Last month, I asked if anyone would be interested in these, and after cutting my teeth on an article for my neighborhood's seasonal newsletter, I figured I'd try to do one for here- which has a much more... varied audience. I tried to make this internationally translatable so more people could interact with it, and I chose just a working title for now, it could change with feedback. Let me know what you think!
Water and Us: the Science of Mni Wiconi, Part 1
With the protests and legal challenges surrounding fracking (hydraulic fracture-mining), drought/flooding issues, and oil transport methods in North America, water-use and hydrology have become more prominent in political talk, but necessarily better-understood in regular conversation. Many people in the US only learn about water in middle- and high-school Earth Science class, and even then only in terms of the 'water cycle', where it's often mixed into weather coursework. But it's so much more than that.
To start, let's consider our most immediate relationships with water. Environmentally, we deal with two concepts: the watershed (in Europe commonly known as a drainage basin) and the water table. Simply put, the first is the area of land that is drained by a body of water, and the second describes how deep you would normally have to dig a hole before you found standing water (without wading into a stream or lake). Let's look at this first concept a little closer.
When it comes to a watershed or drainage basin, you live in at least one: yes, they overlap. As a rule of thumb, the further inland you live, the more watersheds you most likely live in. For instance, let's say you lived in Leeds, England. Directly downtown, you're not only in the drainage basin for the River Aire but also the Rivers Ouse and Humber as well; the water under the Neville Street bridge eventually drains into the North Sea, and does so by stages as happens in many other places. In North America, let's pick the little town of Laurelville, Ohio. The nearby Salt Creek (the most local watershed) drains into the Scioto River (the next regional watershed), which drains into the Ohio River (the next-next regional one), which then drains into the Mississippi River (the largest watershed in North America), which finally empties into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. That's a very long distance for that water to travel.
This overlap of districts makes for some big problems, however. Take the MN Pollution Control Agency's recent survey of the Upper Mississippi River, for instance: nearer the source between Lake Itasca and Grand Rapids, its waters are very clear and great for fishing and recreation, thanks to the protection it gets within several state forests and local Native American reservations. However, further down where the Crow River enters near Dayton, there are significant concentrations of phosphorus, nitrate, silt, and fecal bacteria from unbuffered farms, mining/industrial areas, and erosion. From Dayton to when it exits the Twin Cities region, the Mississippi picks up water from (in turn): the Rum River; Rice, Shingle, Bassett, and Minnehaha Creeks; the Minnesota River; the Pig's Eye Lake system; and finally the St. Croix and Vermillion Rivers- in addition to thousands of unnamed storm-drain pipes and ditches. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul rely on the Mississippi for their drinking water, like hundreds of other towns further downstream.
That's a lot to take in.
So why isn't water protection more of a concern? That's a very good question. One idea is that, because it's plentiful and so easy to get, it's easier to forget. Another is business interests: increased environmental protections would assumedly translate into higher costs for companies to do business, which might then translate into higher costs for consumers. Yet another is inconvenience: legislating tougher protections is complicated, expensive, and time-consuming, even if you're not a politician, and your efforts aren't even guaranteed to make any difference (and if you do effect change, you risk it all being reversed by future politicians, as is currently happening with threats to the EPA and MN's Air, Water, and Cultural Legacy Act). Still another is apathy: your family in Arizona isn't affected by the lead pollution in Flint, MI, so why should you care? There are countless others, but none change one simple fact: humans need water to survive.
If this is something people like, next article I want to touch on the water table and how it works with both the watershed and local soil. Thanks for reading!