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Hard choices ahead regarding water

As Christmas approaches, we need to acknowledge God’s gift of creation, the natural bounty afforded to us on this remarkable planet. This great gift carries important obligations.

In Genesis, the Lord grants humans dominion over all creation. We must care for the fish of the sea, and presumably the sea in which the fish live; for the fowl of the air and the atmosphere in which the fowl live; and for every living thing that moves upon the Earth and its waters. We are given the means to carry out this obligation. Our bodies, while not the strongest of all nature’s creatures, are by far the most flexible, and our brains are without peer.

In Minnesota, as everywhere, perhaps the most important of these natural assets is fresh water. Our state’s original resource endowment included large forests of virgin White Pine, one of world’s major deposits of rich iron ore, and deep layers of glacial soil nourished by the waters of our lakes, streams, and aquifers. Now those forests are clear cut. Most of the iron ore is gone, leaving behind those empty pits. It is essential that we protect our remaining major natural asset, fertile top soils and the waters which nourish them.

A new Minnesota study pinpoints agriculture — specifically, half a century of artificial field drainage — as the primary force behind the massive runoff of soil sediment that is adding pollution to the Mississippi River and threatening the future of Lake Pepin.

Volume from that drainage scours the fragile, sandy banks, of both the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, sending millions of tons of sediment downstream, where it settles out in Lake Pepin.

Another ecosystem threat to water comes from climate change. Many scientists believe that one of the first effects of global warming will be a drier American west, placing the future of cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles in jeopardy. Those thirsty cities of the west are starting to look east at the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River for water.

This is fostering a disturbing vision, the image of a great pipeline which begins in Lake Superior. Like a giant flexible straw, it snakes its way west to irrigate parched Arizona golf courses and Los Angeles swimming pools. Although the pipeline is not practical, the bad dream persists, concluding with Lake Superior becoming a giant replica of those empty mine pits on the Iron Range.

The Earth, a watery oasis in the dry vastness of space, has a finite stock of water. The world’s population of 7 billion people has to share the same quantity as the 300 million people who were here at the time of Christ. In addition, the growing aspirations of the undeveloped world are increasing water use per person. As ecologist Lester Brown reports, nearly 3 billion people now live in areas of high water stress. By 2030, water scarcity could cut world harvests by 30 per cent — equivalent to all the grain grown in the US and India – even as human numbers and appetites increase. At the same time we are making a place at the dining table for millions of cars and trucks to consume their diet of irrigation grown biofuels.

Our future will require some hard choices like fees and taxes which raise water’s price. This will motivate conservation and make expensive technology like desalination of sea water effective. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that with a higher price, California could save 7 million acre feet per year from conservation, groundwater cleanup and storm water recycling. There is still time — but not much — to take seriously the responsibility for the earth that dominion gives us.

ROLF WESTGSARD is a resident of Deerwood and a professional member of the Geological Society of America. He teaches energy subjects for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program.