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Of “Water Wars” and water myths

December 31, 2012Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on Of “Water Wars” and water myths

DSC_9870“Water Wars” is the term increasingly being used to describe conflicts over water around the world as well as across the United States.  No longer just an issue for the arid West (although water shortages are a constant subject in the work of writers such as John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal and the blog Inkstain) water disputes have come to the Southeast and other parts of what Wallace Stegner referred to as the “humid east.”

Water wars are even coming to Minnesota.

How can that be?  Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and the “North Shore” of Lake Superior.  Going “up to the lake” is as ingrained in Minnesotans as Ole and Lena jokes.

Well, there are a lot of myths in those statements, and I’ll come back to that subject in a minute.  But evidence of water conflict in Minnesota erupted several weeks ago, when a group of citizens in White Bear Lake filed suit against the Minnesota DNR for allowing too much groundwater to be withdrawn from the vicinity of the lake, thereby causing a dramatic reduction in lake levels.

Coverage of the particular issues at play in the lawsuit can be found on Minnesota Public Radio,, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Deb Swackhamer of the University of Minnesota was featured on Minnesota Public Radio with a thoughtful analysis of the dispute.

John Fleck, one of the really smart people writing about water in the US these days, sees part of the problem as a need for better storytelling.  Our stories about ourselves, the myths, if you will, that allow us to make sense of ourselves, the world around us, and how we fit into it, make many assumptions that are based on assumptions of sufficient water.  Our refrigerators are stocked with good food, and we have sufficient clothes to go about our daily business as we like.  But often both food and clothes (especially cotton) are produced at the expense of drawing down water that has accumulated over centuries and millennia and is being expended in decades.

Put another way:  we imagine that we have enough water, and that the water quality is sufficient, to use it however we want whenever we want.

We may find out, and soon, that these are false assumptions.

Cynthia Barnett, whose piece in the Los Angeles Times was the spark for Fleck’s reflection, has written one of the best books available on the American mirage of water abundance.  Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis deserves a place on any short list of critically important water books.  If we want to avoid a future of chronis “water wars,” we would do well to heed her words.

Barnett is a journalist, which is an important point.  We have to hear from scientists and engineers, it is true, and from planners, designers, and policy makers also.  But science cannot tell us what we want, or ought to want; nor can engineering.  For that oh-so-elusive idea of what we “should” do, we have to turn back to those stories we tell ourselves, back to the work of journalist/storytellers like Fleck and Barnett, of artists like the University of Minnesota’s Christine Baeumler and others, of poets, educators, and all the rest of us who convey and elicit new ideas.



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