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‘Troubled Waters’ Wreaking Havoc, from Minnesota to Mexico

On October 5th, ‘Troubled Waters’, a documentary produced by the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum, was screened for the first time on the U’s main campus in St. Paul. The aptly titled film, which focuses on the effects of agricultural practices on both rivers and oceans, certainly made waves within the academic and agricultural communities of the Midwest.

Entrance to the University of Minnesota's main campus, where controversy erupted last month regarding the release of a documentary partially funded by the University's Bell Museum of Natural History (Source: Wikimedia).

In September, mere weeks before the scheduled premier, the University announced its intention to delay the release of the documentary. The decision to pull the film, at first a mystery to the public, the filmmakers, and even members of the Bell Museum, was eventually traced back to Karen Himle, the Vice President of the University’s Relations Office. When questioned about her decision, Himle stated that there had been questions raised by early screening viewers regarding the film’s scientific veracity.

This accusation immediately raised some eyebrows, as the documentary, which was in large part funded by the University’s Museum, had already undergone extensive review. The accusation made eyebrows recede into hairlines when a reporter for the Twin Cities Daily Planet made it widely known that Himle is married to a principle at Himle-Horner, a PR firm which represents big ag. companies in the Midwest.

Other eyebrow-raising facts about Himle’s decision:

1.     Although Himle cited failure to meet the goals of the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (which, in addition to the Bell Museum, was a principle funder of the documentary via the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund) as one of the reasons she pulled the film, she did not notify the LCCMR when she did so.

2.     The ‘fact review’ was no more than a private viewing by U of M faculty, who were then supposed to advise the director of the Bell Museum on whether or not to release the film.

3.     Many of the faculty comprising this small group of advisors hailed from the U’s School of Agriculture and felt – according to the Dean of that school, Al Levine – that the film vilified agriculture.

Himle’s actions and accusations eventually created such a strong tide of dissent that ‘Troubled Waters’ was released on its originally scheduled premier date. The scandal preceding the October 5th screening, however, raised some big questions regarding academic freedom, the influence of private funding within the context of public Universities, and the ever-longer reach of big ag.

All of these larger issues that arose in light of the release drama, however, have little to do with the actual message of the documentary, according to director Larkin McPhee. The director was diplomatic in her response to the contested release, voicing confusion over Himle’s allegations and concern that the claims leveled at the film misrepresented its hopeful tenor and might dissuade people from going to see it.  Luckily, however, it seems that the scandal only increased public awareness of both the documentary and the issues it examines.

Following the well-attended opening of ‘Troubled Waters’, McPhee summarized the film’s message in her own words in an informal interview. Summarily, the director stated that the documentary aimed to show how land use activities in Minnesota are connected to ecological problems – such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico – thousands of miles away. Specifically, she chose three visuals from the film as representative of the overall message:

Mississippi River Delta from space, captured on May 24, 2001 by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA's Terra satellite. (Source: NASA)

First, she discussed the Mississippi River watershed (seen at left) and the visual similarity of the River and its tributaries to the human circulatory system; this, McPhee said, visually demonstrates how a single drop of water entering the river in Minnesota is connected to the Gulf’s dead zone. Second, she spoke of the image of groundwater aquifers, which demonstrate how complex and circuitous the water cycle is and the way in which people are intimately connected to that cycle, even when physically separated from it by land. Finally, McPhee spoke of the rapid soil erosion occurring throughout the Midwest as captured in a satellite image of farmland in the Mississippi River Valley.

Throughout her interview, the ‘Troubled Waters’ director emphasizes that the main purpose of the film is to capture how intricately interconnected everything is, from farms in Minnesota to phytoplankton in the Gulf. In examining these connections, McPhee discusses environmental externalities with a simpler and less accusatory tone, labeling agricultural pollution an “unintended consequence”. Indeed, far from condemning American agriculture, McPhee insists that ‘Troubled Waters’ highlights the ways in which farmers of all types, from commercial corn and soy growers to small-scale organic farmers, can be part of the solution to many of the ecological crises of today.

If this optimistic and collaborative perspective makes you doubt the urgency of the documentary’s environmental message, consider this: at one point in her interview, McPhee likens the Mississippi to a living, breathing organism. Humans have a long tradition of anthropomorphizing animals and even plants to bolster public concern for the natural world (think Free Willy, think Fern Gully). If anthropomorphizing entire watersheds and ecosystems helps people start to take up the call for change, why not? Renaming ceremonies! Birthday celebrations! Tom Hanks as the voice of the Mississippi! The possibilities are endless!

Obviously, however, the documentary focuses on more concrete, plausible solutions. Its exploration of innovative agricultural practices at varying scales is both interesting and open-minded. And while the documentary may not get the public to view the Mississippi River as the animate being that McPhee sees, perhaps this type of environmental documentary, one that presents the potential for progress rather than the certainty of destruction, will finally help navigate the US out of troubled waters.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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Lakis Polycarpou
13 years ago

Very interesting.

I have not seen the film yet, but I wonder what exactly about it is controversial. Are there any serious scientists who question the links between agricultural activities and watershed pollution, including the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone? Even the USDA now has a major initiative to improve the health of the Mississippi. Why would they do that unless there’s a connection between agricultural activities and pollution?

13 years ago

Thanks for an excellent article. A couple of corrections: the premiere at the Bell Museum was on Oct. 3rd ; the broadcast on Twin Cities Public Television was on Oct. 5th. Also – the film was not funded by the University at all – most of the funding came from the LCCMR and the McKnight Foundation with smaller amounts from other foundations. And – in fact – the Funders HAD seen the film and APPROVED it. But then the head of PR at the University unilaterally cancelled the broadcast – which then forced the Director of the Bell Museum to cancel the premiere. There followed lie after lie after lie as the University tried to cover-up Himle’s actions and blame the whole thing on the Bell Museum. Unbelievably, Karen Himle is still employed by the University and President Bob Bruininks continues to support her. I guess this is all a reflection of the pathetic state of the Administration of the UofM. Fortunately, Bruininks will be retiring after this Academic Year.

13 years ago

(I forgot) the film is still available for online viewing at TPT.ORG in their OnDemand section