Water is life

Local and international efforts recognize the life-sustaining importance of water

After retiring as CEO of the educational non-profit AchieveMpls, Pam Costain unexpectedly started off her free time visiting her home state of North Dakota several times during the fall and winter. Costain felt compelled to be part of the Native-led struggle at Standing Rock to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River.

In mid-March, she was in Washington, D.C., as one of 5,000 marchers at the Native Nations March, chanting the Lakota phrase “mní wičhóni” — “water is life” — which has become a national protest anthem for water protectors throughout the country.

Costain missed being with her husband, children and grandchildren, but the long-time activist — who started out organizing as a student decades ago alongside then-future Sen. Paul Wellstone — said the availability of clean water as a resource will be something we’re fighting about soon, “because we’re not paying attention to protecting what we have had.”

The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, also known as DAPL, began as a simple prayer camp. It became bigger as appeals to the corporation and state authorities were ignored and the violence of law enforcement escalated, Costain said.

“All over the world, people are claiming the right to clean water and air,” she said. “Standing Rock gave people a way to express their concerns.”

The effort hasn’t prevented the corporate pipeline from moving forward under the current Administration, but Standing Rock won in an unexpected way: by bringing attention to critical issues.

“We never know what our action will mean,” Costain said. “Sometimes nothing. Sometimes everything.”

Giving legal rights to nature

As Costain was marching with thousands in D.C., the government of New Zealand was recognizing the ancestral connection of the indigenous Maori people to the water. “Personhood” status was given to the Whanganui River, giving the river “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.”

A New Zealand spokesperson said: “We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe. Rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river, but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.”

Other countries view the natural world from a similar perspective. The government of Bolivia passed laws for the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.” The Ecuadorian constitution recognizes the rights of nature with “respect for its existence.”

Gwen Westerman, a Minnesota State University, Mankato professor and artist of Dakota ancestry, is the co-author of a book about Minnesota’s Native heritage.

“For Dakota people, everything is related. Humans, animals, plants, stones, the earth, especially water,” Westerman said. “What we do to the water, we do to ourselves. That is why the people who are Water Protectors are so important right now, because they are speaking for the rivers and oceans.

“Human beings are about two-thirds water, so why shouldn’t a river be declared a living thing as well? It has a life cycle, it creates life, it supports life, every other life on the planet depends upon it. Our ancestral DNA, our cell memory, carries the story of the earth and all its elements. When humans forget that, we can see the results all around us — pollution, destruction, desecration of the earth.”

Protecting our local waters

In 1966, a group of local residents demanded action after historic flooding, and created the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District — which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary — to help prevent floods and protect the quality of lakes, streams, and wetlands. Since then, local residents have voluntarily trained to become Master Water Stewards to help educate community members about how to reduce pollutants from stormwater runoff and allow more water to soak into the ground.

Connie Pepin of Linden Hills, is one of them.

“Minneapolis will have more precipitations and more heavy rain events that will challenge, and perhaps overwhelm, our current infrastructure that manages storm water,” Pepin said.

High-maintenance lawns are harming water quality, she added. Pepin said she wished the city and parks system provided stronger education and incentives to reduce pollutants.

Smarter use of resources

A March panel discussion at the University of Minnesota, “Achieving Sustainability in Minnesota and the World: A Science-Policy Dialogue,” featured five experts speaking about the work being done to protect water and other resources. One of the speakers was Janez Potocnik of Slovenia, co-chair of the International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who offered this data:

  • We will soon need twice as much urbanized area to accommodate growing city populations; in China alone, more concrete was poured between 2011 and 2013 than in the entire U.S. during the 20th century.
  • The projected population in 2050 is 9.7 billion, an increase in one generation of 2.5 billion — with a doubling in the number of middle-income consumers.
  • Our inequity and waste is increasing, not even including climate change threats: 800 million are hungry, yet one-third of the food we produce is thrown away.
  • The World Health Organization reports that air pollution kills about 7 million in a year, with its links to heart disease and cancer.


A UNEP Resource Efficiency report (resourcepanel.org) indicates that a key solution to the issues of growing population, carbon emissions, resource depletion and climate change disruptions is responsible consumption — plus smarter product design. “Everything in the economic model needs to change,” Potocnik said.

For example, management bonuses should be tied to meeting long-term sustainability goals, not short-term gains.

St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman spoke as a member of a consortium of those protecting the lives and work tied to the Mississippi River — a drinking water source for more than 50 cities. Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges also are part of the 638 global cities signed on to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy.

The lack of national conversation in the U.S. about the challenges we face is depressing, Coleman said. He was talking about these same issues as a student at the University decades ago. But he sees hope in advancements being made because of improved product design. Energy efficient light bulbs, for example, show large-scale payback in months, not years.

Minnesota Department of Health representative Tannie Eshenaur spoke about her work in state water issues. Groundwater studies reveal arsenic and radon issues. Dogs have been dying from toxic algae blooms, which will increase with warming temperatures and more intense rains. The unregulated contaminants beyond the reach of the Safe Drinking Water Act make public health vulnerable because of pesticides, personal care products and pharmaceutical.

Minnesota continues to be proactive in regulating and monitoring water supply. Still, Eshenaur warned that the state’s water delivery system infrastructure is aging, with $7.4 billion needed for upgrading within 20 years.

“That’s scary,” she said.

Minnesotans have a strong ethic about its water, she added — and it’s time to get stronger.