In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it can be easy to take water for granted — it is literally all around us, even more so in the rainy month of April.
But as the recent water crises in Flint, Michigan, and the state of California should remind us, the accessibility and quality of water can never be assumed, even in the United States in 2017.
There may be no known instances of systemic lead contamination in Minnesota water, nor are there major droughts on the horizon, but we face our own share of water challenges, from widespread water pollution to an inadequate water supply in too many rural communities.
As Benjamin Franklin once observed, “When the well is dry, we will know the value of water.” With a bit of foresight and ingenuity, though, we can take commonsense steps to protect our clean water supply now, so we need not discover its worth only when we no longer have it.
According to a 2015 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, half of the lakes and rivers in southern Minnesota are often so polluted that they are unsafe for swimming and fishing. Much of this pollution can be traced to phosphorus and manure in runoff from farmlands, and also from other chemicals such as detergent and road salt. These toxins flow into our lakes and rivers and can seep their way into the water supply.
To compound the problem, many communities in Greater Minnesota are already struggling to update their aging water treatment and supply systems, which can be prohibitively expensive to improve.
As a result, communities are forced to purchase hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from outside sources, doing nothing to increase their own water independence while depleting their ability to develop a long-term solution. This sort of financial burden places undue stress on the already-fragile economies of rural Minnesota.
These seemingly local issues carry with them statewide consequences. If water treatment systems are breaking down or are overwhelmed during heavy rains, polluted water can flow downstream toward our urban centers. If rural Minnesota can’t keep up with basic infrastructure needs, residents could seek greener pastures in other states. And, of course, if Minnesota’s lakes can’t stay clean, our state’s tourism industry and quality of life will be adversely affected.
Not just another commodity
Minnesotans might not be in any immediate danger of losing access to drinkable water. But given the essential role of water in so much of human life, as well as our obligations to future generations, any threat to our water supply must be taken seriously.
There’s a reason scientists look for signs of water as a prerequisite for the possibility of life on a foreign planet; there can be none without it. From a human perspective, clean water plays an integral part in nearly every aspect of our lives: We use it to clean ourselves and our clothing, grow and prepare our food, and provide hydration to our bodies. And Minnesotans, in particular, look to water as a medium for recreation.
The ubiquity of water in the most essential acts of human life makes it unlike any other substance. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms, “by its very nature, water cannot be treated as just another commodity among many.” Since water is needed for human flourishing, all human beings have an inalienable right to it, by virtue of our God-given dignity.
Our public policies and individual actions should contribute to the conditions in which all have access to clean, drinkable water, now and in the future. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in his address for World Water Day 2007, “The sustainable management of water [is] a social, economic, environmental and ethical challenge that involves not only institutions but the whole of society.”
Replenishing our supply
Thankfully, there are several public policy measures currently being considered at the Capitol that will help us to address our water worries in ways that are consistent with the principles of both subsidiarity and solidarity.
We can take steps to protect our waterways and limit the amount of pollution present in them through commonsense environmental protections, such as strengthening buffer strip requirements on public waters. We can also use our surplus budget prudently by providing grants to rural communities to update their water supply system, helping them reach a status of self-sufficiency. Finally, we can affirm, as a state, our commitment to providing clean, drinkable water to all Minnesotans.
These are solutions that come from all sides of the aisle, reflecting the reality that clean water isn’t a partisan issue, but is a policy goal toward which both political parties should work. Just as all ships rise with the tide, all Minnesotans will benefit with cleaner water and greater access to it.
Shawn Peterson is the associate director for public policy of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota.