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Water Sustainability in the 21st Century: the Minnesota Approach

August 30, 2010Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on Water Sustainability in the 21st Century: the Minnesota Approach

The sustainability of water is a dauntingly complex challenge.  Biological and physical systems intersect human systems in multiple, complex ways that almost serve as the definition of a “wicked” problem.  (For a good quick summary of the term “wicked problems” see the Wikipedia entry).  And now I am going to have to explain to my students why Wikipedia is not a sufficient source for their term papers; but that’s another story.

In 2009, the Minnesota Legislature asked for a broad-reaching, comprehensive report on the future of Minnesota’s water supply and what long term issues the state faces.  It’s important to note that Minnesota, the “land of 10,000 lakes,” home to over 90,000 miles of rivers and streams, and located at the junction of three of the continent’s most significant water systems–the Red River, the Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes, is a “water rich” state.  We should never have to worry about the quality and quantity of our water supplies, right?


Alabama, Georgia, and Florida are locked in a regional policy and legal battle that will have a substantial impact on future growth, development, and sustainability in the southeastern sections of the country.  Everyone has known that the American West has long had water problems, but the South is a new “front” in this conflict.  We in the Midwest would be wise to start understanding our water situation very clearly now, against the day when any of a number of plausible scenarios dramatically affect our region’s water.

In an op-ed column published last Saturday, University of Minnesota researcher Deborah Swackhamer offers a summary overview of work to date on the development of the new Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework.  She makes a number of important points, asking us to think about groundwater as a bank account, where we really should understand the balance and how it is replenished before we just make willy-nilly withdrawals.

But it is one of her final points that has struck me most forcibly:  She argues that “there’ll be a dramatic cultural shift in the way we think about our water supply and our personal water use.”  This notion of a cultural shift, with its parallel understanding that the stories we tell each other (and ourselves) and the images we hold of ourselves will have to shift, is often overlooked in our thinking about water.  Water sustainability is not just a matter of science and policy; it also requires new stories, new senses of community, and new visions.


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