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Practicing Good Medicine

If you have your health, you have everything you need, my dad used to say. With a host of friends, family, and colleagues grappling with various maladies, I think about health issues every day. Beyond luck, what does it take to keep a body or any living system running smoothly?

In this issue "Paradise Found," a story about good fishing in the Twin Cities metro area, carries an underlying theme of recovery of a large river system. "Big Trouble for Ash Trees" reports on an impending disease. Both stories can help us see how citizens, scientists, and lawmakers must all conspire to ensure the health of individuals (plant and animal), communities (natural and human), and entire watersheds.

Often we don't recognize what makes a system healthy until we see evidence to the contrary. In the early 1900s, sewers simply dumped municipal sewage, storm water, and industrial wastes into the Mississippi River. By 1920, floating scum and sludge revealed the unsanitary condition of the waterway. The Minnesota State Board of Health worked with the city governments to create the Mississippi's first wastewater treatment plant, completed in 1938 on Pig's Eye Lake in St. Paul.

To keep pace with growing population, the plant had to add treatments. The 1972 federal Clean Water Act required pretreatment of industrial toxic input and separation of the cities' sanitary and storm sewers. While chemists measured improved water quality through lab tests, biologists found a more striking sign of better health: the resurgence of Hexagenia mayflies after decades of absence from the urban river. June 25, 1987, a bounty of mayflies rose from the river to mate, deposit eggs, and then die. Snowplows had to clear millions of mayflies from a bridge in St. Paul. Perhaps that newsworthy event helped draw city anglers back to the recovering river, as they noted the connection of mayflies to clean water.

Of course, implementation of legislation does not ensure long-term health. Conditions continue to change, calling for modifications in laws and practices. And scientific knowledge accrues as curious citizens and scientists continue to observe and study the environment.

Currently, the DNR is asking citizens to be on the lookout for emerald ash borer, an invasive pest now killing ash trees in 10 states. As "Big Trouble for Ash Trees" reports, the emerald ash borer was previously unknown in the United States and had likely traveled undetected in wooden crates or pallets shipped from China. In an interview in Nature Conservancy Magazine, forest health specialist Frank Lowenstein says safe trade can help prevent future incursions of harmful organisms. "For instance, since 2006, all solid-wood packaging in international trade is supposed to be treated. That's said to have knocked down 90 percent of invaders."

To slow the spread of emerald ash borers, we need a combination of government regulations, scientific search for treatment, and citizen action. Everyone can help by simply not moving firewood. Keeping wood local is arguably the most crucial response because the pests can barely move without the help of people.

It's easy to underestimate the impact of individual actions on the health of a whole system. We're inclined to look for large organizations to solve big problems. But all of us can practice prevention, detection, and remedy. In the July-August 1988 Volunteer, "Watersheds: Where Prime Fishing Begins" explained why "good fishing in a healthy lake requires a managed watershed." From their perspectives as biologist, reporter, angler, DNR employee, and citizen, co-authors C.B. Bylander and Tim Goeman concluded: "Anyone who owns or uses land within a watershed carries the primary responsibility for the condition of any lake or stream in that watershed. This responsibility falls to everyone."

This sense of personal responsibility and empowerment reminds me of my grandmother's best health maintenance advice: "You have to be your own doctor sometimes."

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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