A towboat makes its way upstream from Princeton, Iowa on the Mississippi River.

Larry Fisher

Ask Quad-Citians where they live and they’ll likely say, “on the Mississippi.”

Pat Nunnally would like to change that to living “with the Mississippi.”

He also would like people to think of the river not as a barrier to be crossed to get to work or a backdrop for recreation or a foe to be sandbagged, but rather a “living thing” that we need to understand for the future good of our planet and its people.

Nunnally, a teacher at the University of Minnesota, is one of 30 people who will speak Sept. 21-23 in Bettendorf during the fourth annual Upper Mississippi River Conference sponsored by River Action Inc., Davenport.

The conference theme is “balancing nature and commerce,” with topics ranging from hydroelectric dams and tourism to bridges and harvesting Asian carp, an invasive fish species.

The conference targets city planners, elected officials, architects, environmental groups, students and educators, but River Action director Kathy Wine hopes some members of the general public also will attend to become more informed citizens.

Three on-the-river field trips, a catfish fry and a dinner cruise are bonuses, she said.

Nunnally wants to encourage people to better understand the river, beginning with flooding. “We’ve made it so a flood is now a catastrophe,” rather than something rivers do periodically, he said.

Many people still “want to build more armor and try to hold off flooding rather than dealing with it on a more recurring basis,” he said. Newer ways of dealing with floods call for wetland restoration to absorb water, moving buildings off flood plains so they are not in harm’s way and creating structures that retain rain where it falls.

”Davenport does better than a lot of communities” in that regard, he said.

The ecosystem under the water is another area where better understanding would be beneficial, he said.

Sport fishermen and boaters do not want to see Asian carp in the water, and possibly “the best way to slow (the carp’s) advance is to have a healthy aquatic ecosystem, not one that has been weakened by pollution or weakened by poor habitat,” Nunnally added.

“If your concern is to fish or to boat, maybe the thing to do now is to understand what is going on under the water and fix that.”

Water quality is a third area of concern.

“Yes, we have the Clean Water Act, but if the agencies that are charged with management of the act are not funded … if they don’t regulate all that hard because regulations are a threat to industry, a threat to jobs, then that’s potentially an issue,” he said.

Flowing into our rivers are substances he calls “contaminants of emerging concern” — ingredients in our shampoos and the plastic in our water bottles, for example — “and we don’t know what that stuff is doing to people.”

In addition, nitrogen, phosphorus and soil itself runs off the agricultural land that we all rely on for food, and the agriculture industry is understandably defensive about that, he said. But when we go down to Leach Park in Bettendorf, for example, we don’t see the nutrient content of the water that creates what is called a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Until the broad public does ‘get that’ and understands the relationship between agriculture and clean water, and (until) those two are brought into alignment,” we will have problems, he said.

“We need to look at the river with new eyes,” he added.