No Water Flows In—It All Flows Out

By: Britt Gangeness, previous MAEE Board Member

–Britt Gangeness coordinates and develops outreach and education projects at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). She has been working with the Minnesota Humanities Center on the Smithsonian Water/Ways project since 2014 and was thrilled to see the exhibit hit the streets this summer.

Minnesota has a very unusual geographic position. We sit atop a triple, continental-scale water divide, a divide that sends water north to the Hudson, east to the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Almost all of our water comes to our state as rain or snow.

This means we are not receiving polluted water from a state with lower environmental standards. But it also means we have a responsibility to keep water clean—for our communities and for other states and nations.

Whoa, that’s a big responsibility. How are we doing?

There is a scientific answer, based on numbers and data compared to water quality standards. But there is also a community answer, which is comprised of the voices of people who care about that place and live in that place.

On June 25, the Smithsonian Water/Ways tour opened in Spicer, Minnesota. The exhibit draws upon science and the humanities to explore water and what it means to Minnesotans—exploring water from scientific, historical, and cultural perspectives.

Through my work on the project, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about water quality from my MPCA colleagues, listen to interviews of people from the six tour sites, and collect images of the special places they describe. Now I don’t just think of regional water quality trends. I think of people—THESE people. And I smile, because there are an awful lot of people out there who care about all the little plants, and animals, and flow rates, and smell of the mud, and the places where loons nest (to name a few of the many things they care about). They treasure the special events in their lives that happened in and around the water.

That’s one of the strengths of the humanities, I think. We understand things in a new way. We bring people to the table that might not usually sit down together. In our case, we build common awareness about water, help create a shared vision for clean water, and inspire broader participation in that future.

To ensure that Minnesota’s fish are safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our lakes are safe for swimming, we need to do a better job. Decades of monitoring and studying watersheds gave us scientific answers to water quality. Now we must bring this data alongside the voices of the people who care about and live in Minnesota to realize our clean water future.

The Smithsonian Water/Ways project is a start and I’m excited to see what bubbles to the surface during the Minnesota tour!

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