris left from floods earlier in the summer. The channel had to be dredged before the ship could move.

In September the rain came. Ray Wolf, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities, said two tropical storms — Ike from the Gulf Coast and Lowell from the Pacific — brought an unusual amount of moisture to the area. He noted that the Quad Cities received seven inches of rain in three days. This caused the Rock River in northwest Illinois to swell above flood stage, which, along with other tributaries, caused Mississippi River levels to rise. Between September 12 and 14, the river rose by more than five feet at Burlington. The LST-325 could not get under some of the bridges and was delayed for a time in Fort Madison, Iowa. Eventually, the transport ship made its way back to its home in Evanston.

While the ship returned unscathed, that was not the case in 1945, when it set out from Belfast for the United States. During a storm, it crashed into a huge wave, which cracked the main deck. Ship fitters made some temporary repairs, and later the ship underwent major repairs.

The LST-325 was put back into service in 1951 and 1952 and from 1964 to 1999 served in the Greek Navy. In 2000 the USS Ship Memorial Inc. bought the ship and restored it.


— Kulm Wetland Management District, in the central south region of North Dakota, is a long way from the Upper Mississippi, but a study of waterfowl and wind turbines there and nearby may bear on bird migration in the big river’s fabled flyway.

The so-called Prairie Pothole region, renowned as waterfowl breeding habitat, has increasing numbers of wind turbines — more than 160 at last count.

The three-year study, now concluding its first year, will measure the impact of wind turbines on mallards, blue-winged teal and eight other waterfowl species by counting breeding pairs in 3,000 wetland habitats with and without wind turbines each year.

Whirling turbine blades are a direct bird hazard, to be sure, but they are not the only concern. What if turbines scare off waterfowl?

“The bigger question is avoidance and fragmentation of habitat,” said Mick Erickson, Kulm refuge manager. “What happens to animal populations and bird populations with roads, turbines and transmission lines?”

Because little is known about how turbines affect waterfowl, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is asking a wind-energy developer who is proposing turbines near Alma, Wis., to site them away from the river bluffs.

What’s the effect of turbines in or near the flyway? “We don’t know,” confesses Tom Lovejoy, a Wisconsin DNR environmental impact coordinator in Eau Claire, “and we’re trying to gather information on what impacts are. How do we go about minimizing adverse effects on bats and birds?”

Spinning blades whack birds and bats, but the impact goes beyond such direct mortality. For example, prairie chickens are believed to avoid any vertical structure remotely resembling a hawk perch. If the same is true of breeding waterfowl in the Dakotas, the implications may be profound.

Moreover, the University of Calgary published research in August that shows that 90 percent of bats found dead near turbines showed signs of internal hemorrhaging consistent with trauma from a sudden drop in air pressure, a condition known as barotrauma.

Only half the dead bats showed any sign of direct contact with turbines. Abrupt decompression near the whirling blades explodes bats’ lungs, researchers think.

Most affected were migratory bats, which eat crop-pest insects as they travel — so bat losses in one area could mean changes in distant ecosystems along migration routes.

Will the same turn out to be true for ducks and other waterfowl?

Feel the Connection

— When the Mississippi River Network, a coalition of more than 30 environmental groups working to protect and restore the Mississippi River, met in St. Louis in September, members heard some good news. Public-opinion research coordinated in 2007 by the Chicago-based Biodiversity Project found that people who live near the river, feel “a strong connection to the river.”

“Many individuals shared memories of childhoods spent along the river,” said Jessica Belle Smith, communications director for the Biodiversity Project. “The notion of the river as a resource for the community and the nation that must be protected and handed down to future generations was widespread.”

The Network, which includes representatives from local and national groups, such as River Action in the Quad Cities, the National Audubon Society and the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation, plans to increase the public’s awareness and understanding of the importance of the Mississippi, as well as to effect policy changes and to prioritize and coordinate river restoration efforts, the Biodiversity Project said in a press release.

The group will base its communications efforts on research results and develop new ways to reach policy makers, farmers and the general public. It hopes to increase “passion for and commitment to” the river.

Researchers polled and conducted focus groups in communities on and near the river. According to the Quad Cities Times, 75 percent of those who responded said the public sector should invest more in restoring the river, 81 percent said the river is an important part of the region’s history, and 75 percent said it is an important part of the nation’s cultural life.

StreamLab Opens

— River researchers usually spend a lot of time at field stations, gathering data, and then in laboratories, analyzing samples or data, before returning to the field. A new facility on the banks of the Mississippi in Minneapolis brings field and lab together at a single site, called the Outdoor StreamLab.

It’s a working model of river conditions, perched at the edge of the river, that uses river water, yet allows researchers to control some of the variables at work in the real world.

The StreamLab can produce a large range of flows, including simulated floods and droughts, in as many as three parallel channels. Because it’s outside, subject to sun, cold and open air, it supports a natural community of aquatic plants and animals.

Researchers from agricultural engineering, biology, civil engineering, ecology, geology, soil sciences and water resources sciences will use the lab. One avenue of research will explore questions about how ecosystems relate to flow dynamics.

The StreamLab is a joint project of the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, a research unit of the University of Minnesota, and the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics, a National Science Foundation group.

The Science Museum of Minnesota will collaborate with the lab on signage and monitors that will let people in a nearby park see the tests and data being collected.