Building relationships — and a water ethic — that we can all live with

notes from one of the breakout groups I attended about investing in water quality

I’ll admit up front that when it comes to Minnesota water, I have a conflict of interest: Water has been sustaining my life for 34 years.

I drink Minnesota water. My mother and father have been drinking water all of their lives, and their parents did too, so I guess you could say that drinking water is a tradition in our family.

Most of my family drinks well water in Aitkin County, which is in north central Minnesota. I live in Minneapolis, so I’m more of a “city water” person now. For me, it’s Mississippi River to tap. I love drinking water so much that my husband and I are opening a bar just to share water with other people.

But I don’t just drink Minnesota water, I also use it to do other things. I eat food that was grown using water, and use energy that it took water to create. I rely on products manufactured with water. I take showers, wash my clothes, keep my dishes clean (most of the time), and I flush the toilet. I live in an apartment, so I don’t water the grass, but the management does.

You might be wondering, “How long has she had this relationship with water?” Well, it started when I was very young — in the womb, in fact. Did you know that our bodies are made mostly of water?

When I learned about the Governor’s Water Summit, I got very excited. I thought to myself, “Finally, a gathering for people like me—people whose lives also depend on water.” There are a lot of us. We were going to need a very big room.

As it happened, the room was big, and so were expectations. This was the first time a Governor in Minnesota had invited so many people with different ideas and priorities to meet with common cause, and to learn from one another, imagining a collective future around something that matters to all of our lives. It was, importantly, open to the public.

An estimated 800 people signed up, and as one of those 800, I felt a responsibility to advocate on behalf of the 5.4 million other water drinking Minnesotans who did not get a ticket.

I was there as a self-interested water drinker and advocate, but I was also there to listen and learn: Who else is passionate about water? How do they talk about their relationship to water, and why water matters? What are they doing about it, and what can I do?

As I approached the conference hotel, the first thing I noticed were activists staging a protest just outside the doors. They held a banner declaring their belief that we should not build any new oil pipelines through Minnesota. I smiled, they smiled back, and soon we were chatting.

I know that in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change (which include impacts on water) we need to try keep as much oil as we can in the ground, so we aren’t tempted to burn it, making things worse. But what else do pipelines have to do with water? I asked, and the people holding the banner explained that the proposed route for one of the new Enbridge oil pipelines would put it directly through an area of Minnesota where lakes and rivers are still quite healthy, and important for food, recreation, tribal sovereignty, the economy, and quality of life—and of course, drinking water (that route also would take it through Aitkin County, where my family still lives, and as I mentioned, they drink water).

In much of Minnesota, water quality is no longer a given. Lakes, rivers, and even groundwater are imperiled, and continue to be negatively impacted by human activities like land use for farming, food production, and urban development. At the MN Water Summit I learned that the vast majority of attendees were there to discuss precisely this conundrum, but with a focus on solutions rather than problems.

We need water for almost everything we make, consume, or do, including our own survival and health. The issue is not who needs water (we all do) or for what purpose (nearly every purpose), the issue is that even in the land of 10,000 lakes there is only so much water, and it’s preferable for life and living if we keep it clean. The real questions, if we’re being honest, seemed to be: How much pollution and overconsumption will we tolerate? How will we meet these goals? Who decides and who pays for it?

In his opening remarks, Governor Dayton mentioned the need for a “water ethic” — and that’s what we were doing at the MN Water Summit, and what we need to be doing in all of our communities. Together, we were building relationships with each other (and with water) while defining a common water ethic for Minnesota — hopefully, it will be one that we can all live with.

It might be helpful to start with a question: How do we know what we know about water?

Well, there are a few ways (I’ll get to that), one of them is scientific research. Fortunately, researchers were an important part of the MN Water Summit (and some of the most prolific commentators on Twitter). They ask great questions, that’s part of their job as scientists, and I heard some of them asking how we can help more people understand what research can — and can’t — tell us about water.

I’m an artist, so I ask questions too. Here is a question I like a lot: Who cares for water? Or, put another way, How do you relate to water?

I heard a lot of people at the MN Water Summit talking about water as though it was a substitute for money, another transaction to be made and accounted for on the way to a strong economy (which we should know by now, is often an economy that works very well for very few, and less and less well for the rest of us).

If we treat water like we treat money, does that mean that those who have more wealth and influence will also have access to more water, to do with it what they please, on their own behalf, or on ours? I don’t own any land or have much wealth, nor do I know the Governor, so I’m hoping that we will find another more equitable way of imagining our relationship to water, our water ethic.

That is not to say we shouldn’t value water, but we should probably ask how the economy can work better for more people before we subject water to its whims.

I heard a lot of people at the MN Water Summit talking about the value of water, and I got the sense that they actually meant something much more elemental than the dollars and cents of economic development. They were asking, in various ways, what is the value of healthy resilient ecosystems?

We value water because we know we need it, and because we know (or should know) that our relationship to water matters. For some, it even has spiritual significance.

In my opinion, there was not enough talk at the MN Water Summit about what we can learn from those people in our midst who see water as sacred, especially indigenous people, whose relationship to water in Minnesota goes back much farther than the State of Minnesota itself.

There were native people at the MN Water Summit. A few appeared on stage during the Governor’s opening remarks to ask why there were no native speakers on the official program. That’s another great question. Had there been, what would have been different?

I do know there were many indigenous leaders who chose to attend the MN Water Summit — and not just as protesters, but also thinking and advocating and building the relationships and networks we will all need in order to make sure our water is treated in ways that are sustainable and equitable, and I’d also add, ethical. Cared for, not just about.

One thing I’ve learned from the indigenous people I know (and many environmental scientists too) is that this paradigm shift — from seeing water as simply a resource, to seeing it as a matter of relationships — is the critical perceptual shift we all need to be making right now.

With that in mind, the question to ask isn’t whose problem (or even whose responsibility) water is. The day began from the assumption that water is everyone’s responsibility. Unfortunately, this seemingly simple statement masks the truth of the matter: We all relate to water, we value it for different reasons, and the harm done to water impacts the lives of some people and communities more than others. For some, pollution has actually become profitable. For others, it means sickness and death.

If the line-up of spokespeople at the MN Water Summit is any indication, those who value water primarily for the money it can earn them and their company seem to have priority when it comes to decisions about the future of our relationships to water, our water ethic. Should that be the case?

If the attendees at the summit are an indicator of who feels compelled to advocate for a different view, then we are off to a great start. It was an engaged and passionate crowd, filled with dedicated people who seemed truly ready to talk collaboration and solutions.

There were, however, many other perspectives that seemed to be missing or minimized. There was little planned discussion about education and engagement around water, for example, though it came up in breakout conversations again and again. There was plenty of talk about how water quality is important to us all, but little mention of specific water-related issues facing low-income people, communities of color, or others who have been historically marginalized, even by progressive eco-minded types. These constituencies are more vulnerable when it comes to water problems like pollution and scarcity, extreme weather events, or the price of water.

If this becomes a regular event, I trust the organizers will consider feedback from those who attended, and those who couldn’t attend — so please use the available tools to share your thoughts.

I know I will, because my life depends on it.

-Shanai Matteson, Collaborative Director, Works Progress Studio