Losing water

Black water from a farmer’s faucet near Willmar, receding water in White Bear Lake, and a dry city well in Hibbing were among the danger signs cited in a recent Star Tribune article on Minnesota’s water. In the land of ten thousand lakes, we are losing water.

Tiling efficiently drains excess water from wetlands, turning them into more-profitable farm fields. Tiles direct the water to rivers that carry it off to the Gulf of Mexico. Back in 1990, I wrote:

Millions of acres of wetlands have been drained since 1970.  Eighty percent of Minnesota’s prairie potholes are gone.  National figures are equally bleak.  From farmers draining wetlands for cornfields to developers filling them in for housing and “development,” to the Army Corps of Engineers, we have permanently drained more than half of the wetlands which once existed in the United States. …

Wetlands protect the water in our lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers.  They act as a natural filter, removing pollution before it reaches the groundwater.  In the case of fertilizer or manure run-off, plant-rich wetlands can use up the nutrients which would otherwise pollute lakes and streams.  In addition, they reduce stream sedimentation by reducing runoff.

Flood control is another important wetland function.  Acting like sponges, swamps and marshes soak up excess water, releasing it slowly as the land around them dries out.  This sponge effect also enhances subsoil moisture.

Still true. (And for more on how drainage disrupts the water cycle, see this article on drainage and row-cropping or the Troubled Waters series in the Daily Planet.

Irrigation also drains groundwater reserves. The Strib article summarizes:

High-capacity irrigation wells are also sprouting all over central and western Minnesota. In 2010, only 2 to 3 percent of the state’s cropland was irrigated, but that alone used 29 percent of water pumped out of Minnesota’s ground that year. But in 2012, the state received nearly 200 irrigation permit requests, with another 200 expected this year — two to three times the norm, DNR officials said.

Other serious drains on Minnesota water include taconite and ethanol production. Frac sand mining would also require large amounts of water.

These are state issues, but water flows freely across political boundaries.

Around the world, reports the Christian Science Monitor, “global population growth, pollution, and climate change are shaping a new view of water as ‘blue gold.’” The characterization reflects not only water shortages around the world but also corporate plans to privatize and sell water on national and international markets.

Shiney Varghese at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy wrote recently about the burgeoning water trade and the “global water grab,” citing article after article that demonstrate the expansion of water markets:

The financial industry has also zeroed in on water. In the summer of 2011, Citigroup issued a report on water investments. The much quoted statement by Willem Buiter (chief economist at Citigroup) gives an inkling of Citigroup’s conclusion: “Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.”

So, on the one hand, we are wasting our water by agri-business and industrial uses that send it down the rivers. And, on the other hand, “[t]he new ‘water barons’—the Wall Street banks and elitist multibillionaires—are buying up water all over the world at unprecedented pace.”

Who decides where our water goes? Who referees the conflicting claims of wells for drinking water, agricultural irrigation and industrial uses?

California has enacted a state policy saying that every resident has a right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water. National and international water policies are also under consideration.

I don’t know all the details of what those policies should contain, but I think it’s time to pay more attention to water issues and policies, at local, state, national and international levels. One place to start: two bills before the Minnesota legislature right now, focusing on studying Minnesota’s aquifers.

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