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Seeing Water Differently: Underfoot and On Our Minds

June 26, 2013Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on Seeing Water Differently: Underfoot and On Our Minds

Water has been very much on our minds here in Minnesota recently, and, if three stories in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune are any indication, it’s also “underfoot,” as in “in the way,” “tripping us up.”  For some of us at least.

To start with the most recent news, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a report today suggesting that nitrogen levels in 27% of lakes and rivers in southern Minnesota are so high that the water bodies cannot be used as a source of drinking water.  For the most part, agricultural operations are the source of the excessive nitrogen, and PCA officials are quick to say that they don’t think farmers are deliberately over-applying fertilizer to their fields.  Nitrogen is expensive, after all.  Nevertheless, the polluted water is a problem and we appear to have some implicit conflict between two assumed “social goods”: inexpensively-produced food and readily available water.

Many water-oriented scientists see wetlands as significant buffers in a region’s water system, whether slowing water moving laterally across the ground or moving down into groundwater tables.  This brings us to the second bit of news,  a US Supreme Court decision in favor of a Florida landowner who had sued a water management district over what he perceived as heavy-handed mitigation requirements on development.  To put a complex issue (over) simply:  the St. John’s River Water Management District was in dispute with a landowner who wanted to develop wetlands.  The district asked for a reduced development; the landowner offered a conservation easement over part of the wetlands in question.  The sides did not agree, and the matter went to court.  As explained in the article, water conservationists fear that the ruling will leave them open to suits from developers and/or will encourage local governments just to go ahead and adopt development plans in wetlands by giving variances.  Either case is likely to have a harmful effect on the many benefits that accrue from healthy wetlands.

Among those many benefits are the reduction of flood potential.  Wetlands absorb water rather than have it run off quickly in heavy rain events.  The increased absorption and decreased water rolling into rivers and streams means that measures such as the 100 year flood plain (as delineated by FEMA) are potentially smaller.  But homeowners in suburban Edina MN were surprised to learn that a recent FEMA floodplain definition had put their homes within the 100 year floodplain, thereby complicating their insurance policies, perhaps hindering their ability to build, and otherwise making life difficult.  New flood plain maps sometimes show houses formerly in floodplains as no longer exposed also.  How can this happen?  Recalculating the area that has a 1% chance of flooding in any given year (the definition of a “100 year flood”) can find that nearby land use patterns and other changes causes the flood plain to move, sometimes substantially.

What’s the common thread here?  In all three of these cases, people are being asked to see water differently than they had been accustomed to.  Edina homeowners hadn’t thought of themselves as connected to water at all, unless they were thinking of their cabin “up north at the lake.”  For farmers concerned about nitrogen pollution, water is a medium for carrying excess materials off their lands, a process that connects them to their watershed in ways they may not have thought much about.

Solutions to these cases, per usual, are not really matters of more science or better science.  They are more likely matters of policy not yet coming into alignment with recent scientific understandings.  And policy, understood most broadly as the mandated will of the people, may be out of sync with the public’s understanding of its relation to water.  For most of us, water comes out of the tap when we turn it on.  That’s all we know and all we need to know.

Except when it isn’t.  We need to see water, and our relationship to it, better, so we aren’t as the Edina homeowners were, “surprised” when it comes into our lives in unexpected ways.


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