Why ‘knickpoints?’

Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved waterfalls. One of my earliest memories road tripping with my parents in southern Oregon was stopping to visit Salt Creek Falls whenever we happened to be in the area. There was a short hike to get to it, but whenever our car pulled into the lot, I would jump out of the car and let the sound of the water lead me right to it. With a nearly 300 vertical drop, the waterfall was both dizzying and mesmerizing. I was hooked.

Salt Creek Falls near Oakridge, Oregon. Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

But truly, who doesn’t love a good waterfall? The simple act of water falling from a height is a sensory joy – the visual of cascading water leaping over a ledge and plunging to the channel below, the rush of white noise created by collisions as the water is sometimes violently redirected on a new course. Waterfalls capture the imagination.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned more about what waterfalls represent in a stream or river. In the field of geomorphology (the study of how the earth changes), waterfalls are an example of a knickpoint – a point in a river’s channel where there is a sudden and marked change in slope, or steepness. The conditions in which the river existed before are now different and taking a new direction. Knickpoints can be static and stay in one place, or they can move as the environment around them changes. They can move quickly, or slowly – accelerate, or decelerate. They can be large, or small, but at every scale, knickpoints represent points of transition and change in a river channel.

Today, our landscapes, ecosystems, and society are all experiencing great change and movement. Many of these systems are approaching their own ‘knickpoint’ where maintaining the status quo leads to outcomes that are detrimental to the environment and subsequently, ourselves and future generations. This gives us the opportunity to examine our own motivations, perceptions, and behaviors NOW and change our own course – perhaps a course that is more aligned with working with nature to create better outcomes for ourselves, our communities, and the landscapes in which we live.

The purpose of this blog is to capture stories of change and transition in one watershed in east-central Minnesota, as part of a state-wide funding effort to raise awareness and create meaningful action to better protect water quality and our natural resources. While many of the stories are based in specific places, many of the concepts can be applied beyond the boundaries of the Lower St. Croix watershed.