In the summer of 2021 Dr. Todd Bridges, National Lead for the USACE Engineering With Nature Initiative, was on the road visiting projects and sites across the country, meeting people, having conversations, and, hopefully, sparking a few ideas. Each stop is documented here with images, short videos, and brief thoughts developed along the way. In the coming months we’ll expand these posts with reflections and additional video content about what was seen and said along with ideas for the future of Engineering With Nature.
Trip Complete: 5,547 Miles
Stop #1 (22 July 2021): Cairo, Illinois at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers
Cairo, the southernmost city in Illinois, has the lowest elevation of any location in the state at 315 feet above sea level. During the Civil War, Admiral Foote made Cairo the naval station for the Mississippi River Squadron. In 1862, General Grant built Fort Defiance to protect the Confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Following the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, USACE built the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, part of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, as a flood risk management measure for Cairo and other communities.
Stop #2 (22 July 2021): Cape Girardeau, Missouri on the Mississippi River
Cape Girardeau is named after Jean Baptist de Girardot who established a trading post in the area in about 1733. The city was incorporated in 1808. The steamboat made Cape Girardeau a major port on the Mississippi River in the 19th century.
Stop #3 (July 23, 2021) – Dogtooth Bend (Illinois) along the Mississippi River
Dogtooth Bend is a large meander loop of the Mississippi River. The bend envelopes approximately 17,000 acres of land, predominantly in the form of an agricultural landscape. Flooding is occurring across the landscape. The Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the USACE St. Louis District are working with the people who live and work in Dogtooth Bend to pursue a new arrangement with nature. Eddie Brauer (USACE St. Louis District), one of our two national River Engineering With Nature Practice Leads, organized and led our day at Dogtooth Bend.
Stop #4 (July 24, 2021) – Cahokia, Collinsville, Illinois
Cahokia was the center of the Mississippian world in North America from 1000-1250 A.D. The city had an estimated population of at least 15,000, comparable in size to London, England during the same period. In fact, no larger city would emerge in North America until the year 1800. The center of Cahokia was the largest “Indian mound” ever engineered and constructed.
Stop #5 (July 25, 2021) – The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
The artist’s eye provides insight into the important position that nature holds in human experience. Nature is a significant subject in the world of art—west, east, north, and south. Humans need the support of nature and nature needs the respect of humans.
Stop #6 (July 26, 2021) – A Levee Realignment Trifecta, Omaha District
Levee realignment projects provide opportunities to reduce levee construction and maintenance costs, reduce risks by providing more space for water, and restore flood plain habitat that produces benefits for fish, wildlife, and people. The USACE Omaha District is successfully partnering with a host of organizations, particularly the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) within the US Department of Agriculture, to integrate across programs and authorities to deliver such projects. Dave Crane (USACE Omaha District) took me to see three of these projects completed in the last few years. These projects have created more than 3,000 acres of restored floodplain along the Missouri River: L-536 project in Atchison County, MO; Highway 2 project in Fremont County, IA; and Frazer Bend project in Fremont County, IA. Dave is also one of our two national River Engineering With Nature Practice Leads.
STOP #7 (July 26, 2021) – Offutt Air Force Base and the 2019 Flood
In 1890 the US War Department commissioned the building of Fort Crook ten miles south of Omaha, Nebraska, near the confluence of the Missouri and Platte Rivers. The installation was later renamed in honor of First Lieutenant Jarvis Jennes Offutt, who was the first casualty in World War I from the city of Omaha. Among other functions, Offutt AFB serves as the headquarters for the US Strategic Command. In March of 2019, a levee breach along the Platte River during high water resulted in the flooding of about one third of the base and 3,000 feet of the base’s runway. The flood damaged nearly 140 facilities and buildings. The recovery and rebuilding program will take several years to complete and is expected to cost more than $500 million. MAJ Dana Lundy led my tour of Offutt.
STOP #8 (July 27, 2021) – Reflections on the heartland landscape, Chamberlain, South Dakota
Over the last seven days, we’ve traveled over 1,200 miles through portions of Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. One of the most striking realizations that I’ve made so far is: wow, we grow a lot of corn! And there is a connection to infrastructure.
STOP #9 (July 27, 2021) – The Badlands National Park, South Dakota
What an impressive landscape! The Lakota people gave this place its name long ago. Based on first impressions, the name certainly seemed to fit. It is a place of extremes. When we arrived about mid-day, the temperature was 106°F —seasonal temperatures can range from 114°F to -40°F in the Badlands. However, it didn’t take long to become overwhelmed by the raw beauty of this landscape. The day left me with a big question.
STOP #10 (July 28, 2021) – Wind Cave National Park, Black Hills of South Dakota
We stopped for lunch and a 3-hour hike through the grasslands and prairie to enjoy the beauty of the landscape. I reflected on the change in the American landscape over the last 200 years. In the 18th century, at the time of our nation’s founding, there were >60 million American bison ranging over the landscape. Today, there are about 500,000 bison on private land and about 30,000 wild bison on public land. There are 100 million acres of wetlands in the lower 48 states of the US today. In the 18th century, this same landscape contained >200 million acres of wetlands. The loss of wetlands over the last 200 years produces consequences today for the ecosystem, flood risk management, and drought resilience.
