Monday, March 30, 2009

A Great Correction? Musings on Sandra Postel's Water Ethic

Lake Superior lines a part of the horizon I see out my north-facing window. Looking at such a vast expanse of water, it's sometimes hard to grasp that an even vaster expanse of the world is what water policy expert Sandra Postel calls "water stressed." Close to a billion human beings, and likely higher numbers from other species, do not have access to the water they need to survive and thrive.

After Postel spoke last week at Michigan Tech, I went online to quote her water ethic: "Provide all living things with enough water before some get more than enough." It's obviously not an ethic our society now lives by.

My posting got a response from former schoolmate Tim Tynan, who wrote: "Too late to follow that advice for salmon in the Pacific Northwest, I'm afraid. So, what to do now to save the species?" As a federal agency fisheries biologist, Tim fights an administrative battle to preserve what's left of a once monumental salmon population. At work, he says, he "slays dragons to rescue fish in distress." (He is quick to clarify that his statements here are his personal opinion, and not reflective of the agency he works for.)

Click here for a video about salmon restoration in Northern California from Occidental Arts & Ecology Center's Water Institute

When I asked Tim what would change if we truly lived by Postel's ethic, he answered: "A bunch of farms, tract homes and communities in the west (especially eastern Washington and California) would dry up and blow away. Water in the majority of our major salmon production areas is already over-appropriated water right-wise, with still more development and people moving into those areas. For salmon watersheds, we are trying to preserve the best, and hope for the best for the remainder."

This all makes me think of the economic "bubble," now burst, and the short-term thinking which has allowed the building of all the water-hungry farms and tract homes and communities that generate water stress by allowing human infrastructure and population to grow past carrying capacity.

Does the current economic slowdown give us any opportunity to change that? To find prosperity in different ways? Postel herself believes that we are in the midst of a "great correction" – a "balancing between the human economy and natural resources."

I'd like to believe she's right. I'd like to believe we'll all learn that human survival depends on the survival of other species, that if salmon and so many others go down, we will inevitably follow. I'd like to believe that as a culture, we will realize this in time to stop that trend, and even reverse it.

In the meantime, I'm grateful to all those like Tim who, even despite dismal odds, still do what they can on a daily basis to slow down the effects of our short-sightedness.

Read the report about Sandra Postel's Michigan Tech speech and other Copper Country news at Keweenaw Now