Water a powerful, yet also fragile, force that can change without notice
Wednesday, January 18, 2017 8:26 AM
Water/Ways, a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, is on view in Lanesboro through Feb. 19. The exhibit attempts to reveal the central nature of water in our lives by exploring how we relate to water.
Water/Ways takes a look at how we use water, how water unites communities, how water affects every element of life and how we care for and protect this valuable resource. The interactive story collection exhibit does this through many unique methods, including a water blessing, a water bar, an art exhibit, a theatrical performance, science talks, historical presentations and even a bass fish snow sculpture.
Water may bring contemplation, but it isn’t often something we really think about as it is everywhere, yet it is also invisible, thus often hidden until it becomes a problem. We don’t really notice it in our environment until it comes down in the form of freezing rain, as it did Monday, or when it floods, which was a problem last year for many in the area, or when drinking water goes bad due to pollution.
My first experience in really understanding the complexity of water happened at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. The beautiful campus is located on the shores of Green Bay.
After living in student housing the first year, I shared a house right on the water. It was fun to sit on the shore in the evening, mesmerized by the expanse of water.
However, it soon sunk in that there were no people fishing on the water and no recreational activities such as water skiing or even swimming. One time I took a canoe on the water and the paddles kept hitting huge carp, apparently the only fish living in the water, at least that close to the city of Green Bay.
I found out that Bay Beach used to be a popular swimming area in the city on the bay, but it was closed in the 1940s, one of the first beaches in the nation shut down due to pollution.
The Fox River, which drains into Green Bay, was home to the largest concentration of paper mills in the world. One reason was because it was home to the cheapest waste disposal system an industry could ask for — the river. The mills simply pumped their waste and byproducts into the Fox River as did many other manufacturers and businesses, including canning factories.
Not only did it kill the bay for recreation, the city of Green Bay had to pump its drinking water from Lake Michigan 30 miles away.
The scenic bay, which is the world’s largest freshwater estuary, showed little obvious indication of its toxic nature underneath the shimmering surface.
Today, the bay still looks much the same, but the water has improved significantly, due in part to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
While the industrial polluters have been removed, the bay still has challenges. Over time, increased agriculture and urbanization have led to environmental degradation from rain and snowmelt runoff carrying non-point pollutants into the bay.
However, various groups are working together as partners to work on these problems and already some more success is evident in this area as well. More fish live in the waters, but there is still the danger of eating them due to past industrial contamination.
Green Bay is an extreme example of how water can change below the surface without notice until people wake up one day and find the public beach has been closed or hear warnings have been issued about the consumption of fish.
Southeastern Minnesota doesn’t have a large expanse of water, but water is just as important here, perhaps more so. The Smithsonian exhibit provides plenty of examples of how water has defined our area.
The exhibit is a fun presentation with art, music and stories among other things. The tone is positive.
However, we can’t ignore the problems we’ve had here. Although they don’t rival Green Bay, we have had toxic chemical leaks from an industrial landfill, fish kills and contaminated wells. The Root River is still being monitored for mercury in fish tissue.
At the same time, we’ve also come a long way in the past few decades. We know more about the fragile karst topography, which doesn’t filter surface water as it makes its way into our groundwater supplies. We also know more about interconnectedness since a river may go underground for miles and appear in an entirely new location.
Because water is so fluid, moving all the time, solutions are complex. It takes a combination of scientific inquiry, cooperation and regulation to ensure our most important resource remains pure.
The problem is science has become politicized and doesn’t hold high regard among many people. Confrontation is often more admired than cooperation. And, regulations are seen by others as burdens on our economy.
Let’s hope we can rise above these trends to protect our most precious resource. If you want to see how water is a vital part of our history, identity and culture, make sure to head to Lanesboro before Feb. 19.