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How Did We Get Into This Fix?

Everybody knows small things have a way of adding up -- for better or worse. Yet we often act as if we didn't know our everyday actions might actually amount to something.

I wish I'd started saving a little of each paycheck in my 20s for retirement. My recent savings no longer have decades to compound. Likewise, we can shortchange our investments in natural resources. When we (as individuals, businesses, state, or nation) say we can't afford to take certain actions to protect our lands and waters, how far into the future do our calculations reach?

Two stories in this issue look at the effect of small changes over time on two big lakes. "A View From the Big Lake" examines the connection of land use and water quality of Lake Superior. This glacial basin holds enough freshwater to cover the North and South American continents to a depth of 1 foot. How could drops of anything in this big bucket alter the waters? Over time.

Over time, frequent deposits of sediment and contaminants have entered the lake's tributaries and collected in the Duluth harbor. Not only does polluted precipitation pour off pavement and rooftops, but it also runs off turf grass. Lawn by lawn, campus by campus, golf course by golf course, grass has grown into one of our nation's biggest crops. With shallow roots, often in compacted soil, turf grass cannot absorb precipitation as effectively as native plants do. Mix in lawn fertilizer and herbicides, and turf runoff turns into a toxic brew channeled along gutters, curbs, and storm drains to our wetlands, streams, and lakes.

Fortunately, landowners can take steps that amount to strides when many neighbors act. More than 65 percent of Minnesota lakeshore belongs to private landowners, who can all help protect our public waters. They can choose, for example, to grow native plants on shore and leave native vegetation in the water. Sometimes restoring native shoreline habitat is as simple as not mowing the lawn. A property owner on Perch Lake near Baxter stopped mowing a hillside edged with cattails. After three months wild strawberries and big bluestem grass sprouted there. By the following summer, lobelia, boneset, and sedges flowered near shore.

"The Muskie Patch" tells the story of disappearing "weedbeds" in Leech Lake. Over decades, here and there, a longtime angler noted the loss of beds of native aquatic plants -- muskie habitat. Now an ambitious research project is taking stock of shoreline flora and fauna so that resource managers can pinpoint problems sooner and protect sensitive areas.

Foresight becomes more critical as environmental pressures mount. Aquatic and landscape ecologist Lucinda Johnson and her colleagues recently received funding for a project to evaluate maps needed to predict water quality impacts on North Shore streams as land use changes. With appropriate mapping information, the researchers will create models to help guide development in the watershed.

Atop all of the stresses on our waters hangs global warming. As air temperatures rise, surface waters warm. Then ice cover decreases and evaporation increases. The trend in ice cover on Lake Superior has been downward since the 1970s, and summer surface water temperatures have climbed faster than air temperatures on nearby land. Researchers at the Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth have shown that declining ice cover is leading to warmer surface water temperatures by extending the length of the summer season. Now they are studying the impact of declining ice and increasing temperatures on water level.

At a recent journalists workshop called Water in the 21st Century, scientists expressed the urgency of acting now to mitigate and adapt to the effects of global warming. When asked if consumer choices can make a substantial impact, geographer and climatology researcher Richard Skaggs said, "I certainly think they do, especially as a larger portion of the public becomes engaged and willing to do so."

Our everyday conservation practices can multiply and build our best savings account -- healthy natural lands and waters.

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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