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Deborah Swackhamer

Deborah Swackhamer, director of the University's Water Resources Center.

Water will not wait

The first of the 2006 Great Conversations will illustrate why we can't take water for granted

by Deane Morrison

February 23, 2006

An angler pulling a plump walleye from a northern Minnesota lake is probably not thinking about power plants hundreds of miles away. Yet so much mercury from coal-fired plants has found its way into the flesh of walleye and other food fish in the state's lakes, that the Minnesota Department of Health has issued advisories on eating such fish for children and women of childbearing age. That's just one of the connections between our way of life and the quality of our watery environment on the agenda for Tuesday, February 28, when the University's 2006 Great Conversations series gets under way in Ted Mann Concert Hall on the Twin Cities campus. It begins at 7:30 p.m. The Great Conversations series, a program of the College of Continuing Education, brings together luminaries from within and outside the University in discussions of topics of interest to the public. Tuesday's features Deborah Swackhamer, director of the University's Water Resources Center, and David Schindler, professor of ecology at the University of Alberta and Canada's most prominent freshwater expert. They will talk about how to protect the Great Lakes and other bodies of water for future generations, a mission that both see as urgent. "The biggest threats are invasive species, climate change, toxic chemical contaminants and their effects, and land use and development," says Swackhamer, who is also a professor of environmental chemistry in the U's School of Public Health. "All of these suffer from a lack of political will to address what science already can address or where science can contribute to a solution." In her research, Swackhamer has seen first hand what happens to numerous household products when their disposal goes unregulated. Among the substances she has found in waters around Minnesota are fire retardants, trace levels of birth control hormones and detergent additives known to act like estrogen, caffeine and DEET (mosquito repellent). The fact that these products are safe for human use doesn't mean they're safe to drink. And even extremely low levels of some products, especially hormone-based medicines, may have adverse effects on the reproduction of fish and other aquatic creatures. But human nature being what it is, all too often situations are ignored until it's too late. Swackhamer hopes that won't be the case with water purity. "Usually a crisis is what precipitates action," she says. "I hope that is not the case here. The key is to connect the issues to peoples' everyday lives. For example, declining lake levels hit home when people can't get their boats in their marina slips. If we were to find that drinking water with trace amounts of hormone mimics had a health impact, it would get people's attention, but by then it is too late." For his part, Schindler sees water becoming "one of the first huge problems of the 21st century." He takes issue with the way science is used or not used in decision-making and the scattering of scientific studies and expertise in different bureaucracies. "I believe there is insufficient science in our environmental decision-making process," says Schindler. "Part of the problem is that we never want to fund science long enough before a decision [has to be] made to have a good background upon which to base outcomes. Short-term environmental impact assessments, largely yielding obscure, long-winded documents of irrelevant information, are still the usual approach. "The continued treatment of fisheries and water as though they are separate [gets under my skin]. In Canada, separate departments handle fisheries--Fisheries and Oceans--and the rest of water--Department of Environment. The United States split between the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Also, the fact that our federal state and provincial agencies are all on very short political leashes [bothers me]. Public taxes pay these people's salaries, and they should respond to public concerns with accurate information, not that screened by politicians. We need to get our public agencies at arm's length from the political process, as the old Fisheries Research Board of Canada used to be."

For his part, Schindler sees water becoming "one of the first huge problems of the 21st century." He takes issue with the way science is used or not used in decision-making and the scattering of scientific studies and expertise in different bureaucracies.

Schindler has broken ground in scientific fields from acid rain to pollutants in fish and global warming. His work has led to the banning of phosphates in detergents and the creation of hundreds of wastewater treatment facilities, among other impacts. Schindler has garnered several significant prizes, including the Stockholm Water Prize and the Volvo International Environment Prize. From his perspective, one of the most important things that can be done to improve water quality is to stop regulating lakes and what goes on in the watersheds around them and the air above them in an ineffective, piecemeal fashion.

"Very often, what happens is the result of uncoordinated action between landowners, municipalities, county, state, and federal governments," he says. "We really need to start coordinating these efforts in a 'watershed' approach. I think the biggest role for government is to provide leadership, education, and incentives. Also some strong regulations to ensure that the small minority who won't respond to common sense can be made to adhere to good water management practices." Schindler notes that 97 percent of Canadians in a recent poll were concerned about their water and national water governance, yet "not a word was spoken in the debates between candidates" during the recent elections. This conversation promises to be far-reaching and candid, with no watering down of issues. Tickets are available through the Northrop box office at 612-624-2345. Prices are $28.50 for single tickets, $95 for the Great Conversations series. Members of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association get $5 off singles and $15 off series tickets. For more on the series, see 2006 Great Conversations.