“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it…I am haunted by waters.”
Norman Maclean, author of "A River Runs Through It"
Minnesota is blessed by water. In this state of 10,000 lakes and multiple streams and rivers, water is all around us and runs through us. Water stimulated the lumber, flour, agriculture, and tourist industries that helped shape the culture, economy, and people of the state. Water has made us who we are. Water is such an integral part of our state that it’s reflected in our name which comes from the Dakota word Mnisota meaning land of sky-tinted or clear water.
Minnesota’s abundance of clean water has lulled much of the public into taking our water legacy for granted. In public health we have not done that because our origins as a discipline float back to Dr. John Snow who found the source of cholera in the water from London's Broad Street pump. This led to the development of water sanitation systems that would halt the epidemic and change public health practice. Since then, much of the improvement in our overall health and well-being has been linked to efforts to protect and improve our water. However, after touring the state and learning about our aging water infrastructure, like Norman Maclean, I’m haunted by waters.
My concern about waters has steadily increased in intensity – not just because I’ve spent recent weeks and months working with our drinking water team to rectify some inconsistencies in our water sampling and testing procedures. While these deficiencies are serious and concerning, they are being quickly addressed and corrected by our dedicated staff and I’m convinced that they haven’t posed a significant threat to the health and safety of Minnesotans. Why I am particularly haunted today is that the waters necessary for our survival and well-being are threatened like never before.
I am haunted by the fact that most of the lakes and streams in southwest Minnesota have been deemed unsuitable for swimming or fishing because of pollution. I am haunted by the increasing threat of nitrates in Minnesota’s drinking water. I am haunted by what we are learning about the major human, animal, and environmental health impacts of the drought (haunted by the lack of water) in California. And, I am haunted by the tragedy playing out in Flint, Michigan where the degradation of their drinking water will affect the health and future of thousands of children.
What most haunts me is that our waters, in each of these situations, are being degraded and threatened by an economic and political climate in which financial considerations often trump health concerns and individual rights are protected at the expense of the community good; the antithesis of a public health approach.
Safe drinking water is essential for health and access to it should be considered a basic human right. That doesn’t mean that each individual or organization has the right to use water in any way he/she/it would like. Because it’s a community resource, the use of water beyond basic human needs is a privilege not a right. (Think “water privileges” rather than “water rights.”) And with that privilege comes the responsibility to use our finite water resources in a way that sustains and enhances the “commons” or the communal good.
Water and its use underscores the foundational public health principle of social justice – everyone should have their basic/essential needs met and, in addressing those needs, no one should benefit at the expense of others. The problems facing our waters today are because we have not consistently followed that principle in our use of water. That needs to change if we hope to thrive as a community/society.
Every individual and all sectors of our society like industry, agriculture, transportation, defense, energy, etc., must recognize the need to be good stewards of our water resources. All must embrace water-use practices that add to the overall health of our waters and the overall health of our community. The needs of the community must trump personal desires and business needs. And there needs to be some publicly accountable oversight to assure that this happens.
No one sector alone can protect our waters; all must be involved. As Norman Maclean wrote, “all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” It requires a “water in all policies” approach with healthy waters and social justice as the goal.
Minnesota's geography has blessed us with abundant waters. With that blessing comes the responsibility to protect the great waters that run through the veins of our state. Everyone (especially those of us in public health) should, like Dr. Snow, make the case to policy makers and our fellow citizens that contaminated water hurts us all and we ALL have a role in protecting the waters that run through us. Given the current threats, we should all be haunted by waters.