Hard choices are ahead
As pictures of the Earth from space become common, many refer to our home as the Blue Planet, recognizing the blue waters which cover this fertile Earth. Our possibly unique and blessed planet is a gift we must acknowledge as we celebrate this holiday season of gifts.
In Genesis, humans receive dominion over the Earth’s creation. We are to care for the fish of the sea, and presumably for the seas 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. We are given the means to carry out these obligations. Our bodies, while not the strongest of all nature’s creatures, are the most flexible, and our minds are without peer.
In Minnesota, as everywhere, an essential natural asset is fresh water, produced from the salty ocean water by nature’s great distillery. Our state’s original resource endowment included large forests of virgin White Pine, substantial deposits of iron and other useful minerals, and deep layers of glacial soil enriched by the waters of our lakes, streams, and aquifers. Now those virgin forests are clear cut. Most of the iron is gone, leaving behind those empty pits. We must protect our remaining major natural asset, fertile soils and the waters which nourish them.
In Minnesota, a 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 system, and threatening the future of Lake Pepin. Volume from that drainage scours the fragile sandy river banks, sending millions of tons of sediment downstream, and much of it settles out, slowly filling Lake Pepin. Another ecosystem threat to water may come from climate change. We are already seeing a drier American west, placing the future of cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles in jeopardy. Those thirsty cities 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 cotton fields, then filling 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. Our population of 7 billion has to share the same water supply 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. Perhaps three billion people live in areas of high water stress. By 2025, water scarcity could cut world harvests by 30 percent, equivalent to all the grain grown in the US and India, even as human numbers increase. At the same time we are making a place at the dining table for millions of cars and trucks as they consume their diet of irrigation grown biofuels.
Our future will require some hard choices, including 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 time, to take seriously the responsibility for the earth that dominion gives us.
Rolf Westgard has homes in St. Paul and in the Deerwood area.