STOP #11 (July 29, 2021) – Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming
The landscape of Bighorn National Forest unfolds across elevations ranging from 5,000 to over 13,000 feet. Native Americans have been present in the region for more than 12,000 years, and their presence has been imprinted on the landscape. The Medicine Wheel is an ancient Native American sacred site that sits on a limestone plateau at 9,642 feet. The Medicine Wheel is a circular arrangement of stones measuring 80 feet in diameter with 28 rock “spokes” radiating from a prominent central cairn; 5 smaller stone enclosures are located on the circumference of the wheel. The best estimate is that the structure dates to between 250 and 1,000 years ago (so, it was likely in use at the time Cahokia (stop #4) was at its zenith). The site is still used today by Native Americans. The connection between landscape, nature, and people is an important, enduring relationship. In recent decades, science has produced an abundance of evidence documenting the importance of the nature-human connection to human health, including our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Nature holds tremendous value!
STOP #12 (August 3, 2021) – A Smoky Day at Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana
Fire is a natural process. And fire in nature has been used and influenced by people. For hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years, Native Americans used fire to shape the ecosystem across North America. Today, climate change is affecting both the frequency and scope of wildfire, particularly in the western US. In 2020, hundreds of wildfires burned more than 10 million acres in the US, producing nearly $20 billion in damage, and killing more than 30 people. While visiting Glacier National Park on a smoky day (>30 large incident fires were burning in Montana at the time), my thoughtful mother-in-law remarked, “Todd, isn’t Engineering With Nature relevant to the problem of wildfires?” My family is quite informed about EWN. 😊 Climate change adaption for wildfires should include a range of nature-based solutions.
Stop #13 (2-6 August, 2021) – The Forms and Flows of Water, Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park is magnificent! The Blackfeet called this place “the backbone of the world”. The mountains, passes, valleys, rocky peaks, and forests in this place create a dramatic backdrop for the movement of water. The park was named for its many glaciers—an estimated 150 when the park was established in 1910 (today fewer than 30, a story for another time). The Continental Divide passes through the park, dividing the landscape into three parts, where water in one part flows to the Pacific Ocean, in the second to Hudson Bay in Canada, and in the third to the Gulf of Mexico (through the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers). Water is the substance of life.
STOPS #14, 15, and 16 (7 August, 2021) – The Complex
Humanity has left its marks on nature. The Clark Fork River Superfund Complex in Montana is the largest and most expensive Superfund project in the history of the cleanup program. The project includes 120 miles of the Clark Fork River. Industrial scale mining for gold and other metals, particularly copper, began in the region in the late 19th century. Copper-bearing ore mined in Butte, MT (including from the Berkeley Pit) was processed 25 miles away at the Anaconda Smelter. A flood in 1908 washed millions of tons of mining waste into the Clark Fork River. A significant portion of this waste traveled 120 miles down the river and collected behind the Milltown Dam in Missoula, MT. Beginning in 2006, the Milltown Dam and 3 million tons of contaminated sediments behind the dam were removed, the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers was restored, and a 635-acre park was created.
STOP #17 (7 August, 2021) – The Source
The Missouri River, North America’s longest river at 2,341 miles, starts at the confluence of the Jefferson and Madison Rivers (and then the Gallatin River within 1 mile) near Bozeman, Montana and ends when it joins the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri. Lewis and Clark’s expedition camped at this spot for several days in 1805 and named the 3 converging rivers forming the source of the Missouri River after the organizers of their expedition: President Thomas Jefferson; Secretary of State, James Madison; and Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin. The Missouri River’s watershed encompasses 500,000 square miles and includes portions of 10 US states and 2 Canadian Provinces. Rivers are the veins and arteries of our ecosystem and economy. In a year when the ‘dead zone’ produced by nutrient loads entering the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River is larger than average, we should be working for a ‘healthier’ circulatory system. Through Engineering With Nature, we can leverage nature to heal nature.
STOP #18 (8 August, 2021) – A Drive Through Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone was established as the first national park in 1872. The word beautiful seems too weak to describe the natural landscape in Yellowstone. The park includes nearly 3,500 square miles situated on top of the continent’s largest super-volcano (thankfully dormant). The park was very busy on this day, which is consistent with observations of increased national park use in 2021, perhaps a human response to being ‘penned-up’ with COVID for more than a year. Glacier National Park instituted a reservation system this year to manage the number of people accessing the park on any given day. As humanity pushes well beyond the 50% of its population that currently lives in cities, the need for access, contact and experience in nature will continue to grow, so that we might sustain our humanity.
STOP #19 (8-9 August, 2021) – Windy Wyoming
The landscapes of Wyoming are something to behold. The lowest point in Wyoming is higher than the highest point in 17 of the 50 States. We stopped for lunch at a rest area near the Wagonhound area of Wyoming. Other travelers were also stopping to give themselves and their dogs a break. The wind was howling! I said to Anita, “Wyoming, where you keep your dog on a leash to keep it from flying away.” 😊 There was other evidence of Wyoming’s climate, conditions, and opportunities.
