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Reflections on smoking, seat belts and water usage

Friends who know I work with the Freshwater Society sometimes ask what we do. If I have a few minutes, I begin by talking not about water but about smoking, or seat belt use.

Friends who know I work with the Freshwater Society sometimes ask what we do. If I have a few minutes, I begin by talking not about water but about smoking, or seat belt use.

It sounds strange, but there is a link in my mind between water and smoking, between water and routinely buckling up.

Let me explain. I believe most of us have experienced a “cultural shift” in our attitudes on smoking and seat belts over the last 40 years or so.

Far fewer people smoke than once did. We now mostly share an understanding that it is no longer acceptable to inflict secondhand smoke on other people, it is not OK to smoke in the office. Similarly, most of us accept that the minor inconvenience of wearing a seat belt is offset by the margin of safety it provides.

A change in values
Sure, there are laws that limit where it is permissible to smoke and laws that require seat belt use. But the laws reflect and reinforce a change in values.

I firmly believe that, right now, most people have not grasped that everything we do on the land around us affects the quality of water in lakes, streams and aquifers.

My job, and the mission the Freshwater Society has set for itself, is to bring about the kind of cultural shift that will lead people to understand, intellectually, that land uses of all kinds affect the quality of our water. Then we must move beyond that intellectual grasp to where people change their behavior to protect and conserve water.

That is why, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, we are launching “2010 — The Year of Water,” with a public lecture by Will Steger, the famed polar explorer and climate-change activist (at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Gray Freshwater Center in Excelsior). Steger’s observations will kick off an entire year of activities by Freshwater Society devoted to raising public awareness about water issues in Minnesota.

In February, together with the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences, we will host another public lecture by Robert Glennon, the author of “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It.” He will share provocative insights on how we are running out of water in the United States. Later, in the spring, we will have fourth- and fifth-grade children measuring water usage in their homes.

We also are organizing Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality to keep leaves and grass clippings out of our lakes and rivers. We will help spread the word that five bags of leaves and organic debris contain a pound of phosphorus, which can lead to the growth of up to 1,000 pounds of algae in surface waters.

Aiming to make a real difference
If we achieve that cultural shift it will make a real difference. It will make a difference in agriculture — what we grow, where we grow it and how we grow it. It will make a difference in how we landscape our homes and lakeshores, how we design our roads.

Do I think we can change behavior just by changing attitudes? No.

I think we have to figure out ways to require people to protect and conserve water. We have to do more to regulate what people do on the land. But I am optimistic that people are valuing water, and that more people now realize our water supply is threatened by an ever-growing population and by pollution of all kinds.

And I am convinced that in Minnesota the Freshwater Society is playing an important role in changing attitudes on water. Our 2008 report, “Water Is Life: Protecting a Critical Resource for Future Generations,” made a difference. It got people talking about groundwater sustainability in a new, more serious way. This year, we hope to engage even more of the public in discussions and actions that protect our water.

People still have not internalized that what we do on the land impacts the water. But their interest in water leads me to believe that, at some point, we’ll look back and see how much we have changed, just as we changed with smoking and seatbelts.

Gene Merriam, former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is president of the Freshwater Society. He can be reached at According to press materials, at tomorrow’s event Steger will discuss “his first-hand observations of global warming in polar regions, the impact of climate change on water resources, the recent Copenhagen conference on climate change and the opportunities he sees for Americans to fight global warming and revitalize their economy by dramatically reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.”