A Drop of Ink
It’s a slow-motion disaster, but one that is already having an impact on our lives. It will prove far more disastrous for our children, grandchildren, and generations long into the future. You wonder what they will think of us.
Environmental stewardship is among the Blandin Foundation’s nine dimensions of a healthy community. “The community supports the environmental quality and management of natural resources that best provide for a sustainable future,” it says. “All segments of the community recognize the need for environmental management. The community is aware that it must decide between competing long- and short-term uses of its natural resources.”
We face significant difficulties in ensuring our communities pursue healthy environmental stewardship. If we fail to address those difficulties, rural Minnesota will become a less attractive and supportive place to live.
Starting in southern Otter Tail County, the Chippewa River Watershed expands to include western Douglas and eastern Grant counties, and then travels south into Stevens and Pope counties. It has much of Swift County. It then takes in parts of Chippewa County before its waters flow into the Minnesota River.
Hundreds of lakes, rivers, creeks, and sloughs make up the watershed, providing habitat for wildlife from fish to fireflies, to birds, bees and butterflies, and furry creatures of all kinds.
A recent Minnesota Pollution Control Agency list of impaired waters includes too many in our watershed. Common impairments include:
- Mercury levels limit our fish consumption. Mercury is toxic to humans and animals. It affects the human nervous system, particularly in young children and fetuses.
- Nutrients that grow algae. Excess phosphorus feeds algae growth making water less attractive for swimming and degrading water quality that fish, bugs, wildlife, and aquatic plants need to thrive. It fuels toxic blue-green algal blooms harmful to people and pets.
There is also a new threat in Minnesota waters with increasing frequency – PFAS – forever chemicals that are harmful to all life and don’t go away.
We are the Land of Sky-Blue Waters and 10,000 lakes. Our water resources seem unlimited. That assumption has proven false. In rural Minnesota, aquifers provide water for our cities, rural residents, businesses and industries, and irrigate crops. It is not an unlimited resource.
As America’s population grows past 325 million and its farmers try to feed a world population that now exceeds 7.7 billion, groundwater resources are heavily stressed.
“The sprawling Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains provides freshwater for roughly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cattle, and cotton in the United States. But key parts of the underwater aquifer are being depleted faster than they can be recharged,” Brad Plumer wrote in The Washington Post in 2013. Things have gotten worse since then.
“That raises a question: How long before those areas in decline run out of groundwater for farming?” he asks. That question will be asked with increasing frequency in rural Minnesota in the decades to come.
As we punch more holes in our aquifers, we create an increasing number of direct lines for pollutants to seep into our water, posing a danger to our health. Already in Minnesota, there are aquifers polluted by concentrations of nitrates.
We already have to assess the capacity of our aquifers as we consider future economic development.
As the world’s population grows, we need to produce more food, find more water, produce more goods, build more homes, and provide more energy for those homes. More land is stripped of habitat and plowed under to meet those demands.
“Currently, the global population is cutting down trees faster than they regrow, catching fish faster than the oceans can restock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them and emitting more climate-warming carbon dioxide than oceans and forests can absorb,” the Living Planet report says.
As the world population grows, resources will become scarcer. As the earth warms, some places will become uninhabitable. Crops that sustained people won’t grow because it has become too hot and dry. As a result, the flow of refugees fleeing war and persecution will swell with climate refugees seeking food and water.
Some of the smallest creatures among us are vital to our survival, but we have ignored their health for decades. We continue to do so at the risk of worldwide famine.
In 2019, Minnesota named the rusty patched bumblebee the state bee to bring attention to the importance of pollinators in our ecosystems. Bees are essential to crop pollination. They have been dying in large numbers due to our use of insecticides and habitat destruction.
“The richness and diversity of life on Earth is fundamental to the complex life systems that underpin it,” Marco Lambertini, director-general of World Wildlife Fund for Nature, says. “Life supports life itself, and we are part of the same equation. Lose biodiversity and the natural world and the life support systems, as we know them today, will collapse.”
What can we do?
We can do little things in our own backgrounds to improve our environment. Plant gardens attractive to pollinators and reduce the chemicals you use that could harm pollinators. Don’t dump unused pharmaceuticals down the drain. Farmers can leave small parts of their fields for nature and use innovative technology for crop irrigation.
We can also encourage our members of the Minnesota Legislature and the U.S. Congress to support programs and laws that protect the environment and habitat. We can donate to organizations that work to preserve habitat.
There is economic development opportunity in the environmental challenges we face. Solar and wind power represent not only a clean source for electricity in the future but also a growing job-producing industry. We can produce natural gas from agricultural and livestock waste.
Through improvements to our landscape and natural environment, we can attract new residents to our communities. And, we will leave our children a healthier world.