STOP #20 (10 August, 2021) – Fort Collins, Colorado: a City that Knows How to Engineer With Nature!
I spent the morning with four professionals with the City of Fort Collins learning about the city’s 20+ history of engineering with nature at the scale of a city. Wow, the level of commitment by citizens, city leaders, and the talented professionals implementing the city’s projects was a pleasure to behold. The city built and manages 112 miles of walking and hiking trails that wind their way along restored streams, creeks, ponds, wetlands, city parks, and the Cache la Poudre River, all while managing storm water and reducing flooding risks. I’m looking forward to learning a lot more about how they’ve been getting this done and helping to share these great projects with others! And wait until you hear them describe the work in their own words!
STOP #21 (11 August, 2021) – A Lot of Sand!
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is situated in the San Luis Valley (at 8,000 feet of elevation) below the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The park’s field of giant dunes, which includes the tallest dunes in North America (750 feet), occupies 11% of a 330-square-mile deposit of sand from the San Juan (65 miles to the west) and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The prominent dune field contains >1 cubic mile of sand, or 5,000,000,000 cubic meters. The forces of water and wind have created this landscape over geologic time. Humans have been consuming sand in an increasingly dramatic fashion over the last 100 years, predominantly to fuel construction of the concrete, urban environment where 50% (and increasing) of people live. The world (of humans) currently consumes sand, largely for use in concrete, at a rate of about 50,000,000,000 tons, annually, which equates to about 80,000,000,000 cubic meters of sand, or >16 cubic miles of sand! Even though sand is one of the most common substances on the planet, only a small fraction of that sand is accessible and suitable for concrete and other engineering uses. And we’re running out of that sand.
STOP #22 (12 August, 2021) – Rivers in Cities
The North Canadian River is a 440-mile-long tributary of the Canadian River, the longest tributary of the Arkansas River (Stop #23). Following a series of floods in the 1920s, Oklahoma City and USACE redirected and straightened portions of the river that significantly reduced water flow through the city. In 1999, a $54 million project was undertaken to restore flow through this portion of the river within the city; the state legislature renamed this seven-mile stretch of the river the Oklahoma River. Following completion on the project in 2004, one straight 2,000-meter length of the river was recognized as an ideal location for rowing races. The site is now home to the $10 million, 33,000 square foot Devon Boathouse and the USRowing National High Performance Center. In Yukon, OK, just a few miles west of Oklahoma City, the river looks much different. For me, the open question is how nature could be more integrated into urban river designs to simultaneously support engineering, recreational, social, and aesthetic functions and value.
STOP #23 (10, 14, 15 August 2021) – The Arkansas River
Modern landscapes fall along a spectrum from the artificial to the natural. The Arkansas River exemplifies this reality. The Arkansas River is one of the longest tributaries of the Mississippi River at 1,450 miles. It begins in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and then flows through Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Flooding on the river in Pueblo, Colorado in 1921 motivated an engineering project that relocated the river channel and flow to areas south of the city. In 1996, an economic revitalization project in Pueblo excavated 1 mile of the historic river channel in downtown Pueblo in order to develop a commercial district in the form of a River Walk (modeled after the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas). The McClellan Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS), completed in 1970, opened 445 miles of the Arkansas River to commercial and recreational navigation through the construction of a series of 17 locks and dams (an 18th lock and dam was completed on the White River in 2004). The locks overcome a 420-foot elevation change between the Mississippi River, where the MKARNS begins, to Catoosa, Oklahoma where the project ends. Commercial navigation on the MKARNS transports 12 million tons of commodities (agricultural and other products), annually, with a value between $2 and $3 billion. The Big Dam Bridge at the Murray Lock and Dam in Little Rock, Arkansas was completed in 2004 and is the longest (4,226 feet) pedestrian and bicycle bridge in North America built exclusively for recreational use (and it was certainly a popular spot on the Sunday afternoon when I was there). The Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge (established in 1970) is co-located with the Robert S. Kerr Reservoir in Oklahoma and includes 20,000 acres of river floodplain habitat that supports more than 250 migratory bird species, among other animals. Former President Lyndon Johnson was present and spoke at the dedication ceremony for the Kerr Lock, Dam and Reservoir in 1970. He spoke about the importance of conserving our environment, water and landscape. During the closing portion of his speech, President Johnson said, “The scars of civilization in this part of America are not yet too deep to be healed…This project must be a beginning, not an end…It must represent our dedication to Robert Kerr’s dream of a nation preserved as God gave it to us.” The healing President Johnson called for could expand and diversify the value that nature can provide.
STOP #24 (15-16 August 2021) – A Modeled River
What is a river? A geological formation, water flowing over land, habitat… A more fitting question for this trip through the heartland is: what is our relationship to rivers? Humans seek to live in association with rivers. They are a source of water, food, transportation, commerce, and hazard– and a place where we satisfy a need to connect with the living and the natural. The last stop on this 5,000+ mile trip through the heartland is Memphis, Tennessee on the Mississippi River where I talk to two engineers with the Memphis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the future of Engineering With Nature.