Monday, August 4, 2014

Is California a bell weather for Minnesota?

Have you ever read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson? She starts it by writing about a town full of strange happenings.
"There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example--where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the back-yards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh."
She takes several more paragraphs to describe lots of additional strange occurrences being noticed by residents. Then she points out that all of the happenings didn't occur in the one imaginary community, but each occurred in one or more real world communities.

teal over a Sunrise River pool
teal over a Sunrise River pool
Photo by J. Harrington

As I've recently been looking through a number of state and regional reports describing the way we're "managing" our natural resources, especially water, I've found myself wondering what Minnesota would be like without the water in our rivers and streams and lakes and under the ground. It could be even more silent than a silent spring, because without surface water, the birds would be gone and the sounds of flowing water would be silenced. I raise these specters because we're developing a pretty good track record of not fully heeding the warnings we're being given and responding responsibly. Could we end up with almost all our groundwater and much of our surface water getting sucked up in a series of pipes, run through us, and our factories, and then treated and discharged into the multitude of agriculturally polluted ditches flowing through much of the state. I know, this is Minnesota. Such an environmental disaster could never happen. We wouldn't let it happen, would we? We treat our wastewater, except for agricultural runoff, and it doesn't need a discharge permit, unlike any other industrial or community discharge. If it doesn't come from a pipe, it doesn't count? It counts enough to contribute mightily to the fact that about 40% of our waters don't meet water quality standards. Congress has embedded a free ride for agriculture into our water quality laws. That approach reminds me of a Bill McKibben quotation"The laws of Congress and the laws of physics have grown increasingly divergent, and the laws of physics are not likely to yield." Fortunately (or not), according to some of the reports I've read recently Congress has left it up to each state to control agricultural runoff, if they so desire.

sandhill cranes in a seasonal wetland
sandhill cranes in a seasonal wetland
Photo by J. Harrington

California has been setting a notable example of growth-centered water management and its consequences by stealing transferring water from one basin to another for years to accommodate growth and increase agricultural yields. Now they're struggling with a notable drought. Perhaps Minnesota has a congressional exemption from ever having to pay the piper. Perhaps we are so rich in water resources that we'll never have to worry about running out no mater how much we grow and waste those resources. (Tell that to the folks around White Bear Lake and in southwestern Minnesota.) Perhaps not. Perhaps it's time we looked to conserve and use reasonably, responsibly and economically the resources we have and say we treasure. Perhaps we aspire to be another California? Couldn't be. This is My Minnesota, where Nature has her own concerns.

Landscape Survey

By John Brehm 

And what about this boulder,
knocked off the moutaintop and
tumbled down a thousand years ago

to lodge against the streambank,
does it waste itself with worry
about how things are going

to turn out? Does the current
slicing around it stop itself mid-
stream because it can't get past

all it's left behind back at
the source or up in the clouds
where its waters first fell

to earth? And these trees,
would they double over and
clutch themselves or lash out

furiously if they were to discover
what the other trees really
thought of them? Would the wind

reascend into the sky forever,
like an in-drawn breath,
if it knew it was fated simply

to sweep the earth of windlessness,
to touch everything and keep
nothing and be beheld by no one? 

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