Not a drop to drink
Aug. 15, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

Now, I’m not the sort of person who goes around hugging trees. Not because I dislike trees; we curmudgeons just aren’t that demonstrative in public. It does seem, however, that based on recent news reports, our wanton disregard for the environment is going to get us into trouble one of these days.

It has been decades since we first saw the iconic image on TV of that Native American gentleman shedding a tear as he watched people abusing the landscape, but instead of becoming better stewards of the environment, we have, in some cases, become worse.

A recent Star Tribune story referenced a new study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

According to the report, the amount of nitrogen released into the Mississippi River by Minnesota and Wisconsin increased by 75 percent between 1980 and 2008.

During the same period, the levels of nitrates (nitrogen dissolved in water) at the other six monitoring sites along the Mississippi remained steady.

Water at Clinton, IA, the northernmost of the USGS monitoring sites on the river, comes primarily from the major tributaries in Minnesota and Wisconsin, including the Minnesota and St. Croix rivers.

That is the site at which the elevated levels were measured.

Nitrogen in the Mississippi contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is currently the size of Connecticut, making it one of the largest polluted areas in the world.

The level of nitrogen and phosphorus in the river has not improved during the period studied.

On the same day as this story was published, another story appeared addressing another water quality issue.

Apparently, the Department of Energy hopes new recommendations from an energy panel will help restore the public’s trust in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

This, of course, presumes that the public trusted the process in the first place, which is less than certain.

Fracking is the process used to extract natural gas from dense layers of shale that are deep underground.

Drillers pump large amounts of water, as well as chemicals and sand, into the shale to extract the gas.

There are, of course, two sides to the story, but it sounds like a fracking mess.

Supporters say this will allow companies to extract more natural gas from old gas fields and will supply needed energy for the country.

Critics, including some who live near the wells, claim the process releases methane (and possibly toxic chemicals) into water supplies.

The panel’s recommendations included measurement and disclosure, including sampling water supplies before and after the fracking process to monitor changes.

The panel also recommended that companies disclose what chemicals they are using in the fracking process, but, according to the story, the industry has resisted this, citing “trade secrets.”

Having a cavalier attitude about our water supply is not a formula for our survival, or that of the rest of the living things on the planet.

Energy is important, but we can’t drink oil or gas (I imagine it would taste pretty nasty, even if we could).

We have to find a way to balance our insatiable thirst for gas and oil with our fundamental thirst for water.

Agriculture is important, but it seems that a sustainable approach is also important.

A sustainable approach to other areas of activity also seems prudent.

For example, do we need subdivisions that look like golf courses? Is it necessary to dump tons of fertilizer on lawns to make them grow faster, thereby creating more runoff of chemicals into water supplies and requiring more energy to mow them more often?

We have made incredible advances in technology and other areas, but sometimes it seems like our attitude toward the environment hasn’t changed for generations.

We can’t keep destroying one area and moving on to another. We will eventually run out of space.

It has been demonstrated that even bodies of water as large as the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and the oceans are more fragile than we once assumed.

There are consequences to our actions, and, based on the reports referenced above, we may be drifting in the wrong direction.

There are resources available, and even financial incentives for those who take steps to improve water quality.

People at soil and water districts, lake associations, and other agencies concerned with water quality, practically fall over themselves in their eagerness to share information about how water can be improved.

They just need someone to listen – and act.

On the other hand, we could ignore the warnings, in which case we better get used to the idea of doing what Arizona, California, and now, Texas (as well as some other countries) have been doing – converting sewage into drinking water.

So much for the Land of Sky Blue Waters.

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