Water Conference goes back to basics; Native American knowledge and soil health keys in water resource management

The 2018 Minnesota Water Resources conference 2018 opened with the presentation of the Dave Ford award to Suzanne Jiwani, a flood plain mapping engineer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. At the Department of Natural Resources, Jiwani brings technical expertise and sound science to complex projects. Dave Ford was a mentor to her in her early days at the DNR, who told her “Make your decisions based on facts, recognize your assumptions and always go back to get more data.”

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Ray Archelta and WRC Director Jeff Peterson following Archelta's plenary talk, where he emphasized the importance of soil health for farming productivity, rural community vitality and prevention of flooding and erosion control.

The first plenary of the conference, Healing the land, one heart-one mind at a time was delivered by Ray Archelta.

Archelta is a farmer and former NRCS educator from Seymour MO. In his work with the NRCS, he realized that soil health required more than tools and funding.  The greatest roadblock to healthy soil is the human mind and heart. Personal bias, outdated information and viewing the world in segments rather than a working symbiotic system hinders reclamation of the nation’s soils.

Understanding human nature is key to promoting change. Archelta paraphrased Upton Sinclair, saying that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on it. By first changing hearts and minds, we can put biology back to work in the fields, adopt no-till management and mimic the natural system by simultaneously growing crops and cover crops, limiting chemicals and tillage, increasing plant diversity and integrating animals into the farming landscape. Put life into the soil, and the soil will be healthy and functional once again.

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Earl Greene, USGS, provided a primer on the water work of the USGS and its oversight of the WRRI program. Greene is pictured here with WRC Director Jeff Peterson and WRC Associate Director Joel Larson.

Earl Greene, chief of External Research for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), spoke during Tuesday’s luncheon plenary, providing an overview of the water resources group within the USGS.The USGS also administers the Water Resources Research Institutes, a unique state/federal partnership that promotes research and the transfer of scientific information. The institutes are key in training the next generation of scientists and engineers, by providing funding for graduate students and base grants to solve water problems at the state level.With a budget of half a billion dollars, the water program is the largest USGS program, providing funding for research on water quality, quantity and availability across the US. The federal money provided through the USGS allows for long-term research and data collection, unlike the support offered by shorter term local grants. Information from research provides surface and groundwater information, which is made available for flood planning, as well as water management for cities and rural areas.

The morning plenary on Wednesday was delivered by Amit Pradhananga (UMN-TC, Department of Forest Resources), Kimberly Musser (UMN-Mankato) and Paul Nelson (Scott County).

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 Kimberly Musser, (Water Resources Center, MSU-Mankato), Paul Nelson (Scott County Environmental Services) and Amit Pradhananga (UMN) shared their research into the importance of relationship-building in creating public will to work toward clean water. With the panel are conference co-chairs Tina Carstens and Jeff Peterson.

Achieving clean water through relationship building

Traditionally, communities sought to solve water resources issues by searching for technology and money. The field of Social Science suggests rethinking how was find solutions to water resources challenges by discovering what people need to feel about managing water. With 76% of land in Minnesota in private hands, conservation collaboration between landowners and agencies is critical. Research shows that relationship building fosters engagement within a community, encouraging leadership, networking and social feedback. Information alone does not change behavior; appealing to personal values about water encourages citizens to feel a responsibility to fight water pollution.

The Watonwan watershed Listen and Learn project presented an opportunity to talk one-on-one with the farmers in the area. Researchers learned about the day-to-day worries and pressures on famers who are at the mercy of things they can’t control, like the markets and the weather. These conversations and meetings built relationships and trust, moving the work of conservation and preservation of soil and water forward. “People at the local level have great ideas and wisdom-local knowledge needs to be tapped into and used in water management,” said Musser.

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Rosalyn LaPier (University of Montana- Missoula) spoke about the sacred relationship between Native Americans and the natural world, and its intersection with land and water use. She is pictured with conference committee co-chair Tina Carstens (Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District), and Jeff Peterson and Joel Larson of the Water Resources Center and also co-chairs of the conference.


Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfoot/MEHS), University of Montana, is often asked:Why is Water Sacred to Native Americans? In her Wednesday plenary, she points out that Native Americans possess traditional ecological knowledge, which sees the natural world through a religious lens.

When policymakers and researchers seek answers to water management problems, they need to consider indigenous peoples relationship with the natural world. Scholarship is lacking about the intersection of the natural science, history and Native American religious beliefs about the sacred. Sacred things and places may be created by the Divine or created by humans and sanctified by the Divine. Sacred places are off limits, no use is permitted; however, people may go near to pray or see visions. Tourism and recreational activity at sacred sites are a painful point of contention for Native American tribes, leading to activism with to calls on Congress to enact protections for sacred places.

In closing, LaPier asked her listeners to take a step back and remember to look and inquire about how native peoples view the world through their religious lens, and to take that into consideration when making land and water policy.

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Public art project The Water Bar served up samples of water from across the Twin Cities and Minnesota, quenching thirst and showcasing the variety of water "flavor" and viscosity.