Thursday, April 21, 2016

Water Action Week: Why a Water Ethic?

Even occasional readers of this blog are probably aware that I'm an unmitigated fan of Donella Meadows. I suspected she might have written some enlightening thoughts about water and water ethics. I was correct. If you want, take a moment and go read her essay: The Water is Someone’s Home. If you're pressed for time and just want to jump to her bottom line, here's what she writes about why we need a Water Ethic as well as water ethics.
"If we could see a watershed fully, we’d understand that a mine or clearcut at the headwaters is likely to bring down silt or poisons or floods upon the whole river. We’d never build on floodplains. We’d put a high value on wetlands for cleaning water, absorbing floods, postponing droughts, supplying fisheries. We would know that our water use exacts a cost, whether or not the market gives it a price, so we wouldn’t use water for trivial purposes. We would be utterly careful about what it contains when it leaves us. We’d treat water with as much reverence as our own blood, because that’s actually what it is — the lifeblood of the planet and of all the creatures that live here, including ourselves."
Basins in Minnesota
Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, 10 major river basins and 80 major watersheds, does not treat water with reverence! I've reached that conclusion based on last year's legislation that eliminated the independent citizen's board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, as described in Hannah Sayle's City Pages article, Big Ag is conquering Minnesota like a noxious, unkillable weed. I've reached that conclusion based on proposals by public agencies and the Minnesota Legislature to needlessly and expensively pump Mississippi River water into White Bear Lake. I've reached that conclusion based on the fact that Minnesota has, and has had for some time, a Water Sustainability Framework that seems to me to be conspicuous largely by its absence in legislative and executive strategies to "protect and serve" as guardians of Minnesota's water resources. Read the 2013 three year status report from the Water Resources Center.

St. Louis River entering Lake Superior at Duluth Harbor
St. Louis River entering Lake Superior at Duluth Harbor
Photo by J. Harrington

I believe I'm seeing, in almost every sector in Minnesota, massive failure to intrinsically value our water resource, a resource that is home to many fellow Minnesotans, depended on by all our flora and fauna. That makes me wonder why I should consider taking shorter showers, or turning off the water when I brush my teeth, or install a rain garden, or wash my car on the grass or fix a leaky faucet. Minnesota treats water as no more than a cheap commodity, except as it enhances property values as a "water feature" or an attraction for tourist anglers at places like Mille Lacs. We exhibit behaviors comparable to eating the seed corn or burning down the house to stay warm in Winter. We do need a Water Ethic, but it shouldn't start with citizen conservation. It needs to be based on our Water Sustainability Framework, which, if it hasn't been officially, needs to be adopted by the legislature, and actively used in decision-making by the executive agencies. Perhaps Governor Dayton could start by forming, if he hasn't already, a Water Cabinet, with representatives from each Minnesota government entity with responsibilities affecting or affected by water and from each of the state's Native American tribes. Otherwise, many Minnesotans may feel very foolish conserving water that's going to supply the next upstream CAFO or precious metals mine.We can create jobs protecting and restoring our environment and greening our economy but we need to stop trying to win a race to the bottom.


By Ralph Waldo Emerson

The water understands
Civilization well;
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Elegantly destroy.

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