Talk about it

    Saturday, Forum Communications Co. newspapers published the final section of the company’s ambitious five-volume “Living with Water” project. We’d like to say that after hundreds of hours of research, reporting and writing by dozens of reporters, editors, photographers and graphic artists that we have definitive solutions to the problems of water management in the vast swath of land from the Minnesota lakes country to the Montana/North Dakota border and into South Dakota.

    We don’t. No one has, and anyone who says different is being less than truthful.

    But in tackling the project, much was learned, not only about flooding and drought, but also about the daunting complexities of water use and water policy on the Upper Great Plains.

    First and foremost: There is no single mandate or water philosophy that can be universally applied. The region holds a marvelous trove of water wealth. An impossibly diverse collection of special interests claims ownership. Priorities range from protecting water quality in Minnesota lakes to lusting after water for oil development in western North Dakota; from moving water off perennially flooding Devils Lake (N.D.) to diverting the Red River around Fargo-Moorhead to save the city from the “big one;” from balancing recreation with flood control on the Missouri River to honestly assessing the role of farm drainage in flooding.

    Every special interest is a political constituency. The political overlay in the region often has had little do with the way water moves. Historically, political lines did not follow watershed boundaries. “Water management” was an oxymoron.

    “Living With Water” is one lens through which a broader view of water can come into focus. If the project is successful in establishing a baseline of “where we are now” regarding water, it can provide valuable guidance about “where we should go.” The project’s historical reporting can be a caution that parochial water management practices of the past were, for the most part, failures. Reports that focused on hydrology, geology, climatology, engineering and environmental values can be guideposts for developing long-term, comprehensive water strategies that will work in times of drought or flood — or what passes for “normal” in this big land where water is both curse and blessing.

    Water is a story of human nature vs. Mother Nature. Mother is far more patient than we humans. Over time her will triumphs, even as we challenge her with dams, ditches and “brilliant” engineering. Slowly, we are learning it is smarter to work with her.

    It is our hope that a decade from now “Living with Water” will have helped set a smarter agenda for water management in the region — and that every water constituency will see the bigger picture the project tried to paint.

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