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If the Water Debate is “the lake or the lawn?” can Science Provide an Answer?

In Minnesota, water is practically the “state element.”  Going “up to the lake” is a much-cherished tradition for many people who have lived here for generations.  The park systems in Minneapolis and St. Paul focus on lakes, creeks, and the Mississippi River. The state’s (official?) tagline is “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”  There are many more parts to this phenomenon, but you get the idea.

So the recent debates about what to do about the fluctuating water level in White Bear Lake, showpiece of a northern St. Paul suburb, carry a great deal of resonance.  Unfortunately, the debate perhaps obscures as much as it clarifies.

A recent article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press posed the conflict as a dispute between “lawns and lakes,” highlighting a judge’s ruling that falling lake levels can be attributed to excessive groundwater withdrawal and that community wells within five miles of the lake restrict pumping when lake levels fall below a certain point.  During an extended dry period, then, communities might be forced to impose bans on lawn watering.

As a central character in Heart of Darkness, incidentally another water-centered tale, said: “The horror, the horror!”

 Minnesota Public Radio’s story on this controversy posed a more complicated issue.  The head of the local lake association is quoted, "Everybody's got an opinion, but science is science, and if you look at these studies, it's overwhelming. It's hard to argue against it.”  But a White Beal Lake City Council member DOES argue against it, saying "The science isn't good. It's not reliable."

It is unclear whether either of these two individuals is a trained scientist.

The comments point, though, to some broader patterns in our debates about water in particular and environmental or natural resources policies more broadly.  Typically, various sides on a controversy appeal to “science” as the foundation for their position.  Indeed, “science-based” is practically a necessary prefix for any complicated resource question, whether the scale is a regional lake or the question of the future of the entire planet.

On the whole, this is a good thing.  But it may be the case that we should have a broader and deeper knowledge of what "science” is and how it works, so public officials like the two quoted above can talk about the same thing, make an “apples to apples” comparison, as they say, rather than just picking the conclusions that suit their desired conclusions.

Something else we need, though, is a way to talk about the sciences of water with social and community goals being accounted for in a much more intentional and inclusive way.  The White Bear Lake debate continues a very long tradition of consigning water management problems to the realms of science, engineering, and policy, while ultimately, as water problems grow in scale and complexity, the debates about them will have to change also.  We like to think, or pretend, that problems with water are “objective,” and that there is an objective, rational solution to our water dilemmas. 

But problems of water are ultimately social and cultural issues: who gains and who loses from given decisions and investments? Our public conversations must be inclusive social and cultural debates that include, but are not limited to, scientists, engineers, and policy-makers.

In matters of water, perhaps “science” is a necessary but not sufficient basis for discussion, planning, and decision-making.

This will be the last River Talk blog post before a summer hiatus.  Look for more beginning in September!

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