We are all between roughly 60% and 70% water, but we don’t spend 60% to 70% of our time protecting water. We spend far less than 60% to 70% of our time even thinking about it.
That all changes when the water around us runs low, as it did in much of Minnesota earlier this year, before spring rains partially replenished our aquifers, streams and lakes. It also changes when we see the startling news from California of record-shattering drought, which some scientists say will become the new normal there.
Wise stewards don’t wait for a crisis to think, let alone act.
So is Minnesota doing right by its water, conserving enough that our needs and those of fish, wildlife, wetlands and other natural resources we treasure are met?
Yes and no.
Minnesota has some of the region’s most evolved water conservation laws, requiring state approval for major new or increased water withdrawals. Although under attack at times, a law requiring municipalities to adopt water conservation pricing structures – charging more per unit as use increases – taps into the most powerful conservation incentive, cost.
But these policies alone don’t insure proper care of water quantity. In localized areas of the state, water is scarce enough – and overused enough – that conflicts are arising. And a changing climate could worsen that.
Water sharing may ultimately be required among farmers and businesses. Homeowners could face lawn watering bans. Southwest Minnesota is particularly challenged due to heavy irrigation and a naturally limited supply. (Southwest Minnesota has another water problem. Only 1 in 93 stream sections in southwest Minnesota studied by the state Pollution Control Agency is swimmable. No lakes in that region are.)
But the Twin Cities metro area is far from exempt. Deb Swackhamer, the former director of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center, recently noted that continued population and water use increases usage trends could bring significant shortages to the metro as early as the year 2030.
It’s possible additional legislation and public spending will be necessary to quiet them. But should they be necessary?
What about our duty as individuals and collectives – communities and corporations – to nurture and carefully husband water? Whether turning off the tap while brushing our teeth or turning off the irrigation pumps when it’s raining, the job of conservation is more than a statutory requirement.
“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water,” said Loren Eiseley. But maybe we can summon another kind of magic and put in place not just policies, but traditions that assure there is always ample water for all of Minnesota’s living things.