River Life has long had an interest and focus on the Mississippi River, particularly that stretch of the river in the Twin Cities that serves as our “home river.” For many and varied reasons, too long to go into in this post, we have recently begun seeing the Mississippi, both here and for its full length, as the heart of a water system that is central to the lives of everyone around it. Seeing the “river” as “water,” while self-evident to many, has pointed our work in new directions, with new inquiries, sources, and conceptual frames for analysis and learning.
One of those frames, which we think will be especially fruitful in ways we are still developing, is the “One Water” idea put forth by the US Water Alliance. From its web page, the Alliance says that “The US Water Alliance advances policies and programs that build a sustainable water future for all.” This is an ambitious mission, which requires a substantial reorientation from the siloed, sometimes antagonistic world of water work.
For example, industrial water users are not often thought of in the same administrative or management conversations as drinking water, or water for healthy ecosystems, or water for recreation. There are important historical reasons for this separation, and I want to be the last person to suggest that every water sector’s interests can magically be blended together in a H2O Kumbaya moment. Nevertheless, we are rapidly approaching a time when stresses on water systems will necessitate broadly cross-sector discussions about water that recognize its importance to the prosperity of a region and all of its inhabitants. I’m not sure how we’re going to get there, but the customary oppositional views toward competing water interests will have to change.
By contrast to the siloed approach, the US Water Alliance wants us to imagine “One Water,” an understanding that all water is connected, and that, since we now have all the water on earth that we are ever going to have, all water is valuable. In particular, the One Water approach is built on six pillars:
- Reliable and Resilient Water Utilities
- Thriving Cities
- Competitive Business and Industry
- Sustainable Agricultural Systems
- Social and Economic Inclusion
- Healthy Waterways
It is particularly encouraging to see issues of inclusion and of water health brought into conversation with agriculture and industry. Anyone who has worked on these matters for any length of time at all knows that these conversations are fraught, and that cooperation and collaboration are yet in the future. The important thing here, I think, is that the multiple sectors are brought together.
What does this do for us and our program? For one thing, it’s quite encouraging that the Alliance makes arts engagement a vital part of its work. In fact, I first heard of this group through our friends and colleagues at the Water Bar, a well-known community arts/water project in Minneapolis. For another, the One Water approach gives us space to go beyond the “usual” Mississippi River discussions on revitalized city riverfronts and enhanced river health to engage with questions of environmental and water justice. Those issues are specifically included in the six themes outlined above, and can be seen to permeate the others as well. Seeing our work through a lens of equity and justice is an important step.
For more on the US Water Alliance, see our article in Open Rivers, published last spring in advance of the summer 2018 conference in Minneapolis.